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Much about this artist is in doubt. Not his talent
John Beasley Greene, Giza. Sphinx, 1853-54. Bibliotheque nationale de France.

by Arthur Lubow

SAN FRANCISCO (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Although John Beasley Greene journeyed to Egypt in the 1850s as an archaeologist, his photographs of ruined statues and barren sands reveal the eye of a poet, not a scholar. Portraying half-buried, decayed monuments of a once mighty civilization, the stark images evoke the rueful irony of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias.”

Compared with modern photographs, Greene’s pictures have the delicacy of watercolor washes, marked by the soft contrasts and powdery textures that are characteristic of paper negatives. Even when his photographs document hieroglyphic inscriptions, they feel like romances. Unfortunately, his infatuation with the East was short-lived. He died in 1856 at the age of 24, probably of tuberculosis.

“Probably” is a qualifier that attaches to much of Greene’s biography. Until recently, even the spelling of his name (Beasly? Green?) was in doubt. But his talent is incontrovertible. The first museum exhibition of Greene’s work, “Signs and Wonders,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Jan. 5 before moving to the Art Institute of Chicago, establishes an artist who harnessed a new technology to convey a singular vision.

Today, Greene’s images evoke a time when travel was still an adventure, ancient civilizations were largely mysterious and the grammar of photography was just being invented. An intriguing aspect of his work is the way he adapted the limitations of the medium to heighten his desired effects.

Paper negatives were not as light-sensitive as the wet-collodion glass plates that some of his contemporaries employed, and were therefore less suitable to register fine detail or human movement. Greene worked this deficit to his advantage, making photographs that are painterly in their muted shadings. Because the emulsions he used were particularly sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum, the skies in his photographs are bleached. Sometimes he whited them out completely with gouache. In other pictures, untreated, the light sky is smudged irregularly. Either way, the heavens in a Greene photograph have the merciless glare of the desert sky in a Paul Bowles story.

“There is a tendency toward abstraction that is produced by these negatives and the conditions of the landscape,” said Corey Keller, the show’s curator. “They look very modern as a result, with big expanses of blank sky. They are very luxurious in that regard.” Despite their modernist appeal, she said, it was challenging to mount such a show because of the gaps in the historical record that undermine academic rigor — and because the emphasis on recent photography as a branch of contemporary art has left museums loath to investigate past riches.

Born in France to wealthy American parents (his father was a banker), Greene never set foot in the United States. He studied photography in the Paris studio of Gustave Le Gray, a pioneer in the field who, among other accomplishments, developed a waxed paper negative capable of greater definition than the earlier version invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in England. Greene accompanied Le Gray on forays to the Fontainebleau forest and on assignments to document Paris landmarks before embarking on his first expedition to Egypt.

Egypt had been a locus of fascination for Europeans, especially the French, since Napoleon Bonaparte’s short-lived military conquest at the close of the 18th century. Along with soldiers, Napoleon brought scholars, who mapped and drew the marvels they discovered there, resulting in an encyclopedic study, eventually totaling 23 volumes, that brought the ancient civilization to the attention of the Western world. The Europeans plundered as well as rendered, bringing back to Europe some of the treasures they unearthed. (One of them, a granite head and torso of Ramesses II, ended up at the British Museum and was the likely inspiration for Shelley’s poem.)

When photography appeared, its usefulness as a way of recording the ruins was quickly appreciated. The trailblazer was Maxime du Camp, another student of Le Gray’s, who traveled to Egypt in the winter of 1849-50 in the company of writer Gustave Flaubert and photographed many of the sites subsequently visited by Greene. Some of the two photographers’ pictures bear a strong stylistic resemblance, but the ones for which Greene is best known are his minimalist landscapes, which call to mind the later paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and, much later, Peter Doig.

Du Camp frequently included workmen or visitors in his photographs of the sites to establish scale. Notwithstanding his archaeological credentials, which Keller, the curator, goes to pains to emphasize in the fine catalog, Greene enthralls us now by virtue of his aesthetic sense. Like the French Impressionist painters who would, a few years later, edit out the signs of industry that intruded on their sylvan scenes, Greene avoided photographing tourists or other interlopers who would break the spell, thereby lending his photographs a timeless quality. Many of his best photographs are landscapes with no ruins at all. Which is not to say he did not take photographs that faithfully transcribed the inscriptions and monuments in the partly dugout sites, but had he produced only such photographs, he would not be the subject of a museum exhibition today.

Greene made a second voyage to Egypt in 1854-55, this time going primarily as an excavating archaeologist at Medinet Habu, a Theban temple complex on the west bank of the Nile, near the modern city of Luxor. He took far fewer photographs on that trip, and those he chose to print were informational, recording the rich supply of inscriptions important to scholars.

Greene was back in North Africa at the end of 1855, traveling to the French territory of Algeria, probably twice, before returning to Paris by the end of May 1856. On his final trip to Egypt in fall 1856, he was already ill and hoped that the climate would be restorative. His wish wasn’t granted. He died in Cairo on Nov. 29.

One can imagine that a premonition of his own early death informed his melancholic vision. In his 1854 portrayal of a colossal stone pharaoh near the classical city of Thebes, the ravaged statue towers above a desert landscape. Once it guarded a temple for the worship of the all-powerful pharaoh, who was revered as a living god. That vast edifice had been swallowed by earthquakes and floods, leaving the custodial figure to reign over empty waste. Shooting it frontally, Greene looked up at the timeworn face from the subordinate vantage point of a suppliant. The blank visage stares back, impassive and blind.

The most frequently reproduced Greene photograph, “Banks of the Nile at Thebes” (1854), is a landscape image of remarkable beauty. Depicting the riverfront of the Nile, the composition breaks into three horizontal zones: the sky above, constituting a bit more than half the frame; the river below, which is a broad stippled band; and a thin interstitial layer, much darker, of an island marked with feathery, dendritic clusters of palms. A range of hills, in precisely the same tonal register as the Nile, washes above the slender dividing stripe.

Scrutinizing a 19th-century photograph, you may feel rather like an appellate judge reviewing a legal statute. Is it more important to assess the printed record or to intuit what the creator intended? With Greene, the elegance of his minimalist compositions and the subject matter of scattered stones and statues seem to speak our language: the fractured syntax of a modernist sensibility, which finds beauty in the unfinished, the ruined, the half-hidden. The question of why Greene made these images is impossible to answer authoritatively. It is clear that he was a true artist. He may not have been able to help himself.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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