Photographing the Arab City in the 19th Century

This exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Octagonal Gallery runs from January 30 to May 25, 2014.

In the 19th century, the East represented the realm of exoticism, fantasy and mystery. Literature and painting in particular used the lands beyond Europe as canvases for fertile explorations of the unknown and unlimited boundaries for imagination. By the latter half of the century, however, several pioneer photographers travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, bringing back to Europe and North America images that captured the idea of the exotic.

Whether in search of Nile temples, the Holy Land or Berber costumes; whether amateurs or pilgrims; whether part of scientific missions or commercial ventures, these photographers all sailed to harbours such as Algiers and journeyed through central cities like Cairo or Damascus. At a time when western political and military involvement in the near east was at a high, the photographs taken helped to convey an idea of chaos and disorder; of insalubrity and a lack of self-governance in the region.

Yet, today, these very same images, offer a different reality; one that could challenge these earlier assumptions. Photographing the Arab city in the 19th century asks the visitor to abandon stereotypes and interpret the traditional Islamic city without the frame of Orientalism. A survey of the CCA collection showcases early photography of Arab cities and proposes a morphological turn, inspecting panoramas, streets and monuments as material expressions of a complex society rather than elements in a picturesque vision of an exotic “other.”

The selection of photographs invites the spectator to distinguish between the halal, what is public, allowed or profane, and the haram, the private, forbidden or sacred. This dichotomy is present at all levels of Islamic culture and thus of the city organization, configuring limits, routes and buildings. From bird’s eye to ground views, from outdoor vistas to interior domains, examining these photographs provides a portrait of an urban reality brought to light one century and half ago but at the time only partially understood.

This exhibition is curated by 2013 visiting scholar Jorge Correia. Watch his public presentation on perceptions of the “Islamic” city in early photography at

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