Travel accounts dating back to Herodotus, in the 5th century BC, primarily consisted of observation: when to expect the blooming of flowers and medicinal cures for most ailments, not to mention excessive documentation of battles and conquests. Medieval writers became more creative; instead of surveying neighbouring ‘barbaric’ peoples as Herodotus had done, they tended towards a representation of fantastical legend. As the writers did not travel physically, the interior journey became more important.

Li Yun Chiaok (57), Chinese, born in Peking, literate, photographed in 1866.

Li Yun Chiaok (57), Chinese, born in Peking, literate, photographed in 1866.

Heeding the call of the Silk Road, these writers gradually became travellers and the world became less mythical. Along with the new travel diaries came illustrations, which added a potent element of realism to the  descriptions.

Sadly, even with a visual accompaniment, a true picture was still not communicated to the West. These travellers and artists painted instead a picture of ‘savagery’ to their European compatriots. The advent of photography in the mid-19th century brought the potential to document the other cultures in context. It soon became clear that ethnographic photographers were guilty of the same time-honoured  exploitation.

The recent,  dramatic  unearthing  of an archive consisting  of 280 ethnographic photographs in a London cellar fundamentally changes our perception of the genre. It is an extraordinary find – so rare that it took some time to establish the exact identity.

The provenance is to remain equally mysterious when they are offered for auction by Bloomsbury on 21 May, by request of the owners.

These photographs are of historical and artistic interest in that they represent perhaps the first time that real people from abroad, were not viewed as curiosities. While the photographic project to which these photographs belong did little to change Western perceptions, nonetheless they pioneered the idea of intercultural respect at an early date.

The history of the series begins in 1855 when the Museum of Natural History in Paris, under its first resident photographer Louis Rousseau, began to build the collection. The Collection Anthropologique was a programme to record ethnic ‘types’ with photographic and statistical data. Members of diplomatic missions from the Far East served as subjects, posing in a studio near the museum. When comparing these photos to those by contemporary ethnographic photographers such as Charles Kerry, one can see that in both cases, the subjects are posed and out of context. Surely, this stinks of Western arrogance!

Upon closer inspection, however, one finds that they are contextually dissimilar. This collection portrays foreign dignitaries both at home and abroad. These subjects were welcomed and respected by, the West, and were not some spectacle to be paraded. In other ethnographic prints, the sitter might be an anonymous, bare-breasted woman, suggesting a sexual agenda, or a ‘tribal’ warrior, posed in a studio spearing a ferocious, stuffed tiger. In this collection, each photo has been labelled with the sitter’s name, age and occupation – a rarity.

Although singletons and small groups from the series occasionally appear on the market, there has yet to be a sale at auction of a collection this extensive. Bloomsbury Auctions say they have found ‘no record of holdings in libraries or museums outside of Paris’. It will be offered as a single lot of 280 photographs  with  an  estimate  of  $100,000-$150,000 (£56,000-£84,000). Bloomsbury’s John Cumming says: “The photographs are being kept together as an archive in the hope that a suitable institution might acquire them”. The sale will also include a privately-owned collection of vintage prints of 20th-century female nudes. Estimates range $200-$10,000 (£110-£5,600).

This article originally appeared in the Rare Book Review in May 2004, written by Alexandra Dages.