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Series: Early Photography
01. Advent of the Camera in Ethiopia
Optical science made its earliest impact on the recording of Ethiopian images in the late eighteenth century. The first to make use of it was the Scottish traveller James Bruce, who obtained a camera obscura to assist him in sketching the country.
The apparatus, a cumbersome affair, was constructed according to his own specifications by the London firm of Nairne and Blunt, and was modified several times before he was satisfied. When eventually accepted the instrument, as Bruce notes in his Travels, proved both “large and expensive” Hexagonal in shape, and no less than six feet in diameter, it consisted of two separate units, a conical top and a bottom, which folded together compactly, so that the whole was “neither heavy, cumbersome, nor inconvenient”.The draftsman sat within, as in a summer-house, and drew without being seen.
The instrument, Bruce claims, was of great value, for it enabled a person of but moderate drawing skill to do more and better work in an hour than the best draftsman could, without it, do in seven. With its help it was possible moreover to sketch, not only an entire building with the “utmost truth and justest proportion”, but also to depict its light and shade, and even little shrubs around it. The resultant picture had the “inestimable advantage” of being “real”, rather than a fruit of the imagination, and was so detailed that passing clouds, and even persons, and the folds of dresses, could be “fixed by two or three unstudied strokes of a pencil”.
Despite Bruce’s enthusiasm for the camera obscura in the drawing of buildings it should be noted that, though it contributed to many North African scenes preserved in the Scotsman’s archives, only one such Ethiopian picture is extant. It is a simple sketch of the largest of the standing obelisks at Aksum, sunsequently published in his Travels. The remaining Ethiopian pictures consist principally of drawings of flora and fauna, later reproduced as engravings in the fifth volume of his book, and a few sketches of people, including portraits of two Ethiopian ladies of rank, Astr and Takla Maryam, which were long afterwards included in J.M. Reid’s Traveller Extraordinary. (London, 1968).
To Be Regretted
It is to be regretted that Bruce, one of the first foreigners to reside in the then capital, Gondar, left no pictorial image of that important town, in which he had spent several years, or of its political, social and religious life. One further point about Bruce’s artistic work deserves to be made. Virtually all the Ethiopian drawings which the Scotsman claims to have produced were apparently in fact made by his Italian assistant, Luigi Balugani, whose considerable artistic achievements, studiously concealed by his employer, found recognition over two centuries after his death, in Paul Hulton, F. Nigel Hepper and Ib Friis, Luigi Balugani’s Drawings of African Plants (Rotterdam, 1991).
The coming of the camera obscura, which Bruce – and. we must add, Balugani – were the first to use in the region, was an important event, which led to great improvement in pictorial images of Ethiopia. This can be seen in not a few early nineteenth century engravings, which seem to have owed much to the instrument. Such images were however, destined to be once again transformed, a little over a century later, by a further major technological development: the advent of photography.
The Reign of Tewodros
The earliest use of the photographic camera in Ethiopia dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century, more precisely to the reign of Emperor Twodros. This period, which witnessed increasing contacts between Ethiopia and Europe, coincided with significant progress in the photographic field, and in particular the increasing international popularisation of the camera.
Henry Aaron Stern
The first photographer to visit Ethiopia, as far as is known, was Henry Aaron Stern, a British Protestant missionary of German Jewish descent, who arrived in the country in 1859, to convert the Falashas, or Beta Esra’el, to Christianity. Though primarily involved in what were then often termed “missionary labours” he was also much interested in photography, and took a number of photographs of people and places.
These pictures have apparently long since disappeared, but twenty of them were later published as engravings in Stern’s book Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia (London, 1852). They included: a fine portrait of Abuna Salama, the Egyptian patriarch of the Ethiopian church; scenes of the then capital Dabra Tabor; a Falasha village; one of the famous castles at the previous capital, Gondar; and a group of elegantly dressed Ethiopian noblewomen with their attendants or slaves. Several other engravings apparently based on the missionary’s photographs later found their way into A.A. Isaacs’ Biography of the Rev. Henry Aaron Stern, (London, 1886).
Through the Hand of the Engraver
Stern’s photographs, though presented through the eyes and hand of the engraver, were important in that they constituted the first visual documentation on the country based on the camera. The published engravings resulting from them enjoy a unique position in the history of Ethiopian illustration. Based as they were on photography they inspire a sense of veracity lacking in drawings, where the artist’s imagination may always be suspected of having distorted the “true” image, or at least of having introduced an element of ambiguity, into the picture.
Stern, an opinionated and intolerant bigot, soon incurred the wrath of the excitable Emperor Twodros, who had him arrested, and his house searched for seditious documents. The officials charged with this task are reported by the missionary to have displayed great curiosity in examining his “photographic sketches”, and in their admiration of some mountain scene or village group, he claims, “entirely forgot their commissio”, thus reducing the investigation to a “perfect farce”. The search party nevertheless ended by carrying off most of the missionary’s property, including his photographic equipment, which was taken to the king. The latter, he relates, thereupon “made a variety of inquiries about me, the illustrations in the book [Wanderings amongst the Falashas], and the mode and method of taking photographs”.
Stern’s Ethiopian servant Josef, who was “supposed to be initiated in all the mysteries of his master’s lens and collodion”, if we can believe the German’s ironic account, then gave the monarch a “most elaborate, and no doubt, most lucid explanation of the process”. Samwel, one of Twodros’s courtiers, was also present, but “did not feel disposed to share the honours of his profound photographic lore with an ignorant, self-conceited African”. In support of this condescending statement Stern claims that Samwel later declared that he had refused to talk about photography, because he was “determined to oppose”, if he “could not humble”, the sovereign’s “arrogant pretensions”. Whether anyone would in fact have dared to risk the monarch’s well-known wrath in this manner may, however, be doubted, and Stern, dear reader, was of course undoubtedly arrogant in his own way.
Stern’s imprisonment, and that of several other Europeans, among them the British Consul Cameron, later provoked the British Government to despatch an armed expedition, as we have seen, against Tewodros and his fortress at Maqdala, where the captives were detained.