'Forever in a Moment: Nineteenth-Century Photographs of Egypt' at Museum of Fine Arts an enlightening exhibition

Photos at the Museum of Fine Arts showcase the temples, tombs and other treasures of the 19th century.
Published March 24 2012
Updated March 24 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — If you have seen the large exhibition of Egyptian antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg (and I hope you have), you will have noticed the large scrims with blown-up photographs of site excavations hanging in the galleries. They add a subtle atmospheric context to the objects.

For real context, head upstairs to a smaller gallery. There, the photographs used for those blowups and many more make up the collateral exhibition, "Forever in a Moment: Ninteenth-Century Photographs of Egypt."

Most were taken in the 1870s by enterprising men who were cashing in on interest in Egypt throughout Europe that burgeoned after exploration and mapping of ancient tomb sites began in the late 18th century. The development of photography coincided with the tomb "discoveries" — they were a tourist draw for ancient Romans, too — and enabled images of these marvels to be distributed widely and cheaply to actual and armchair travelers.

They were meant to be strictly documentary, and for contemporaries who bought them, I'm sure they were, but, to later eyes, there is poetry in them, too. Stone was considered an eternal material by the ancient Egyptians and was used to erect the grand burial places of their pharaohs. We see instead the ravages of time, greed and indifference on these once-majestic edifices.

Antonio Beato, one of the best antiquities photographers of his time, recorded in 1870 what was left of the mortuary temple of Rameses II (1279-13), probably the greatest of all pharaohs, near the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Little is left of the complex, but what's there indicates its enormous scale: Statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, god of the afterlife, loom at more than 52 feet. Another lies toppled and broken in the sand. He also shows us the Temple of Hathor, located in a huge temple complex in Dendera, Egypt, partly buried under dirt. Tourists today, who see it pristinely restored, wouldn't recognize it.

The Colossi of Memnon sit in solitary splendor in a photograph by G. Lekegian. Both depict Amenhotep III, who ruled in the 14th century B.C. They once guarded the entrance to the pharaoh's immense temple complex near the Nile River where he was worshiped first as a living god and then an immortal one. But time passed and new rulers had to be propitiated. Floods weakened or washed away buildings and other pharaohs appropriated the stone for their own monuments. Today, they guard nothing but memory.

Photographers generally liked to show the buildings without any references to contemporary life. That could sometimes be a challenge since some ancient sites were surrounded by newer development. The Zangaki Brothers, also prominent photographers, embraced the contrast in an 1880s image of the City of the Dead, an Arabic cemetery which dates from the 7th century in Cairo. In it, tombs and headstones share space with the living, including a newly built mosque.

Several of the photographs have specific links to objects in "Ancient Egypt — Art and Magic," the big show downstairs, such as images of a false tomb door and a wood sarcophagus, both similar to real examples.

Two personal favorites show different views of the Great Pyramid in Giza. In one by Beato, Westerners in suits and ties sit on camels surrounded by caftaned guides, the edifice in the distance, the partially excavated Sphinx in the foreground. In another by the Zangaki Brothers, it's seen in closeup with tourists being pulled and pushed up the rough stones by the guides. Both have a whiff of 21st century irony never intended 200 hundred years ago.

A sweet romanticism that we could never re-create lingers, too.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.