Photography In Algeria



Photographer's Prose

I've always had a small fascination with the way photographers write about their life experiences when the target audience is other photographers. This photographer's prose seems to have a few key elements that are often of little use to people who aren't photographers.

  • Gear Specifications: While it is possible to discuss gear in such a way that information useful to a non-photographer audience, it usually isn't. Model names of equipment and jargon with the expectation that the reader is a photographer and will just understand.
  • Procedural Specifications: Related to the gear specifications, it isn't uncommon to hear why the photographer chose the equipment for a particular scene. Or what kind of unique technique that chosen equipment allows the photographer to utilize.
  • A Little Pomp: Although not always present,
    there often seems to be a little bit of hub-bub about how great or magnificent it was to be able to photograph such a scene.

Imagine a seeing a photograph shared on Facebook of, let's say a field of flowers during a lovely sunset.

Sunset over Poppys

If my non-photographer mother had taken this photo with her iPhone and shared it, it the update would probably read something like this:

I was out on my daily evening walk with my dog and experience this magnificent sunset in front of my favorite field of flowers. Isn't it lovely?"

Now if Joe Photog posted the same photograph into a popular regional photography group on Facebook, the caption would probably read something like this:

"I've been noticing this field of flowers for weeks and have been waiting for the perfect sunset light to photograph it. Tonight I got there with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV just in time to get this shot. I used my EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM lens so that I could fully get the field of flowers in focus. I needed to make several bracketed exposures and combined them later in Photoshop. I hope that isn't cheating or against the rules! I felt so blessed to experience this moment with my camera. Please like and share."

This was something I just assumed that contemporary photographers do to spice up otherwise mundane experiences, but I was wrong. Oh so wrong.

For the past year or so I've been casually browsing through photography journals that were in publication during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. While most of the articles are highly technical writings that are of little use to anyone who isn't still practicing wet plate collodion, there are still quite a bit of interesting writings for the modern photographer. My favorites being the articles that show that photographers on internet forums today, and photographers in printed photography journals back then are the same people.

One of the articles I came across was a correspondence in the September 10th, 1858 issue of The Photographic News. This article was by a photographer who was traveling in Algeria who stumbled across a public execution and then wrote about photographing it using an early style of The photographer's prose.

Buckle in; this is a long read. Viewer discretion is advised as there is a fair bit of violence.

Levasseur Map of Algeria - 1852

Photography In Algeria - 1858

My dear Sir,—Presuming that the first number of the—I must wait until I receive it before I can give it the denomination by which you distinguish it—is already on its way here, I propose to forward you information of my proceedings in this colony as frequently as possible, in the hope that your readers may derive some amusement, if not instruction, from a perusal of such portions of my letters as you may consider best calculated to effect that object; only stipulating that, as I am a stranger in a strange land, and therefore likely to fall into errors which may place me in a ridiculous position, my name shall not be published.

Of the two objects that prompted my journey hither, viz, the improvement of my health, and the desire to visit and bring away photographs of scenes where events had occurred familiar to us from our school days, I have been successful only in the latter. I had been told so much of the warmth and genial climate of Algeria, that when I woke the morning after my arrival and found it dull, cold, and raining with that steady, incessant downpour which is associated in the minds of most of us with the recollection of a pic-nic party, I began to think I had been humbugged. For three days it never, as far as I am aware, ceased to pour down in the same uncompromising style, and I had already commenced inquiries as to the speediest means of reaching Alexandria, when it suddenly ceased, and I was enabled to traverse the streets and take note of buildings and other interesting objects with a view to future operations; and was gratified to find that I should have no lack of subjects. In the older part of the town the houses are lofty, and the width of the streets so trifling, that it would not be difficult for an active man to jump from a house on one side of the street into its opposite neighbour. I was not a little struck on returning to the more frequented parts of the town at the Frenchified appearance of everything. The shops were full of French goods, and Frenchwomen stood behind the counters, while the husbands of at least a good many of them were to be found among the tightly-belted, blue-tunicked, pegtop-trowsered individuals who pervaded the streets in every direction—proving how largely the military clement enters into the composition of the population of Algiers. Cafés and restaurants are numerous, and are mostly kept by Frenchmen, although some of the former are held by Arabs. I entered one kept by an Arab,—a poorly-furnished room, lighted by one window, from which window I was told Jules Gerard dropped the native who had ventured to speak in contumelious terms of Frenchmen in general, and Gerard in particular, upon a heap of what I may in mild terms describe as refuse.

