Maxime Du Camp took photographs while travelling with Gustave Flaubert and for a book: Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie. Dessins photographiques recueillis pendant les années 1849, 1850 et 1851 (Gide & J. Baudry, 1852).
Who would now still remember Maxime Du Camp (1822-1894) had he not been Gustave Flaubert’s friend? Most of his works have never been republished and are currently unavailable. And yet, Du Camp had his moment of glory, not as a man of letters, but as a photographer, who brought back from his journey to Middle East over 200 calotypes taken in one year.
Maxime Du Camp already knew Turkey where he had stayed in 1843 and which had given him his Souvenirs et paysages d’Orient : Smyrne, Magnésie, Ephèse, Constantinople. However, once put in charge of an archaeological mission by the minister of Public Instruction, in reaction to the enthusiasm of Europeans for ancient Egypt and the Holy Land, he devoted his photographic visit to sites in the Nile Valley and Palestine under the title: Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie. Dessins photographiques recueillis pendant les années 1849, 1850 et 1851, illustrated by 125 plates. Despite its high price, it was extremely successful, and he became renowned. He was lauded in the press, in particular La Lumière, the first French photographic review. Du Camp was awarded several prizes, and then was given a Légion d’Honneur, much to the irritation of Flaubert, his travelling companion: “What a marvellous era”, he wrote to Louise Collet, “which celebrates photographers and exiles poets”.
Flaubert, who looked down on travel writing, was just as severe about Du Camp’s account of their expedition in Le Nil, which he considered to be “strangely awful”, stinking of a “bodged-up job”, and done only for the money. In his correspondence, Flaubert makes frequent mention of Du Camp’s “photographic rages”, after several failures while trying to use the procedures he had been shown by Gustave Le Gray, before switching to those of Blanquart-Évrard, which were easier to apply. Flaubert also stated that “Maxime let photography drop in Beirut”, in October 1850, by selling his equipment to “a frenetic enthusiast”, before travelling to Rhodes, Smyrna, and then Constantinople.
As Du Camp explained on several occasions, his shots were purely documentary, according to the instructions from the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles-Lettres. His objective was to bring back images that provided a precise reconstitution of the most striking monuments and sites. To him as a writer, this meant using a basic approach, which might be practical, but which was devoid of any artistic quality. In this way, Du Camp was in agreement with the ideas of Baudelaire, who dedicated a poem to him entitled Le voyage, and who, in Le Salon de 1859, protested against the idea that photography could “supplant any of the functions of art”. The 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris gave Du Camp another award for his pioneer book. Then, as the years went by, after having fully benefited from this experience, he wrote to the Orientalist painter Eugène Fromentin that he could use his proofs as he wanted, as he no longer “had anything to do with them”.