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Early Photography in Greece and the Mediterranean

Getty Museum
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Reviewed by:
Jack Cheng
Independent Scholar
March 2004

This website presents 200 photographs of sculpture and archaeology primarily from the classical era. The photos are invaluable for any introduction to classical Greece, especially lectures that seek to place archaeology in a historical context. These images do not have the detail or all the angles necessary for a study of a given temple, but they allow the viewer to understand the recent history of these monuments. The photographs can also be analyzed as documents of their age—idealized portraits of the inspirations for the neo-classical 19th century.

The Gary Edwards Collection consists of more than 1,000 early photographs; 20 percent of the collection is available for viewing on the website. Edwards arranged his collection in categories like concentric circles around the Parthenon: images of the Athenian Acropolis, other monuments in Athens, other monuments in Greece, and other monuments outside of Greece. There is a last category called simply, Ancient Sculpture” that includes objects found both within and outside of Greece, as well as some artwork whose origin is uncertain.

The quality of the images is excellent for 19th-century photography, a rather larger caveat. They are all black-and-white (or sepia). Given technical advances in cameras, such as the quality of the lenses, one cannot expect these photographs to express the clarity of modern cameras. Some, however, do. An anonymous photo of the Parthenon Frieze for example, captures a wide range of tones giving the seated figures volume and shadow, and drawing the eye to the heavily pleated robes draped around them.

The photos show how buildings were made and how they have been remade. The images of the Acropolis without the modern metropolis of Athens surrounding and encroaching upon it are revelations; here is the city on the hill that Pericles knew. Most recent slides of the Parthenon have scaffolding in the background (or foreground). The Edwards photos were taken before any reconstruction was done and thus are open to the debate as to whether or not architectural reconstruction leads to a “truer” monument. In one of the Parthenon photos, blocks from the temple are lined up on the ground, presumably sorted to be eventually reused in the reconstruction. The state of the building in the 19th century will also encourage discussion on the removal of the sculpture by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis to the British Museum. Greece has lobbied for years for the return of the “Elgin marbles” and the arguments against their return include the poor state of the site at the time they were taken—that Elgin protected the sculptures by transporting them away from the Acropolis.

Most of the photographs focus on Athens and her Acropolis. This is generally not a problem since these are the most canonical buildings and most likely included in curricula. This concentration means that there are a few photographs that are taken from essentially the same spot.

This repetition reminds us that this is not a database of Greek monuments but a catalog of photographs—photographs that helped shape the way we think about classical Greek art (see “Sight-seeing: Photography of the Middle East and its Audiences,1840-1940” on the use of photos as travel surrogates). Undoubtedly, the idea of classical sculpture as virginal white, unpainted stone derived, at least in part, from photographs such as these.

The information about each photograph is detailed and informative, listing the name of the monument, the title of the photograph, the date of subject of the photo (title, site, date, artist if known), and then the photographer and date of photograph if known, as well as the photographic medium. This works particularly well with the Athenian monuments, but for the sites and objects outside of Greece, the field names become inconsistent. “Monument” is used for the name of the site (the island of Aegina, for example), and “Title” becomes the name of the monument (Temple of Aphaia). Or for sculpture, the museum that owns a given piece is entered in “Title.”

Given the size of the online catalog, the navigation is easy to use, especially for browsing. There is no search function, however, so looking for a specific site or sculpture may require a little clicking around. The Edwards Collection is of particular use to those interested in the history of the Acropolis of Athens. Photographs outside that city could also serve as contrasts to modern images of reconstructed sites such as Ephesus in Turkey.

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