The eldest daughter darted out of the house at the instant the ruffians entered; but was pursued by two of them, who caught her, chopped off her hands at the wrists, and otherwise mutilated her in an indescribable manner.

I was wandering alone outside the town, when my attention was attracted by a superstructure, the object of which was so evident that I looked round for a soldier of whom I might inquire the nature of the crime committed by the individual destined to have his career brought to such an abrupt termination. I soon found one, and, thanks to six months of "Cassell's French" and some little practice, I was enabled to comprehend the following narrative :— A man named Gilson inhabited a house a short distance from the town, together with his wife, her mother, a daughter about sixteen years of age, and another some years younger. One night about ten o'clock they heard a wagon drive into the yard, and a peculiar sound which a boy in Gilson's service, absent on some domestic errand, was in the habit of using for the purpose of gaining admittance, made the family suppose that he had returned. The mother opened the door, and several Arabs immediately rushed in, cut down the mother, and then murdered Gilson and his wife, whose bodies were hacked in a dreadful manner. The youngest daughter concealed herself behind a large barrel, from whence she could see all that was done, and was thus enabled to give a description of the murderers, one or two of whom were known to her, which led to their speedy apprehension. The eldest daughter darted out of the house at the instant the ruffians entered; but was pursued by two of them, who caught her, chopped off her hands at the wrists, and otherwise mutilated her in an indescribable manner; and, finally, one of them, with the intention of killing her, made a downward cut at her head which nearly cut away the forehead from the skull, and left her, to all appearance, a bleeding corpse. Wonderful to relate, she did not die, and has since been conveyed to Paris, where she remains at this moment; her unfortunate condition but slightly alleviated by the receipt of a sum levied on the goods of the murderers. The object of the Arabs in this attack was plunder; Gilson having somewhat boastfully, though on the supposition that he was communicating with a friend, showed one of the criminals some valuable articles of jewellery. The day following the little girl was taken into the town to the magistrate, to whom she gave the names of at least two of the murderers, whom she had frequently seen with her father at his house. One of these men was a sheikh, and comparatively rich. Other arrests were also made, and eventually one of the persons arrested made a confession, upon the strength of which seven Arabs were placed on their trial, all of whom were convicted and sentenced to death—the informer being subsequently spared.

I had no sooner heard this horrible tale than occurred to me, that if I could get permission establish my apparatus in a suitable position, the execution would form the subject of an interesting photograph.

I had no sooner heard this horrible tale than occurred to me, that if I could get permission establish my apparatus in a suitable position, the execution would form the subject of an interesting photograph. The execution was fixed for an early hour the following morning, so that I at once hastened to the prison, and obtained the name of the appointed to command the troops who were to guard the scaffold, and from him I obtained the necessary permission to establish myself on the spot most suitable for the purpose. To avoid the possibility exciting the feelings of the natives in any way, I determined to conduct the operation with as much secrecy as possible. With this view I hired one of the light wagons used for crossing the desert, and, with the aid of a couple of tarpaulins, soon contrived a somewhat capacious operating room, in which I placed all the requisite apparatus. By the time I had made these preparations it was necessary to start for the scene the execution, as it was certain that an immense crowd would assemble in front of the scaffold. It was but a little past midnight when I arrived on the spot, yet even then the driver had some difficulty in making his way through the mob. Having ascertained, by means of my compass, the direction from which the rays of the rising sun would fall upon the scaffold, I placed my wagon accordingly ; and then, with the self-satisfied feeling of a man who has sacrificed his personal convenience to the interests of his profession, I lighted a cigar and moved into the open air, more with the object of preventing any attempt on the part the natives (who are great thieves) to cut a hole in the tarpaulins than of admiring the beauty of the night.

