Louvre Abu Dhabi: World's earliest photographs on display in the UAE

Many of the images in a new exhibition have never been shown before in the region – or anywhere

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Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened an exhibition of some of the earliest known photographs taken outside a Western context.

“In our research we found many national histories,” says the show’s curator Christine Barthe, of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris. “You may have information about the history of photography in India, in Turkey, in Chile. But there were no projects on its global history.”

The Abu Dhabi exhibition, 'A World of Exchanges, Photographs 1842 – 1896: An Early Album of the World', aims to rectify that, looking at the time when cameras were just beginning to travel from Europe and the US, where the technology was developed, to wider parts of the world. As such the show intersects with questions of colonialism, tourism and military expedition.

Look through the photo gallery above to see more from the exhibition.

It explores some of the earliest images taken by travellers and sailors in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, India and the Americas. “Marine officers,” Barthe notes, “were professional travellers.” It also uncovers photographs taken by local residents of their surroundings, such as those of the Persian court of the shrines of Isfahan, or the images produced by studios in Istanbul.

The images are drawn mainly from the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the Musee du Quai Branly, and the Guimet Museum, and the show has been in the works since before the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum was even built.

Abu Dhabi, April 23, 2019.    Photographs 1842-1896:  An early album of the world at Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Victor Besa/The National 
Section:  Arts & Life
Reporter:  Melissa Gronlund
The exhibition runs until July. Victor Besa / The National

“This exhibition is especially close to my heart,” said Manuel Rabate in his opening remarks, noting that his first relationship with the region had been as part of the Quai Branly team when they installed an exhibition in Bahrain in 2008. “The Musee du Quai Branly and Louvre Abu Dhabi share common values. Dialogue between civilisations and cultures is at the heart of the Quai Branly DNA,” as it is for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The exhibition includes some of the first images of aboriginal Australians, Andeans, indigenous Brazilian tribes, and sub-Saharan Africans, including daguerreotypes of Persian dignitaries that are so fragile they have to be glimpsed behind a dark curtain.

Barthe’s research into the global reach of photography directly affected the collections for the Quai Branly museum, where she is head of photography.

“It really launched for me a new way to buy things from the museum,” she says. She found through the course of her research that any different cultures had adapted or developed different techniques for taking and displaying photographs. While Western cultures, for example, built displays for daguerreotypes out of leather, Japanese photographers tended to use wooden boxes. “I realised we didn’t have those things not only for the collection of the Musee du Quai Branly, but not even in French public collections.”

This is the first time many of these images, particularly those that were taken with a vernacular or everyday standpoint, will have been shown in the region – or at all.

'A World of Exchanges, Photographs 1842 – 1896: An Early Album of the World' is running at Louvre Abu Dhabi from April 25 to July 13.