Early Photographers Capture the Exotic and the Ordinary


“First Seen,” subtitled “Photographs of the World’s Peoples, 1840-1880,” is a testament to the voracious appetite of photography’s earliest practitioners—amateur and professional, anonymous and renowned. The invention of the camera prompted a widespread rediscovery of the world, from the pyramids and the Parthenon to the contents of a local shop window and the flowers in the backyard. Everything old was new again. But the exotic had a special appeal to the English, European, and American photographers who dominated the field at the end of the 19th century and set out to capture and preserve ordinary and remarkable human specimens from around the world.

The pictures they brought back from Tasmania, Algeria, Java, and the Navajo reservation—often made in formal, if improvised, studio settings—were anthropological inventories of native physique, costume, and customs that look even more outré a century later, when multinational brands have virtually wiped out the last vestiges of national dress. Some of this work was crudely reductive—little more than mug shots whose subjects are identified only as Beggars, Slaves, Jewish Boy, or Negro. But many of the photographers seemed to approach their subjects with awed respect. At best, the results are elegant examples of period portraiture, typically full of odd collisions of artifice and naturalism. Because the nearly 250 images gathered here come from an important private collection, they are uncommonly good (with fine examples by Felice Beato, Roger Fenton, Hill and Adamson, Charles Nègre, and other key figures) and instructively wide-ranging. It’s useful to see George Sand, in her natty suit and tie, in the same space with a helmeted samurai, a group of Turkish street peddlers, and a pair of recumbent opium smokers. Exoticism is in the eye of the beholder.