Christine Barthe introduces a major new photo exhibit at the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Christine Barthe is the curator of Photographs 1842 – 1896: An Early Album of the World, an exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi of more than 250 rare photographs from the early beginnings of photography. Organised in seven chrono-thematic sections, the show includes some of the first images ever seen of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the American continent – images that helped to shape the perceptions of people, places and cultures more than 150 years ago. Barthe is also the head of the Photographic Collections Heritage Unit at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris.
Barthe worked for five years on this project with her colleague, Annabelle Lacour, the manager of photographic collections at the museum. She tells Selections about her seminal project.
Q: Can you talk us through how this research project came about?
A: I proposed a general idea to explore early photography for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and then, as we began the research, we had to shift focus to look towards the new horizons of the birth of photography outside Europe and the United States. It quickly became a fascinating project and has since taken me in a totally different direction. The results have been really fulfilling, but for me this is only the beginning. I am now thinking about the next version and what kind of further research we can do.
Q: How did you conceive audiences would react in the Louvre Abu Dhabi?
A: Well, of course, that was important to consider, and it was not easy at the beginning to imagine what the public would be like at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, especially as the museum was not built when I first started this. I didn’t have an idea of what the people would expect.
Q: As this is the first time many of these images have been shown, what does the culmination of your research and this exhibition mean to you personally?
A: Of course, I was very happy to see it come together especially at the installation stage. At the design stage, I had a personal dream of how it could look, and as we progressed through the install, I realised that step-by-step it was precisely like my vision. A photography exhibition is also very dependent on the light and here, the light shows the colours exactly right.
Q: There are obviously many notable pieces, not least Auguste Bartholdi’s voyage to Egypt, Nubia and Palestine to photograph the principal monuments. What would you say are the key highlights to this exhibition?
A: There are so many! I like the fact that we start with a very poetic work by Oscar Muñoz dealing with the appearance of photography as a medium, and I am also passionate about the daguerreotype room. These are very important images from the 19th century and are not very well known. Here one of the most stunning works is by Robert H. Vance, who offers a view of the Andes mountains from 1849. It was a pleasure to also feature the work of Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay, a French traveller and archaeologist notable both for his explorations of Mexico and Central America as well as Paul-Émile Miot, an officer in the French navy who had took photographs of Newfoundland. Lastly, there is a sub-section on Japanese photography in the 1860s, and this contains several stunning objects and images. As you can see, there are almost too many personal highlights to mention.
Q: By organising it chronologically, and in different chapters, is it your intention to take the audiences on a journey through time and place?
A: The chronological display is an easy way to help the public understand how photography developed as well as to highlight the different uses of photography such as scientific, political, commercial and vernacular. The idea is that the viewer goes on a process of discovery.
Q: Tell me about photography as a medium, how important is it as an art form?
A: We all have a familiarity with photography, especially in the modern, smartphone age, and so this means that people who know nothing about the art or the history can go inside and build their own relations with the images. Specialists will be able to discover new things too.
Q: How has your research directly affected the collection of photography at the Quai Branly museum?
A: For this exhibition, we made several purchases including the daguerreotypes by Colombian and Mexican and Japanese photographers. The biggest change has been the realisation that we need to expand our collection to a more global history of photography. The more you delve, the more you realise it is really fascinating and so rich.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, 21 Artists and a Biennial #49, p: 30 – 33.