Focus on the Collection: Francis Frith

Discover a work recently acquired by the Canadian Photography Institute.

Francis Frith, The Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, 1858

Francis Frith, The Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, 1858, albumen silver print, 38.1 x 48.4 cm; image: 38.1 x 48.4 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Francis Frith (1822–1898)  is perhaps best known for his large-scale travel photographs, printed from glass plate collodion negatives. During his second trip to Egypt, he produced The Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx. By carefully positioning his camera, he has managed to capture two of the most iconic monuments from ancient Egypt within a single image. The Great Sphinx of Giza — a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human — is depicted against a backdrop featuring the Great Pyramid, the largest of the three pyramids on the Giza Plateau.

What makes this image so striking is the comparative scale of monuments to human and animal figures, coupled with the size of the print itself. Frith’s prints, considered immense at the time, were a source of wonder to fellow photographers and scientists alike. This photograph also echoes the Egyptomania that took hold during the late 18th and early 19th century, when representations of all things Egyptian were highly popular.

 

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Biography

Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in 1822, Francis Frith was one of the first British photographers to travel early on in the 19th century to the Near and Middle East. This included several trips to Egypt and the Holy Land, where he generally captured historical sites and monuments. On all of his travels, Frith used the wet-collodion process on glass to make stereographs, whole plates and large-format views. Establishing a studio in Liverpool in 1850, he was very successful to produce, along with his commercial commissions, large-scale prints of his travel photographs. By the early 1860s, he had initiated a major project employing a number of photographers, who were sent out to photograph towns and landscapes in Britain and abroad.

 

About the technique . . .

Photographic chemist T. Frederick Hardwich (a friend of Frith’s) recalled Frith’s way of handling the large-format plates:

“His plates were so large that when I first saw him developing a negative, it looked to me like a man balancing the top of a small table on his fingers and pouring a jug of water over it. I was curious to see whether he would ever get the developer back into the vessel without spilling; but this feat he accomplished with much dexterity.”

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