Photographic History: Documenting an Empire, by the Abdullah Frères

Photographic History: Documenting an Empire, by the Abdullah Frères

Graphics are international, with photographic ideas and images spreading like wildfire. They speak a universal language, are pan-cultural, yet have their own local meanings and understandings. This sounds like the world of Instagram, 500px, YouTube, and Flickr, but it’s actually 1858, and the Abdullah Frères are setting up their photographic studio in Constantinople.

The Abdullah Frères, French for the "Abdullah Brothers," were actually three brothers of Armenian descent who established a photographic studio during the latter stages of the Ottoman Empire. Viçen originally worked as a retoucher for the German chemist Rabach in 1856. When the latter returned to Germany, Viçen and his brothers Hovsep and Kevork bought the studio and established their own brand, the Abdullah Frères. As the lead image shows, they photographed famous landmarks in the Ottoman Empire, some of which were sold to the regular Victorian tourists. Their primary income would have been driven by portraiture, and for that, they would have needed a steady stream of both local wealthy dignitaries and well-heeled travelers. The street scene and portraits of Mark Twain and Secretary of the Navy and Grand Admiral Hasan Hüsnü Paşal are clear evidence they had both of these.

In fact, they developed some international fame during their careers, so much so, that in 1863, Sultan Abdulaziz declared them official court photographers and outstanding artists of the city. At the request of the Khedive (broadly equivalent to a viceroy), they set up a branch in Cairo in 1886.

Perhaps their longest lasting legacy (and the reason that so many of their photos are in the Library of Congress) is that they were commissioned as court photographers to oversee the production of an astonishing 51-volume photographic record of the Ottoman Empire. This involved six different studios shooting the "state of the land" and accounted for a significant body of work for the Abdullah Frères themselves. The record was presented to both the Library of Congress and British Library, and you can see it there in full. It strikes an interesting contrast to the later work I've written about by Jack Boucher, as part of the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record. Whereas that was concerned with documenting the U.S. as it was, before it disappeared, this appeared to be more driven by the propaganda of what had been achieved with the reform and modernization of Tanzimat. Little did they realize at its inception that it would subsequently form a catalog of the last days of the empire.

In terms of equipment, the Abdullah Frères would likely have used the wet collodion process. I've written about this when documenting the contemporary work of John Thomson While limiting when compared to modern cameras, it solved the major problems of the Daguerrotype and Calotype.

What does the significant success and back catalog of the Abdullah Frères teach us about photography more generally? I think we can split this in to four elements. Firstly, being first doing something or being somewhere isn't necessarily important for success. The first commercial studios were established in the 1840s, but they were over a decade later. Secondly, it's often not what you know but who you know. They established connections with the ruling elite, and once you entered that circle, you wanted to keep yourself in there. Thirdly, it can often be about your brand and how people perceive your image. The Abdullah Frères proudly flaunted their court status. Finally, and probably above all, you've got to be able to do your job, be able to deliver. The contract to organize, coordinate, undertake, and deliver the 1,819 photos of the Abdul Hamid II Collection demonstrated their status and ability.

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Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Great information. Thank you for sharing.

Thanks, Mike Smith.You've covered a very interesting part in the history of professional photography.

It's interesting and surprising that the way they were reaching out to their ultimate clients way back then is perfectly in line with what we ought to do with all the social media today.

From taking the kind of shots they really enjoy, identifying a clientele to sell these shots, to identifying the clients they ought to be working for in order to get payed, establishing a connection with them and their network, in order to identify the kind of shots or in their case projects they want or need. And in the end ceasing the opportunities that came their way in that manner.

Absolutely fascinating. Thank you.

Thanks for the kind comment :) This period of history is fascinating and, as you say, just shows that great photographers, great photography and great customer service go way back!