Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mirjam Brusius reviews The Arab Imago

Stephen Sheehi. The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860–1910. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. 264 pp.

Review by Mirjam Brusius

21 March 2018

Recent studies have increasingly called attention to local Middle Eastern photographic practices by going beyond the surveys produced by European photographers in the nineteenth century. Exploring the social and ideological conditions of local portrait photography in the late Arab Ottoman world—Egypt and the Ottoman Levant from 1860 to 1910—Stephen Sheehi’s The Arab Imago stands in line with these new developments. Yet the book explicitly addresses Arab photography within the political, social, and historical context of the late Ottoman Empire and so also challenges and destabilizes master narratives of Ottoman photography that have hitherto focused on the imperial centre.

The decades Sheehi addresses constitute the period of the Ottoman Tanzimat, a series of initially state-led reforms and proclamations later applied by regional governors, religious communities, and enterprises in the Ottoman Empire. Tanzimat—which Sheehi categorizes as the Osmanlılık modernity project—as well as the associated nahdah al-arabiyah (“Arab Renaissance”) are intellectual discourses that gained popularity among the Arab middle class and elite in Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo, and are key terms in Sheehi’s argument. Focussing on nahdah as a formula for reform that refers specifically to Syrian and Egyptian identity in contrast to Ottoman Turkish identity, Sheehi argues that photography “was the very instantiation of nahdah discourse” (p. 31) at a time of meaningful social, political, and industrial change, notable for the rise of a new Arab merchant and intellectual class. A photograph, Sheehi argues, can be both the product and the producer of Osmanlılık and Nahdawi, conceptions of the modern. Sheehi understands photography as an “‘enactment,’” which “allows us to understand the image as both an afterimage of ideology and one that participates in it” (p. xxxvii).

The book is composed of an introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue and divided into two parts, of which the first is concerned with “Histories and Practice” and the second with “Case Studies and Theory.” Some readers may find this division unconvincing, not least because both parts equally feature the same balance of new empirical research, theorization, and even at times the same material. It is unfortunate that both the structure and also some unnecessary jargon make reading the book at times a challenge, as its content will be relevant for any undergraduate course on global approaches to photography.

Avoiding the pitfall of defining Arab photography merely as a contributor to the master narrative of European import and progress, Sheehi rightly embraces imperial material as well as the understudied studio photography of lesser-known local photography. This allows him to bypass dichotomies of Western/Eastern or colonizer/local that have dominated the field for too long. Looking at key sites such as Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo—all cities implicated in the above mentioned modernization programs—Sheehi embraces a wide range of materials, from royal portraiture and well-known names such as the Abdullah Frères to lesser studied Hajj photography.

The sociopolitical ideology, Sheehi argues, is created by the materiality of the photographic image, its movement, circulation, and perception. He moves away from the fetish of the photographic print, showing instead that photography operates on different visual levels, including cartes de visite, that can in fact be more meaningful for the usage and reception of photography. Like others in the field, Sheehi thus moves photographs away from a purely aesthetic interest. This is not to say, however, that Sheehi is not interested in form, content, and interpretation—quite the opposite. In fact, the most powerful passages are the ones where the author carefully describes the portraits and analyses their visual content. These moments may make some readers wish the publisher had paid more attention to the photographs’ size and print quality.

Drawing on contemporary psychoanalytic theory, Marxist thought, and postcolonial perspectives, amongst others, the book is less satisfying on a theoretical level. These frameworks support Sheehi’s analysis in some cases, but in others they distract from the actual material and the “indigenous approach” the book claims to take. Given that photo historians have started to leave behind some of the concepts at play here, one wonders if novel arguments and theories could not have been extracted from the material and in particular from local sources instead. The book contains, for example, impressive passages on the scientific and religious discourses surrounding photography in the region, including its relation to Islam; these sources give novel and important theoretical insight in their own right. It is precisely this new context and shift in perspective that makes The Arab Imago such a rich book; it is self-conscious about its project and aims, from the author’s acknowledgement of the difficulties of accessing material held in private collections to the categories it uses and the problems they present. In order to understand the widespread social significance of early “Arab photography,” we must locate this history within networks of social transformations and class formations, which this book does successfully. For the material it embraces and the questions it asks, it is—despite its form—a vital book that will appeal to Ottoman social historians and historians of photography alike and that will inspire and facilitate further research in the field.