Francis Frith in the 'Near East'

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Francis Frith in the 'Near East'
Francis Frith, 'Statues of the Plain, Thebes', 1857
Francis Frith in the 'Near East'

In 1858, Francis Frith said: ‘I hold it to be impossible, by any means; fully and truthfully to inform the mind of scenes which are wholly foreign to the eye. There is no effectual substitute for actual travel; but it is my ambition to provide for those to whom circumstances forbid that luxury faithful representations of the scenes I have witnessed, and I shall endeavour to make the simple truthfulness of the camera a guide for my pen.’

This photograph was taken during Frith’s second trip to the ‘Near East’ that he undertook in 1857- 58. It was the second of three journeys that he made as part of an extraordinary endeavour to photograph the wonders of Egypt, Syria and Palestine for a British public that was hungry for images of exotic foreign lands.

Frith had made a significant fortune as a grocer by the age of 34, at which point he metamorphisised into a hugely influential, globe-trotting photographer, before founding and building one of the world’s largest image archives and publishing businesses. As a photographer, his greatest legacy is a record of the cities, landscapes and ancient monuments of the Middle East. His photographs are often sweeping in their vistas, and demonstrate the vastness of the landscapes and the grandness of the ancient monuments.

On each of his three trips Frith travelled with a significant entourage of guides and assistants, setting out across the desert in a caravan of carts and wagons to make his pictures. He preferred to use the wet-plate collodion photographic method, despite the fact that it required him to process the negatives onsite, in a hot, makeshift, tent darkroom.

Back in England, Frith lectured to great acclaim on his adventures and published luxurious portfolios of prints and stereo views of his photographs. The mixture of dramatic photographs and amusing tales of adventure ensured that Frith and his books were always popular. After three trips to the Middle East the British public’s thirst for such photographs appealed to the entrepreneur in him and he extended his remit to continental Europe, employing several other photographers to go out on the road and bring back images of Italy, Germany, Switzerland and other picturesque destinations. By the 1870s this business had expanded to such an extent that it offered a collection over 4,000 pictures from all over the world. By the 1890s it was one of the world’s largest picture libraries. Frith eventually handed the business over to his sons and it prospered until the early 1970s.

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