histoire de la photographie

John Beasly Greene : Early photography in Algeria


John Beasly Greene, The El-Kantara bridge in Constantine, 1856 © James Hyman Fine Art and Photographs

This 1856 view of the El-Kantara bridge in the algerian city of Constantine is one of the earliest photographs existing. It is also a historical document of great value, as the old bridge collapsed in 1857, and a new bridge was built in 1864. The photograph was taken by a young man who’s work is mostly related to egyptian archaeology.

John B. Greene (1832-1856) was born in Le Havre in Normandy a son of an american family. His father worked as a banker. The joung men came to live in Paris where he learned photography from Gustave le Gray. Greene was in 1854 one of the founding members of the Société Française de Photographie, which still exists. John Greene died in Cairo, probably of tuberculosis, at only 24. His negatives went to his friend and fellow photographer Théodule Devéria. Short biographical notes on him are published (in French) by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (his birthdate is an erroneous 1822), and by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Moreover photography, John Greene had a keen interest in archaeology. In autumn 1853, at barely twenty, he decided to depart for Egypt at his own expenses, being too young to have an official appointment. But authorization for his planned archaelogical excavations was refused, and so Green spent the year 1854 taking photographs of the Nile and sourrounding egyptian monuments.

At his return to Paris in 1855, a set of 94 photographs under the title Le Nil – Monuments, Paysages, Explorations photographiques, were published by Blanquart-Evrard. Green’s work shows a strong influence of the landscape photography by his master Le Gray, and many images are more complexe than pure documentary and scientific photography. The album helped Greene to obtain his excavation authorization for Thebes in Egypt, and a year later for Algeria, where he went accompagnied by Louis-Adrien Berbrugger (1801-1869), the future founder of the museum and library of Algiers.

At the international fine art fair Paris Photo in november 2013, the James Hyman gallery of London showed several photographs of Greene. Three salt prints were taken in Algeria : one in Constantine (above) in the east, and two near Tipaza, showing the « tombeau de la Chrétienne ».

John Beasly Greene,

John Beasly Greene, Le  » tombeau de la Chrétienne », 1856 © James Hyman Fine Art and Photographs

These images of an antique funeral monument attributed erroneously to a christian woman, available at James Hyman gallery, are part of a set. A complete version of Green’s photographs, the « Album du tombeau de la Chrétienne » dated 1855 or 1856, which contains fourteen plates numbered, annotated and signed by the photographer, is kept in the library of the Institut de France in Paris. This album was donated by Louis-Adrien Berbrugger to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in october 1856 and can be seen online on the Arago database.