Signs and Wonders

The Photographs of John Beasley Greene
August 31, 2019–January 5, 2020
Floor 3

When the young archaeologist-photographer John Beasley Greene (American, born France, 1832–1856) set out for Egypt in 1853, the fields of both archaeology and photography were still in formation. Their development was bound up with the intense competition between Britain and France to impose colonial rule and open trade markets in northern Africa, as well as the parallel intellectual rivalry to acquire and systematize knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture. Greene was one of the first to use photography in the pursuit of archaeology, meticulously recording the carved hieroglyphics covering the ancient Egyptian monuments.

In the course of his efforts, the photographer made a number of visual choices that appear strikingly modern to us today: in both the spareness of his landscapes and the tightly cropped details and high-contrast textures of his documentation of archaeological sites in Egypt (and subsequently Algeria). Greene died at 24, leaving behind few written records that might help explain his own attitudes and intentions. Instead, he left hundreds of pictures that demonstrate a young photographer’s prescient grasp of the possibilities of the new medium and invite us to consider the complex relationship between photography, colonialism, and modernism.

Exhibition Preview

John Beasley Greene, Giza. Pyramid of Cheops, or Khufu, 1853–54; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; purchased as a gift of W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg
John Beasley Greene, [Still life with statuette of the Venus de Milo], 1852–53; Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Inc., New York
John Beasley Greene, [Ramesseum, with the head from a colossus of Ramesses II], 1854–55; collection of Richard and Ronay Menschel
John Beasley Greene, Studies of Date Palms, 1854; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fractional gift of Paul Sack, and collection of the Sack Photographic Trust
John Beasley Greene, Giza. Sphinx, 1853–54; Bibliothèque nationale de France
John Beasley Greene, Pyramids of Giza. [Mr. Mariette’s site]. Excavation to the left of the Sphinx, 1853; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005

Exhibition Catalogue

This book features the vintage archaeological photography of John Beasley Greene, one of the first photographers in Egypt and Algeria.
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Generous support for Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene is provided by Wes and Kate Mitchell.

Additional support is provided by The Black Dog Private Foundation Fund, Sakurako and William Fisher and Gary B. Sokol.

Header image: John Beasley Greene, Giza. Pyramid of Cheops, or Khufu, 1853–54 (detail); National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; purchased as a gift of W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg