The Burnt Column, Constantinople

Cornell Library

Cornell Library

The Burnt Column, Constantinople Collection: A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library Accession Number: 15/5/3090.00053. Photographer: J. Pascal Sébah (Turkish, active 1860-1880)

A decaying column held together by bands of iron. That might be the first impression of J. Pascal Sébah’s photograph which shows the Column of Constantine, sometimes referred to as the Burnt Column. Yet, let us for now put aside the tumultuous history of the column itself, and rather focus on what the photograph tells us. The composition of the picture lets the column reign over the photograph’s upper half, and ensures that no details obstructs the view of the column itself. The perspective chosen by the photographer also allows a viewer to pretend they are standing where the photographer stood; they are seeing what he saw. This choice of perspective combined with the centrality given to the column as the focus of the image, is a clue to what this image wants. It is a documentary image. Sébah’s has taken an image without people, and devoid of any signs of folklore and focused instead on documenting the Byzantine artefact. In contrast this photograph  of the column showcases the teeming life and even vegetation around the column. Granted the comparison between the two photographs should not be taken too far. The photo chrome image is taken at a later date where developments in exposure and shutter speed ensured that photographing people was easier than in Sébah’s time twenty years prior. For Sebah all motion threatened to become a ghostly blur, which is evidently what happened to the faint outline of straws seen in the bottom right of his photograph.

Regardless, Sébah’s photograph is much more clearly composed to showcase the column, and displays an increased documentary use of photography which influenced both tourism and scholarly pursuits. The tourism angle is well-known. Photographs printed in books and increasingly on postcards helped spread an awareness of how other places and sites actually looked, and did so to an ever increasing audience. Yet, these types of photographs also allowed scholars to compare and familiarise themselves with ruins and monuments of places they had never seen. In From Site to Sight, Melissa Banta shows how historical anthropology saw decisive advances due to the implementation of photography. Her example is the difference between the sketching of Olmec statues and the photography of Olmec statues as a form of gathering empirical information. The sketching takes time. A long time. The photography takes only a fraction of the same, and the image is sharper and usually more detailed than the sketch. One has only to recall Wilhelm Salzenberg’s drawings of the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Alt-christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel vom V. bis XII. Jahrhundert to recall how drawing and sketches bring with them a higher degree of personal interpretation and even fault than does photography. What images like Sebah’s photograph allowed was more neutral approach (though with the caveat that photography is never truly neutral), which again explains why photography and photographic slides became of such formative importance to the development of subjects like Art History.

The point is that Sébah’s photograph of the Burnt Column is not only of the column, it is also a sign of its own times and its own reception history. In regard to Sebah the history is briefly as follows. Sébah (1823-1886) was a pioneer photographer who worked in Istanbul. His parents were Syrian Catholic (father) and Armenian (mother), and the photography was such a success that he in 1873 opened a studio in Cairo in addition to the one in Istanbul. He photographed historical sites in Istanbul, but also in Egypt as well as the photographs for the collection Les Costumes Populaires De La Turquie, which was part of the the universal exposition in Vienna, 1873. The latter images, as the title implies, were a series of studio costume studies of different regions and social classes of the Ottoman Empire, and was commissioned by Osman Hamdi Bey. Sébah was particularly well-known for his documentary photographs, which due to the wet-plate process were reproduced in several formats, from cartes de visit to panoramas.

While tourists formed a great part of Sébah’s costumer group, Michelle L. Woodward has argued that the work of Sébah and his studio must be seen as the work of Ottoman citizens using the technology to document and relate their Ottoman culture and heritage. Subsequently, according to Woodward, Sébah does not produce orientalist photography as understood based on the concept of Orientalism by Edward Saïd. Rather Sébah is using the technology of photography to present his world, as it surrounds him. The burnt column of Constantine, as captured by Sébah is therefore both a photograph of a Byzantine artefact and the image created by an Ottoman citizen relating to that heritage.


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