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This is the latest in a series of photo essays on early French photographers
Until 2019, Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey was largely unknown to fine art photography. Girault learned the daguerreotype process in 1841, most likely from Louis Daguerre or Hippolyte Bayard. He then traveled to Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Palestine from 1842 – 1845 and returned with over 800 daguerreotypes. His pictures of the Acropolis and Jerusalem are the earliest known photographs of these sites.
Upon his return, Girault stored the daguerrotypes in his attic and took up other hobbies. He died in 1892. A subsequent purchaser of Girault’s house found the trove and sold it at auctions in the early 2000s. Then in 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reassembled the collection and exhibited 150 prints. Ironically, Girault’s photographs have not yet been shown in Paris. The Musée d’Orsay scheduled a retrospective of his work from December 15, 2020 to February 7, 2021 but it was shut down before it opened due to Covid-19.
Girault knew instinctively how to take an architectural photograph. Rather than imposing a unified vision of his own, he let the subject dictate the form, adapting his style to the scene. When conveying the scope of an ancient city, Girault took a spacious wide-angle view. (See the photo of Jerusalem above.)
To emphasize the sheer monumentality of a ruin, he came in close to allow it to fill the frame.
When rhythm and pattern were important, Girault instinctively knew that shooting head-on would be too static; instead, he did what all brilliant architectural photographers now advise. He focused on a corner, allowing the two sides of the structure to recede into the background.
Where detail was key, Girault cut out all extraneous background and his focus was crisp and clear, as you can see in the photograph below.
Girault was no slouch in still life or portraiture either. This photograph of a tree confirms that he could capture the majesty in nature as well as in the man-made.
And where people were involved, they were allowed to take center stage, their individuality shining through.
Truly, Girault created images that are fine art. It is wonderful that he has now been added to the pantheon of brilliant 19th-century French photographers.
Lead photo credit : Joseph-Philibert Girault, Jerusalem with The Dome of the Rock and Western Wall.