The crowd of men was immense ; and as the rays of the rising sun fell upon their upturned, swarthy faces, it was painful to see the earnest and even frightened expression of their countenances. I had been present not long before at an execution in France, which thousands had assembled to witness ; and the recollection of the jests and laughter I had then heard made the dead silence on the present occasion more impressive. I at first thought that this silence was owing to the number about to be executed, yet I could not reconcile this interpretation of it with the reports I had heard of the indifference of the natives to human life. I asked the driver of the wagon if such silence was usual, and learned from him, half a native himself, the reason. The Arabs are followers of Mahomet, and believe that their bodies after death, will, by means of the tuft of hair they leave on their otherwise shaven heads, be conveyed by their prophet into paradise. Now, the head, which is completely separated from the trunk by the action of the guillotine, can alone, according to their belief be placed in paradise, and as the body must be left on earth, they conclude (what is perfectly natural, seeing the nature of their paradise) that this arrangement will not contribute much to the owner's gratification. [I have since heard, that when the native chiefs executed a man by cutting off his head, the executioner invariably left it attached to the body by a bit of flesh, with a view to obviating the inconvenience referred to above.]

My ambition was not merely to obtain a picture of the instrument of death, that I could have any time, but to test to the utmost the wonderful powers with which I fancied my arrangements were endowed, by taking the moving objects actually in transition—the head in progress of falling into basket, the or the sharp blade in the midst of its descent.

I purpose in a future letter giving you a detailed account of my photographic apparatus and arrangements for taking instantaneous pictures ; it may, however, be interesting to your readers to know that I used on this occasion a stereoscopic camera with twin lenses. The process, of course, was collodion, some of Hardwich's make, and the bath contained glycyrrhizine in small quantity, to which the marvellous sensitiveness I attained in some of my pictures may be attributed. My lenses (view) were 7/8 of an inch in diameter, and 3 3/4in. focus ;—a pair of Grubb's exquisite little productions, and the aperture was of the enormous size of 5/8 an inch, nearly the full aperture, and I can assure you, that even then they worked very sharply, and rapidly as a good portrait combination. Part of the day before I had been busily employed in instantaneous movement for uncovering the lenses ; and, considering that the only available tools were which were to be found in my portmanteau, I think I succeeded remarkably well. The stop was not as good as if it had been turned out of one London shops, but it worked to perfection, and composed of cardboard, sewing cotton, and pins was lighter, and consequently more mobile than brass. My ambition was not merely to obtain a picture of the instrument of death, that I could have any time, but to test to the utmost the wonderful powers with which I fancied my arrangements were endowed, by taking the moving objects actually in transition—the head in progress of falling into basket, the or the sharp blade in the midst of its descent. How well I succeeded you shall have an opportunity judging as soon as I have time to print off a copy the negatives.

The criminals were not brought on the scaffold together, but led up one at a time. The first was the sheikh, who seemed perfectly indifferent to his fate. So rapidly was he bound to the plank and thrust under the axe, that I had barely time to insert the plate-holder and get the instantaneous movement into order before the sharp edge descended, and his head rolled into the basket. This picture was quite successful, and so was the second, but the third presented a dim appearance, the fourth was nearly, and the fifth and sixth were wholly, invisible. How to account for this I know not, unless the atmosphere around the scaffold became in some way affected by the blood, the odour of which was distinctly perceptible to me. Perhaps some of your readers may be able to suggest the reason.

My letter has reached such a length that I have neither time nor space at present to tell you of a rather serious difficulty in which my photographic ardour was nearly involving me with the friends of the deceased. It is all over now, however, and I have still a whole skin, although, it must be confessed, "more by good luck than good management." Perhaps I may devote the next rainy day to an account of my adventure, for the edification and warning of such of your readers as may be tempted to wander amongst a half-civilised tribe in search of food for the camera.

Yours truly,
C. A.

So then...

Gear Specifications? A whole paragraph worth! Much of which is antiquated to the point I don't know the significance.

Procedural Specifications? There was the whole bit about how to best capture the beheaded head in mid-flight.

Pomp? I think that "...and then, with the self-satisfied feeling of a man who has sacrificed his personal convenience to the interests of his profession, I lighted a cigar and moved into the open air..." counts.

So there you have it. A very detailed story of the execution of six humans, with all the pomp and casual gear talk of a 21st-century photography forum! Surreal.

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