Bisson and Welling’s journey to Egypt

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The two albums coming from the Smith-Lesouëf collection and kept in the Department of Stamps and Photographs at the BnF include 119 prints of a trip to Egypt in 1869-1870 taken by the photographers Auguste Rosalie Bisson and Édouard Welling for Léon & Lévy.

Bound and captioned by their former owner, they stand as a united series thanks to their technique and format, as well as their style. Only a few plates bear the imprint of the publisher; as for the names of the photographers, they remained unknown until the work carried out by M.-N. Leroy[1], which associated this series with one of the major corpuses of 19th-century French photography, produced by the Bisson brothers.

It was in 1852 that Louis Auguste (1814-1876) and Auguste Rosalie (1826-1900) Bisson came together to form the Bisson Frères studio, which rapidly became one of the most vibrant companies in Paris. While also taking portraits, and reproductions of works of art, or else scientific imagery, it was above all in the world of architectural and landscape photography that the two brothers were to excel; firstly thanks to their series of Reproductions photographiques des plus beaux types d’architecture et de sculpture, with large format views of historical sites in France and its neighbouring countries; and then after Auguste Rosalie’s expeditions to the Alps, above all to Mont-Blanc. While this technical and sporting exploit guaranteed their glory, their company still went bankrupt in 1864. Auguste Rosalie however kept up an intense activity as a photographer, on his own, or else for various publishers.

Set up in 1864 by Moïse Léon and Georges Lévy, the publishing house of the same name was to become little by little a genuine empire of touristic pictures, up until 1917[2]. It is probable that, in the desire to add a series of views of Egypt to their catalogue, they applied to a photographer renowned at once for his treatment of monuments and sites, with also the ability to lead a large-scale photographic expedition, even in difficult territories. The role of Welling, a photographer whose biography and production remain little known, was probably limited to technical assistance.

In its composition and main steps, this photographic tour adopted the model created in 1852 by Maxime Du Camp, and then copied in the 1850s by such photographers as Greene, Frith or Teynard. It led from Alexandria to Abu Simbel, with a long stopover in Cairo. The choice of average format prints might seem surprising from a photographer who had taken  much larger glass plates to the summit of Europe so as to magnify its majesty, but this can no doubt be explained by editorial decisions, with a view to offering inexpensive photographs to a broad public.

Despite such a middling format and technical quality, and rather conventional iconography, this series still bears the mark of its main creator and includes some pictures of great beauty. Bisson’s vision was basically monumental, or even archaeological: with the exception of a few views of Alexandria, the Nile dam and Cairo’s Khedival palaces, it avoided modern Egypt and made no concession to the picturesque. Whether it be in plain, cut or sculpted stone, the Egypt on display is basically mineral. The Islamic sites of Cairo, which Bisson laid out in brilliantly constructed diagonals and perspectives, do not come over as being the religious places of an inhabited city, but more as the ruined, abandoned vestiges of a dead civilisation. They thus provide the prologue to an examination of the Pharaonic monuments of Egypt which, from Giza to the border of Sudan, stand as the main focus of the set.

While some traces of the first archaeologic excavations can be seen in some of the pictures (the colossus exhumed in Saqqara, or the recently cleared temple of Edfu), such ancient monuments reflect the centuries that have crossed and covered them: the upper parts of the temple of Luxor barely emerge from the silt, the desert dunes still partially conceal the façade of Abu Simbel. Bisson’s vision, while being less detailed than that of Devéria, and less striking than that of Greene, is aimed at a mass effect, with the grandiose proportions of these buildings, and above all their solitude. From this point of view, his voyage up the Nile, while being geographical, also took the form of a gradual distancing towards a world that was increasingly desert, wild, and whose strangeness seems almost timeless and unreal. The final series covering the cataracts and temples of Nubia, by displaying in their original state sites and monuments which have since been submerged or moved, is the most precious and striking result of this photographic journey. 


[1] “La Maison Bisson frères, une entreprise photographique”, in Les Frères Bisson, photographes. De flèche en cime, 1840-1870. Paris-Essen, Bnf / Museum Folkwang, 1999.

[2] The Léon and Lévy collection now belongs to the Roger-Viollet agency, it is conserved and distributed by Parisienne de Photographie (; it includes Bisson’s Egyptian negatives.


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