The MNAAG reveals its photography treasures, from the 19th century to the contemporary period, and invites on a journey across time and space that, from the nearest Orient to the farthest Asia, bears witness to the arrival of a European invention: photography. Soon adopted, notably thanks to tourism, this medium offers us outstanding testimonies on the faces, the cities and landscapes of vanished or deeply transformed worlds. This rich documentary and artistic survey is completed by a treasury of unpublished contemporary photographs by Marc Riboud, Suzanne Held, Bohnchang Koo or Tarashi Arai.
For the first time since it reopened in 2001 the MNAAG explores, through the form of a journey, its exceptional photographic collection. 156 photographs, most of which go back to the 19th and 20th centuries, trace an itinerary that goes from nearby Algeria to Japan. Following the lines of the steamers crossing the Mediterranean all the way to Greece and Egypt – the birthplace of world tourism –, proceeding with the progress of the railway and the arrival of the Orient Express at its last stop, the station of Sirkeci (1883), photography also tells the history of the shrinking of distances between the continents of the old world. In 1869 the Suez Canal was dug, allowing to gain over a month in the navigation time towards Asia. The collection accompanies the history of the museum, originally a museum of religions, gradually focusing on the vast horizons of Asia. Like an invitation to the voyage, this tale told in pictures, with its many faces and landscapes – at times unexpected – allows to touch the mutations and permanencies of this world, its extreme diversity, its historic upheavals and its striving towards the future.
A precious and memory-laden image before being documentary, the photograph is also present in the museum through the French archaeological missions. They cast a different eye, informed and profound, on the vestiges of the past as well as the aspects of modernity. Afghanistan was a particularly significant field for experiments. In China, the missions of Segalen and de Chavannes left to us the incunabola of photography in the Heavenly Empire.
A series of rare photographs of Afghanistan taken in 1880-1881 is shown beside a rare album made in Iran in 1860.
Continuing the journey, different aspects of India, under British rule at the time, are displayed; twenty or so prints propose a crossing of the Indian continent through the works of famous photographers like Felice Beato, Tipe and Bourne. The trip goes on towards Ceylon, Burma and the very first photographs of Siam, before those of the discoverers of Angkor, Cochin China and the Tonkin, areas for which the museum holds unparalleled photographs.
The approach to the Chinese world emphasises the European powers’ growing presence; the whittling away of China in the 19th century cuts out so many territories, enclaves of a modernity imported before being adopted, that strongly contrasts with the screen captures of an imperial China apparently frozen forever. A rare view of Singapore (ca. 1874) is attributed to Sachtler, next to photographs of Macao and Hong Kong.
Indochina and the Philippines proceed before ending with Korea, photographed in 1908 by a young photographer, Corpet, but also present through the contemporary eye of one of its greatest photographers, Bohnchang Koo.
Last, for Japan the museum photography collections are unrivalled in the world. As soon as the country opened up, under Western pressures as of 1854, Le Bas, Beato, Jansen introduced the new technique. Very soon a first generation of Japanese photographers – Tamara, Suzuki – adopted it. Several albums will be unfolded over several metres, as well as a few pocket albums made for tourists. Contemporary photography is shown as well, before returning to the camera eye of Marc Riboud, who has announced that he has chosen the Musée Guimet as recipient of his entire photographic oeuvre. He was the privileged and humanistic witness of the changes undergone by a Communist China that today appears to largely belong to yesterday.
President of the MNAAG