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Francis Frith

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Francis Frith
British, (1822–1898)
Within the history of early photography, Francis Frith can be described as a British Indiana Jones. Motivated by his Quaker faith and interest in biblical historicism, as well as by the Orientalist wave that inspired the Romantics, Frith sought to record scenes of Palestine and Egypt. Through his photographic adventures, he brought a realist image of far-away lands to the English imagination and paved the way for a rich tradition in travel and landscape photography.

Francis Frith was born in 1822 in Derbyshire, England, to liberal Quaker parents. In late adolescence he trained as a cutlery maker, but soon tired of his apprenticeship; consequently, he became an autodidact, reading poetry, travel literature, biography and philosophy. At the age of nineteen, he suffered from a mental breakdown and convalescence from which he recovered through a spiritual reawakening to the Quaker convictions of his childhood. After his family travelled to see the ecclesiastical ruins of Scotland for an extended period of time, Frith relocated to Liverpool, where he established himself as a grocer. A very successful businessman, he was able to retire at age thirty-four. With the new leisure time he found in retirement, Frith began dabbling in the art and technology of photography. In 1853, he helped found the Liverpool Photographic Society.

With a pioneer’s spirit, Frith made three journeys to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria from 1856 to 1859. Laden with photographic equipment, he traveled twice down the Nile and once on a forty-day trek across the deserts of the Sinai and into the biblical lands of Palestine. Throughout these expeditions, he captured hundreds of images of ruins and the supposed sites of biblical scenes. He mastered the wet collodion technique in very rudimentary conditions, using tombs and his boat on the Nile as makeshift darkrooms, transporting half a ton of processing equipment. Wet collodion technology, still in its infancy, was advantageous for Frith because he could make multiple albumen prints from one negative. However, because the solution used in wet collodion process dries quickly, exposures had to be made within ten minutes of plate preparation. At the time of his expeditions, the geography of the Bible was very familiar to English people. Frith’s lithographs are vast in scale and devoid of contemporary life; as a result, they permit the viewer to imagine the scenes as the sites of biblical events.

When he returned to England, he married Mary Ann Rosling and founded F. Frith and Company, a photographic printing establishment, which procured images of tourist destinations and distributed them as postcards worldwide. His images from his travels in the Middle East were published in Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Described, 1858 for an academic readership. In 1867, Frith was ordained as a Quaker minister and began dabbling in writing and oil painting. When he died in 1898 in Cannes, France at the age of seventy-six, his sons took over F. Frith and Co., which continues to produce postcard images of tourist destinations today.

By Catherine Park Sweatt SC '12, Academic Year Wilson Intern 2010-2011

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