photography

Alexine Tinne. Photographer. Her Worldview

Early photography in North Africa and Southwest Asia offers a wealth of information – about the photographed, but also about the photographers. Photographers create images, they capture the world as they see it. They include what they would like observers of their work to see, and exclude what does not fit the perfect image. In doing so, many early photographers constructed an image of ‘the Orient’ that reflects not the region itself, but the view Westerners had of it, as well as the dominance they exerted over its people. Among these early photographers, very few were women. The book Alexine Tinne – Photographer. Her Worldview and the accompanying exhibition present the photographical work of one headstrong Dutch lady who traveled extensively throughout North Africa.

,Alexine Tinne is perhaps most famous for her death, after a less than ordinary life: she was killed in an attack on her campsite in Algeria. Born in 1835 in a wealthy Dutch family, she never married, but instead set out to explore the world. Her curiosity had been present at a young age, when she could be found exploring geographical works and maps, learning English, French, Spanish and Arabic – possibly even Tuareg, as she started out to copy a French – Tuareg dictionary by hand. Traveling with her mother to Egypt and Palestine turned into a trip of nearly two years: a trip in which we see her love for exploring and photography piqued.

Photography reveals a great deal about the photographer: personal predilections, and cultural assumptions or worldview. These personal preferences shine through in Alexine Tinne’s work as well. Looking at her photographs in a way is looking through her eyes, framing the world as she wanted it to see. She clearly thought in images and composition, and was very aware of the technical aspects of photography. She learned to correct image distortion and played with framing: I could not help but relate to how she tried out various cutouts of a photo she took in her backyard to create a composition she was satisfied with. Another example is the collage she made of the view from her window in The Hague. To us, used to digital cameras and smartphones with panoramic settings, that may not seem particularly groundbreaking, but in the 19th century it was. In images like these, Alexine shows us she is not confined by conventional frames or considers herself limited by technical (im)possibilities. This is someone who literally thinks out of the box.

So, what happens when someone like that sets sail for North Africa? There are not all that much photographs left of her journeys, but those that do survive, are telling. Here, we see her world view change. Photography in North Africa and Southwest Asia in this timeframe was practiced by cultural outsiders with a colonial interest. As a result, the image they created of ‘the Orient’ reflected a worldview of dominance by Europeans and subservience by the colonized. Alexine’s first images fit right in that view, but after a while, they change. This change is discussed in detail in the last chapter of the book. Looking at some of her photographs, I got the impression she did not take photographs to send back home to serve an audience: she seems to have made them as mementos for herself. This is particularly visible in the photos she had made of damage after a devastating storm in Algeria: these are not constructing an idealized view, but showing a heartbreaking reality. The series of carte de visite portraits that she had made of her travel companions provides another view of how she perceived her world. Over the years, she had assembled a widely varied group of people around her, from North Africa and Europe alike. Now these portraits in the late 19th century were usually made by wealthy families (photography was expensive!) and included only family members, not people considered to be of a lower social status. Alexine had them made of everyone. In group photos as well, she included all her travel companions as equals: it may be my imagination, but on some of these everyone looks equally bored to be standing outside in the heat for yet another time-consuming posing session. Many of her travel companions are known by name, and you will come to recognize them on the photos as you read on. I appreciated how the book does not portray Alexine Tinne as an enlightened white saviour. Instead, the authors carefully place her work in its cultural context and then proceed to point us to tiny differences that reveal her worldview was considerably more inclusive than that of many of her peers. To be clear: that is not inclusivity as we would expect it today, but it is definitely different from the majority of 19th century photographers.

The book itself is in a large, square format. In 8 chapters, the authors place Alexine’s photographs in their cultural and technical context by including many photographs by other photographers for comparison. We see how her first journey to Egypt influenced her photography skills, and how she further honed these in The Hague before setting sail for Africa. At the beginning and end of the book an art photography project by Dagmar van Weeghel is presented, who photographs individuals in the style of Tinne. All photographs are shown against a black background, as if flipping through a photo album. I loved the generous size of the photos, which allows the reader to really look and compare. A peculiar aspect of the book is that it has no page numbers. I’m not sure whether that is a consequence of its lay-out as a photo album, but it does make quoting or referring to pages challenging. Also, not all captions can be related to corresponding photographs, as the captions are numbered but the photographs themselves aren’t. The one real drawback though are the small slip-ups throughout the book. Some captions are incorrect or contain misspellings (photograph 135 for example is labeled as Thebes, but depicting a cataract near Aswan; photograph 155 is a date seller, not a dade seller), some book titles are misspelled, the mention of Alexine and her mother traveling from Luxor to the Black Sea and back in a fortnight likely refers to the Red Sea instead, and so on.

I really enjoyed this book for its thoughtful approach of the photographical work by a remarkable woman in a timeframe where women generally did not travel or photograph. Old photos are shown once again to reveal much more than just an image: the authors show us how both a person and a worldview emerge if we know where and how to look. A valuable addition to your bookshelf!

Alexine Tinne, Photographer. Her worldview. by Maartje van den Heuvel (ed). WBOOKS, 2021

Full-colour, bilingual in Dutch/English. Available with the publisher, the Haags Historisch Museum and online.

The book was received as review copy from the publisher.