Exploration and Discovery: Ernest Benecke Photographs in the Richard Morris Hunt Collection

The following is a guest post by Mari Nakahara, Curator of Architecture, Design & Engineering, with Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, talking with researcher David R. Hanlon.

I am always grateful when researchers discover treasures in unprocessed collections, the contents of which have often not been fully explored. Professor David R. Hanlon of St. Louis Community College will talk about his recent finding of thirty-three salted paper prints by Ernest Benecke in our Richard Morris Hunt Collection.

Mari: What have you been researching?

David: For some years I have been studying source material and artifacts to complete a biography of Leavitt Hunt (1830-1907), who—along with his friend Nathan Flint Baker (1820-1891)—were the first Americans known to make photographs in Egypt and the Holy Land. Creating a catalogue raisonné of the images that they made during their 1851-52 journey has also been an important component of this research. The Richard Morris Hunt Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division contains the largest collection of surviving prints that were made by Hunt and Baker. Additionally, photographs that Leavitt and his brother Richard collected from others working at the same period in Egypt, Italy and France provide many insights to how these Americans were connected with the earliest circles of artists who were exploring this new visual medium as an expressive and communicative tool.

Maison Caire sur L'Esbekieh. Photo by Leavitt Hunt, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68026

Maison Caire sur L’Esbekieh. Photo by Leavitt Hunt, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68026

Residences with meshrebeeyehs near Azbakeya, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68647

Residences with meshrebeeyehs near Azbakeya, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68647

Mari: Why are you excited about finding Ernest Benecke photographs in the Richard Morris Hunt Collection?

David: Finding a set of thirty-three salt prints made by the British-born German photographer Ernest Benecke (1816-1894) within the Hunt collection, clarifies a number of ideas about how early travelers with cameras visualized subject matter. Benecke began his trip down the Nile about six weeks after Hunt and Baker, but may have encountered the Americans as they were traveling in the opposite direction on their way back to Cairo. At the town of Esna both made a considerable effort to photograph people— an activity normally not undertaken in early expeditionary recording because of the necessary length of the exposure. Under sunlight they recorded public dancers (ghawazi), and accompanying musicians from the same tribe, against white-washed mudbrick walls or a strategically-placed light fabric background.

Les musiciens égyptiens (Rabawi) avec Almée. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68025

Les musiciens égyptiens (Rabawi) avec Almée. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68025

 Ghawazee à Esna. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68023

Ghawazee à Esna. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68023

Ghawazee. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68024

Ghawazee. Photo by Ernest Benecke, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68024

With seven different Benecke studies of these individuals from the village in the collection, Leavitt Hunt’s known study of an almeh (another phrase used for a dancing woman, especially those in Esna who were banished from Cairo by the pasha) now has a more interesting context.

Almah. Dancing girl of Egypt. Photo by Leavitt Hunt, 1851 or 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68027

Almah. Dancing girl of Egypt. Photo by Leavitt Hunt, 1851 or 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.68027

Dancing girl. Drawing by Richard Morris Hunt, 1853. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.13386

Dancing girl. Drawing by Richard Morris Hunt, 1853. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.13386

Ernest Benecke’s work was rediscovered by modern scholars after a large collection of his photographs appeared at an estate auction in southern Germany in 1992, but Leavitt and Richard had acquired numerous examples of his portrait studies, Egyptian landscapes, and studies of Mid-East architecture after they were first printed by the Parisian photographer Charles Marville in the late summer of 1852. (Marville’s blindstamp remains today on most of the print mounts.) Aside from the same interest in dancers, it seems that Leavitt chose to purchase Benecke images primarily because they reflected studies and subjects that he and Baker had not photographed during their trip, such as wide landscape views, material south of the First Cataract, village life, and details of architecture within Cairo and Jerusalem. This would not only help reinforce his memories of the trip but also be of interest to Richard, who would follow a similar route on the Nile in the winter of 1853. In fact, many of Richard’s sketches and watercolors that survive from his Egyptian sojourn reflect individuals in similar settings to those depicted by Benecke from both Cairo and locations within Upper Egypt.

Mari: Could you describe what was involved in making these salted paper prints?

David: Both Leavitt Hunt and Ernest Benecke recorded scenes from their 1852 excursions on paper negatives (also known as calotypes) that they prepared and developed in the field. Upon returning to Paris, these negatives were printed as positives in limited editions. Fine writing paper was chosen and then immersed in salted water. After drying, the sheet was sensitized by the application of light-sensitive silver nitrate. A paper negative was then placed on this treated surface in sunshine for a number of minutes, until the receiving paper had darkened sufficiently to result in a positive salted paper print (or salt print). Leavitt Hunt made more than 350 prints from among sixty-five of the negatives that he and Baker created; Benecke appears to have made many more images overall than the Americans, but far fewer prints remain.

Mari: What do you see as the importance of the Hunt photography collection for researchers?

David: The photographic component of the Hunt Collection is an extremely valuable resource for anyone who is studying early photographic work undertaken in Europe and the areas bordering the eastern Mediterranean. It is especially rich in prints from French practitioners in the 1850s, including Gustave Le Gray, Charles Marville, Édouard Baldus and the Bisson frères. This material, along with images of Rome made in the same decade by Giacomo Caneva, Robert Macpherson and James Anderson, would have been seen as valuable reference resources early in Richard’s career as an architect. Today – along with the photographs from Leavitt and Ernest Benecke – they provide a clearer picture of the society in which artists, architects and photographers mingled in the middle of the nineteenth century.

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