John Beasley Greene 1832-1856


Previously thought to have been a British subject, John Beasley Greene was, in fact, an American, the son of a Boston banker living in Paris. Afflicted by ill health he died tragically young but his surviving work including scenes of Paris but principally of Algeria and Egypt are some of the most radical in early photography, proto-modernist in their construction.

A student of photographer Gustave Le Gray, John Beasley Greene became a founding member of the SFP and belonged to two societies devoted to Eastern studies. Greene became the first practicing archaeologist to use photography, although he was careful to keep separate files for his documentary images and his more artistic landscapes. Despite his untimely death at the age of 24, Greene left a wealth of photographs all from the waxed paper negative process between the years of 1852-1856.

In 1853 at the age of nineteen, Greene embarked on an expedition to Egypt and Nubia to photograph the land and document the monuments and their inscriptions. Before his departure, Greene studied for a year with Gustave Le Gray creating numerous views of Paris, still lives and landscapes. In fact, the two photographers most likely photographed the forest of Fontainebleau together as two of their views of the forest from this year are nearly identical.

During his time as an archaeologist in Egypt from 1852-1854, Greene photographed a series grouped into landscapes, monuments, sculptures and inscriptions totalling over 250 pictures.

Upon his return from abroad, he published an album of ninety-four of these photographs printed by Blanquart-Evrard. Many of his views of inscriptions and sculptures were offered to the Academie des inscriptions et belles-lettres.

Greene returned to Egypt the following year to photograph and to excavate at Medinet-Habu in Upper Egypt, the site of the mortuary temple built by Ramses III. In 1855, he published his photographs of the excavation there and bequeathed them to the Academie des inscriptions. These were highly regarded by fellow Egyptologists including his colleague Emmanuel de Rouge to whom Greene also offered some of his photographs.

The same year, Greene visited Algeria, this time at the recommendation of his doctors for the favourable climate. He photographed the region of Constantine where he met fellow archaeologist Louis Adrien Berbrugger who led him on an expedition to excavate Christian monuments in the region. Greene photographed the course of the excavation in December 1855, January 1856 and April 1856. These photographs are collected in an album in the Academie des inscriptions bequeathed by Berbrugger who praised the quality and archaeological value of the photographs.

In winter of 1856, Greene died in Egypt, most likely of tuberculosis, and his negatives were given to his friend, fellow Egyptologist and photographer Théodule Devéria.

Bruno Jammes was responsible for the revelation of biographical information on Greene. In an article published in the journal History of Photography (Vol. 5, No. 4, October 1981, pp. 305-324) titled "John B. Greene, an American Calotypist", Jammes traces the few known sources on Greene's life and career and discovered others, illustrating the essay with more than a dozen views by the photographer and Egyptologist.

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