Looking at the Collection: Francis Frith’s Self-Portrait
In addition to its rich holdings of work by photographers working in New Mexico, the museum collection also includes prints that represent the history of photography and its international scope. This self-portrait was made in photography’s second decade by the British photographer Francis Frith, well known for his early photographs of Palestine and Egypt. Since Frith is playing dress-up in this photograph, it seemed an appropriate selection for Halloween!
Spurred by religious feelings, Frith traveled to the Near East in 1856 with the idea of making a series of images of biblical sites. Positive critical reception to the work resulted in two additional, extended trips in 1858 and 1859. This self-portrait was published by Frith in 1859 as a frontispiece to his two-volume Egypt and Palestine, a collection of seventy-six photographs from his travels, where it appeared as Portrait: Turkish Summer Costume, 1857. In writing about this image, the photography historian Gordon Baldwin suggests that Frith’s pointed dating of the image was probably intended to establish his credentials as one of the earliest photographers working in the region. Citing the importance placed on the veracity of the photographic image at the time, Baldwin speculates that the inclusion of the self-portrait in the publication was meant as hard evidence that Frith had, indeed, visited the lands he photographed.
Frith is known to have made three self-portraits in this costume -- each with a different backdrop and props – and Baldwin notes that he most likely made the series in England in 1857, after his first expedition. Though the photographer carefully identifies the clothing as “Turkish Summer Costume,” Baldwin’s research indicates that Frith never visited Turkey and, thus, the attribution most likely resulted from imprecise distinctions between the cultures inhabiting the Ottoman Empire.
For more information, see Roger Fenton: Pasha and Bayadère, by Gordon Baldwin (Getty Museum Studies on Art, 1996), especially the chapter “Eastern Photographs and Artistic Applications,” pp. 53-57.
(above) Francis Frith (British, 1822-1898)
Self-Portrait in Turkish Summer Costume, 1857
Jane Reese Williams Collection, Gift of Jane Reese Williams, 1996