The Hungarian explorer Lászlo Almásy was the first European traveller to find the Cave of Swimmers cave paintings, made famous in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Almásy found the cave on the Gilf Kebir limsetone plateau of southwestern Egyot, some 960 kilometres south of the Mediterranean and 720 kilometres east of the Nile, in 1933.
That makes the recent discovery of extraordinary images of 19th century North Africa buried deep within the archives of the U.S. Library of Congress all the more remarkable. Not photographs exactly and not lithographs but something in between, the faded colour impressions of everyday life in a land of neo-classical columns, rococo arches and desert-scorched minarets date from roughly 1899. some 25 years before Almásy, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film, made his discovery of the ages.
The authors are unknown. The photocroms, as the images are called, are a form of photolithography that has long fallen out of fashion. They were the Kodachromes of their time. The Library of Congress images provide a unique and evocative record of life in colonial North Africa — as London-based CNN writer-producer Thomas Page described them recently, “a time travel tour through a forgotten era . . . and not always the innocent postcards they may seem.”
The photocrom process was originally developed in Switzerland, in 1890, following 10 years of often painstaking trial and error. Photocroms stood out because they were some of the earliest known images in colour; nearly all photography at the time was black and white.
The process involves taking a negative from a camera and exposing it on a flat surface of stone or zinc which has been treated with a coating of light-sensitive chemicals. The chemicals harden as light is filtered through the negative, creating a print.
Photocrom images are distinctive, even today, because each print required up to 24 separate colour plates. Each plate was ascribed with a different colour; printed on top of one another, the ink would bleed and create the photocroms’ distinctive earth-tone effect.
The North African photocroms appear to be designed for a captive audience in Europe, an early form of marketing Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco to would-be travelers — the 19th century equivalent of a tourist brochure, rather than a way for local people to record history at the time.
Inadvertently, the photocroms recorded the end of an era. The First World War changed photography as it changed society, even in regions as far-flung as the outer edges of the Sahara Desert. “These images,” Page wrote, “nostalgic but containing a rich and sometimes dark subtext, were now objects of a past epoch.”