Faces from another time

Sherif Boraie is an editor and publisher based in Cairo. He founded his imprint, Zeitouna, in 1988, under which he has published forty highly illustrated books on Egyptian history, from the pharaohs to modern times.

His latest book, A Face in Time: Egypt Photo Studios, 1865–1939, edited by Boraie, with an introduction by Youssef Rakha, just published by AUC Press, looks at the bourgeoning industry of studio photography in Egypt, from the mid-nineteenth century to the Second World War.

From the invention of the camera, photographers, like painters, have sought to portray other people, and early studio photographs, with their highly stylized props, poses, and costumes. In their rich variety, the portraits in this book—over 200 stunning images, from the work of 81 photographic studios—offer vivid evidence of the democratization of the image as access to the technology spread from members of Egypt’s royalty to an ever-wider circle of subjects. These portraits, and the studios that created them, evoke haunting fragments of a vanished past.

We wanted to know more about how Boraie first came across these portraits, some of the stories and  photographers behind these photographs, and the meaning that these portraits have today.

What fascinated you about these photos when you first saw them?

I first became fascinated by these old studio portraits some thirty years ago. I was captivated by the change that had come over people, Egyptians in particular. The facial features, the posture, how people wished to present themselves.

It was customary and quite widespread for someone to have their portrait taken in a studio, which they would then autograph and share, present or offer to family, friends and acquaintances. It started of course with the upper classes, trickling down to even the working class. Studio portraits made for a booming industry. True, it started in more cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, but it spread far and wide to all the provinces. Provincial towns like Tanta, Mansoura, Zagazig, Minya and Assiut were all also quite cosmopolitan compared to today. Photographers set up their studios all across the country, serving the local elite (who might just as likely have their portraits taken at a fashionable Cairo studio) as well as lower classes. A Levantine, Armenian or a Greek would not set up his studio in say Fayoum or Assiut if there wasn’t sufficient business. It would be safe to say that most middle, even lower middle classes would have a portrait of the head of the household and a family portrait adorning their homes. It was also common, and is until today, to see a portrait of the owner holding place of pride in his shop.

How differently was photographic portraiture used for carte de cabinet as opposed to carte de visite and what was the purpose of either of the two?

Both served the same purpose—to present an image of oneself. The carte de visite was the predecessor. In the 1850s, Disderi mounted albumen print photographic portraits on thicker paper card, the size of a visiting card (5.4×8.9 cm). By the early 1870s, the carte de cabinet, which was larger in size (11×17 cm.), took over.

Were there many photo studios at the time? Was Schier & Schoefft the most reputable?

This is very difficult to ascertain. But then we are talking about a stretch of time. If we’re talking about the second half of the 19th century, I think most of the reputable ones are included in the book. We might have missed a couple. Directories with listings took form at the turn of the century. Then there was an explosion in the number of studios mushrooming across the country, and it becomes more difficult to keep an accurate track. Also, it should be remembered that some studios passed from hand to hand, particularly with European photographers. Some left for whatever personal reasons, but the Germans and Austro-Hungarians (who were clearly the pioneers) were forced to leave at the beginning of the First World War, as Egypt was under British occupation and they were considered belligerents. Again, it is important to note, unlike the West, there was never real interest in the value of these works here in Egypt. We have no photographic archive, just like we have no cinema archive. So much is lost.

Who were the photographers? Were they mostly foreigners?

The early photographers were European: French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and German. They gave way to the Armenians who were king, together with Levantines and Greek. Egyptians joined around the time of the First World War, and they grew slowly, mostly through apprenticeship, eventually leading to them acquiring the studios.

There is such a variety of photographs in the book, ranging from self-portraits, family and friends photos, and wedding portraits, to school and official photos. How difficult was it to select which ones would go in the book?

There was plenty of everything. I was working with a huge collection that belonged to a friend, plus my own collection. Then, I was very fortunate to be gifted two collections from two dear friends that filled some gaps. I wanted to make it as representative as possible, cutting across social classes, and a timeline to show historical development.

Do you have a favorite among more than 200 illustrations in the book?

They’re mostly all favorites. Having spent considerable time with each one, there was intimacy—with the person, with the photographer, with the object itself.  I must have gone through several thousands of photographs before settling on a selection that changed over time.

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