When the writer Maxime Du Camp went to Egypt in November 1849 at the age of twenty-seven, accompanied by his friend and coeval Gustave Flaubert, the two sailed up and down the Nile for six of the eight months of their stay before going on to travel another seven months in Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Du Camp acquired a camera especially for this trip; most of his 216 negatives were made during the Nile leg of his journey. A little over two months after leaving Egypt he sold his camera in Beirut, never to photograph again. Of the 125 images that were published in what became the first major photographic album of its kind, 112 were taken in Egypt.
Throughout Du Camp’s Egyptian photographs a small, dark figure appears, disappears, and reappears again in unexpected places, always alone. According to Du Camp’s travel notes this figure is Ishmael, a Nubian sailor who was a member of Du Camp’s crew, and the only model he claimed to have used as a measure of scale in depicting the ancient monuments.
My first encounter with Ishmael was in 1983 when I was skimming aimlessly through photo albums in search of a theme for a doctoral dissertation on documentary photography. I clearly remember the sweltering summer day when I leafed through Du Camp’s album, because I was immediately and forcibly struck by the repeated presence of this haunting figure among the Egyptian ruins. So much so that on return visits to the library I began to search Du Camp’s photographs for this dark body, often using a magnifying lens. More frequently than not, even where I thought there was no trace of him, I located the particular specks of emulsion that configured his presence among the ruins in the year 1850 (figs. 1, 2). It was only later I learned the figure was that of Ishmael.
Ishmael has been absent to most observers of Du Camp’s album and is never mentioned in the reviews and related writings of the nineteenth century. Even today, a scholarly introduction to his travel narrative, Le Nil, describes Du Camp’s photographs as ones from which “all human presence has been banished.” When this small, dark figure is referred to it is simply as a measure of scale.
But why, then, tuck an ostensible measure of scale in unexpected locations within the ruins so as to be almost invisible? To be sure, at times Ishmael is clearly visible, standing kouros-style in front of a monument, fulfilling his function as a human measuring device (fig. 3). But in many other pictures he is posed within the crevices of a ruin, a mere dab of matter added to the ancient friezes and inscriptions. In one instance he stands sideways, flat against the stone surface, one foot in front of the other, like an Egyptian bas-relief (figs. 4, 5). In some photographs he seems to have strayed from the walls onto the summit of a temple (fig. 6). Often he is framed by the architecture, his figure a picture within a picture (fig. 7). In one image he stands, contrapposto, atop a makeshift pedestal in the position of a classical Greek statue (fig. 8). He is always naked, save for a loincloth and an occasional head wrap, another departure from the norm.
What was Du Camp thinking as he bent behind his camera, his legs planted wide for balance, his head hooded under a black cloth, looking at the upside-down world of the viewfinder? What events and conditions in France, Paris in particular, during Du Camp’s youth may have molded his photographic choices? What were the commonplace attitudes toward Egypt and its inhabitants? What elements of Du Camp’s personal life might have prompted his game of hide-and-seek with Ishmael? These are the questions that prompted the writing of this book and to which I bring to bear some of the tools provided by cultural studies, photographic and literary theory, and psychoanalytic analysis.
A most prolific writer, Du Camp acquired enough material during his eight-month stay in Egypt for volumes throughout his life—novels, short stories, essays, art reviews, literary criticism, and memoirs. In addition to his hundreds of pages of accumulated reading notes, Du Camp kept an extensive, detailed Egyptian journal. Among his published works, three books are immediately and specifically connected to his trip. Three major genres of travel writing were flourishing in the 1850s. Never one to let an opportunity slip by, Du Camp made abundant use of all of them. The lengthy introduction to the photographs in Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie closely adheres to a respected scientific model. A novel, Le Livre posthume: Mémoires d’un suicidé, which appeared the following year, 1853, is a prime example of sentimental late romanticism. His more informal travel account, Le Nil, follows the popular journalistic format of letters to a friend at home. In fact, it was first published in serial form in the literary journal Revue de Paris beginning in October 1853. Ishmael is present in all three books, thrice reinvented according to the demands of each genre, as is Du Camp.
It is primarily among the contexts and interstices, divergences, and convergences of representations of the Orient(al) within this trilogy, along with Du Camp’s unpublished notes, that I explore the game of hide-and-seek that Ishmael plays in Du Camp’s photographs. This is not to say that there are clear parallels to be drawn between Du Camp’s visual and verbal presentations of Ishmael. The relationship between photographs and texts suggests correspondences that are neither illustrative nor narrative but rather tangentially illuminating.
The recording of a journey, in its exploration of an external continent, is always an exploration of the interior one of the traveler himself, giving shape and name to hidden, unidentified, and unsuspected mental itineraries. Flaubert, stretched out near the sleeping Du Camp and undoubtedly prey to his own nightmares, cast the idea of travel and its writing in terms of carnal dissection. “He who writes and he who travels can be as distant from one another as a living man and a corpse, as in the autobiographical exercise which consists in holding one’s life as a dead thing. Between myself this evening and myself that evening, is the difference between a corpse and the surgeon who performs its autopsy.” But the corpse is, of course, that of the surgeon himself and its examination is that of his own guts and sinews, his own heart and brain. In its simultaneous exploration of an external world and the interior one of the chronicler, the travel narrative gives a shape and a name to hidden, unidentified, and even unsuspected dis-eases.