Monday, May 18, 2015

Felice Beato: Vagabond Photographer

Murder, I imagine, has always been everywhere.  Not so photography.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, my subject today Felice Beato, was instrumental spreading that technology to many exotic places in the world, notably in North Africa and most importantly in Asia.

Felice A. Beato: "Temple of Philae" c.1870

My first encounter with Beato was a gift from David.  Here is the original silver albumen print he bought for me in 2002.  It is of the Temple of Philae, my absolute favorite of the lovely temples we had visited along the Nile: small and jewel-like, gorgeously exotic.

Felice Beato was a pioneering photojournalist, born in Venice in 1832.  In his early life he became closely associated with Britain.  It is thought that his first connection came when he was very young and his family moved to Corfu—which had been part of the Venetian Empire but at the time had been taken into the British Protectorate of the Ionian Islands.  It was there and in Malta and Constantinople that Felice and his brother Antonio first began photographing.  Eventually, they became associated with a Brit named James Robertson.  With him, they opened a photographic studio and formed a partnership called Robertson & Beato.

Their photographic expeditions ranged around the Mediterranean, including Greece and Jerusalem.  At about that time Robertson married the Beato sister, Leonilda, but that did not stop him from traveling with the Beato brothers to Balaklava in the Crimea.  There, they became some of the first ever war photographers.  Their predecessor in the Crimea, Roger Fenton, took dignified pictures of the British army on parade.  The Beatos photographed the destruction being wrought, including the fall of Sabastapol.

From there, leaving their brother-in-law behind, they set sail for Calcutta, and travelling north through India, recorded the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  They took what were probably the very first photos of corpses.

Most accounts of the their lives until that time, make no distinction between their work, because none can made.  They had always worked together.    We do know that in 1860, Antonio went to Egypt and set up a photographic studio in Thebes.  Thereafter, he signed his work either Felice A. Beato or just A. Beato—so the print on my dining room wall is likely his.

This building was burned by the Anglo French army after Felice made this image.
Felice’s appetite for the exotic, however, was still not satisfied.  He took a job with an Anglo-French military expedition to China and went off to photograph the Second Opium War.  His images of old China are some of the first ever taken, and the earliest photo documentation of a war in progress.  He also managed to capture images of ancient Chinese buildings before the invaders destroyed them.

Beato was the first to join individual images to make a panorama

Felice then went back to England for a couple of years and sold his images to refill his coffers.  But the fotografo vagabondo was not finished wandering.  He moved to Yokohama in 1863.  There he met up with Charles Wirgman, a British artist and correspondent, and they became the moving force establishing photography in Japan.  During a time when the Shogunate restricted access within the country, Felice managed to photograph views of Japan during the Edo period—the only such documentation that exists.

Felice supported himself by selling photo albums of his work, some of which he had hand colored by Japanese watercolorists.  He was able to achieve much of what he did because of his artistry, certainly, but also because of his personal charm.  At one point the Greek government liked him so much that they appointed him their Consul General to Japan.

After many years in Japan, Felice went on to Khartoum in the Sudan and to Burma, where his photos told the rest of the world what Burma looked like.  He became a major economic force in colonial Mandalay and Rangoon, establishing businesses and contributing to the fame of those cities with his images.

That's Felice in the front

It was believed that he died somewhere in Burma in 1905 or 1906.  It took a century to learn the truth.  In 2009, the Italians discovered Felice’s death certificate in an archive in Florence.  It was the first documentation that he had been born in Venice—not in British territory as had been previously thought.  He died in Florence on the 29th of January 1909.

Annamaria - Monday


  1. What a great guy or pair of guys. Thanks for the great essay.

  2. Thank you, Stan and EvKa. Photos are really important to me in my writing. When I can find a contemporary photo of a historic location, I try to shrink myself down to its size and imagine what it would be like to stand inside it. I surely wish Antonio had gone up the Nile to Lake Victoria. He would have given me some images to work with!

  3. Another trip, and fascinating pictures by interesting men. Thank you.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Lil and Jeff. The photos appeal to my romantic and vagabond soul. I am happy to take you with me in imagination.