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Exhibit offers look at Ottoman photographs

PROFESSORS SARAH ROGERS and Pieter Broucke curated the new exhibit at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, “Light of the Levant,” which includes century-old photographs from the late stages of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — Before the Middlebury College Museum of Art installs its newest exhibition, titled, “The Light of the Levant: Early Photography and the Late Ottoman Empire,” the room it’s housed in first had to receive what Museum Designer Ken Pohlman said would be roughly a 200th new coat of paint. 

But well before the walls got a new shade, Middlebury College History of Art and Architecture Professors Sarah Rogers and Pieter Broucke began developing the content of the exhibition, which “highlights the important role of the Levant region in early photography.” 

For roughly a year and a half, they have been writing wall texts, sequencing photographs and collaborating with the Middlebury College Museum of Art and Middlebury College Special Collections in order to develop the final product, which covers the geography of the former Ottoman Empire — roughly, present-day Greece, Turkey and the Arab world. 

The exhibition will be visitor-ready and freshly-painted gray-blue, which Pohlman noted was chosen in order to contrast the creamy color of the old photographs, on Sept. 5, and will be up until Dec. 10. 

“We hope it’s going to pop the photographs off the wall,” he said. 

Rogers and Broucke said that they leveraged their niches, (the history of photography and Middle Eastern art history for Rogers, and architectural history and antiquities for Broucke), in order to curate an informationally and thematically robust exhibition. 

“THE LIGHT OF the Levant” exhibit at the Middlebury College Museum of Art traces nearly a century of photography in the region, including an early daguerreotype from the 1850s. Independent photo/Steve James

“I must say, it has been an amazing collaboration. And I have learned so much from my fantastic colleague in the process, and I think the results will reflect that combination of expertises,” said Broucke. 

The exhibition grew from two of Middlebury’s tucked away treasures. 

“One of the things that we really wanted to make sure we highlighted was the fact that we had these five daguerreotypes (early commercial photographs) from (Joseph-Philibert Girault) de Prangey, which is just an amazing resource. And that was kind of our starting point that we built the exhibition around,” Rogers said. 

“The other thing we just wanted to highlight was that Middlebury, both special collections and the museum, just had such a diverse and extensive photographic collection of early photography in the Mediterranean, in the Levant, in the Middle East.” 

From there, the project expanded. 

“It’s a process of discovery, you sort of have an idea … and then if you give it energy, it sort of grows, it’s like a plant, you nourish it and so, like, it develops on its own. And then we step back and try to get a structure in there,” Broucke said. 

AN EARLY PHOTO of the Damascus Gate. Independent photo/Steve James

One source of the energy the pointed to was Curator and Director of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin. Her role included tasks such as collecting new photographs and rediscovering pieces already in the college’s possession. 

“Special Collections has frequently loaned items to the College Museum of Art … but never before at this scale. We loaned 31 items for ‘The Light of the Levant’ — a record for us,” Irwin wrote in an email to the Independent. 

She recalled a trip that yielded what Rogers described as an “incredible” find. 

“One especially memorable moment of the exhibition planning was my face-to-face meeting with two photography collectors in a café in Jaffa — in Hebrew, Yafo, and in Arabic, Yafa — an ancient city on the Mediterranean just outside of Tel Aviv,” Irwin said. 

“They hand-delivered vintage postcards to me by the Palestinian photographer Karimeh Abboud over espressos, a loudspeaker broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer, and the sounds of a bustling antique market.”

Abboud is one of the featured artists in the exhibition, and her photographs are one of many new additions. 

“A third of the items borrowed from Special Collections for ‘The Light of the Levant’ are new to our collection, acquired for this exhibit … Many will have a debut of sorts in front of a larger audience,” according to Irwin. 

AN EARLY PHOTO of the Athens Acropole Temple.
Independent photo/Steve James

“These will all be housed permanently in Special Collections to be used after the exhibition in classes and by students,” she added. 

Additionally, Irwin harnessed the energy of many in the department in order to fuel her part in the project. 

“This was a big effort, and I wasn’t alone! Many Special Collections staff and our student employees helped prepare materials for this exhibition,” she said. 

A NEW COAT OF PAINT

Now, the exhibition is in the hands of Pohlman. Until the exhibition opens, the room in the museum housing the photographs will be getting prepped with finishing touches, like that new coat of paint. 

According to Pohlman, it’s normal for the museum to have a crew repaint a room for a new exhibition. 

“Certain shows, we might want to take down that yellow wall that’s in there. Do something different … and then repaint,” he explained. 

Pohlman has also been busy designing the wall space for the title and text included in the show. 

This exhibit claims a special space for Pohlman. After the exhibition closes in December, he plans to retire. 

But before he leaves, Pohlman will see the walls get one more color

“We’ll have a five-week period to de-install their show, and install another,” he said. 

“And in this case, I’ll probably paint the walls again.”

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