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Egypt song

4 February, 2008

This is a house to which I will never return
These rooms witnessed great disasters, quiet ones and loud ones too
This is a country to which I will never return
See, I’ve been a lonesome stranger in these streets and in these labyrinths
In these ballrooms with the kings and queens

But now I’ve found my way out of Egypt
I’ve found my surprisingly obvious way out of here
You are my way out of my dangerous, proud mistakes
And now Egypt seems so very far away…

– Elvira Nikolaisen, ‘Egypt Song’

For a week I’ve been seriously considering booking a ticket to Cairo. Whether round-trip or one-way depends on an uncomfortable mélange of things I wish were more certain right now. Of course the implications of me actually wanting to go back are tremendous, automatically putting up that red flag indicating something has gone terribly wrong. Ordinarily, I’d rather anything else in the world than to go back to the place towards which I so strongly feel a nauseating mix of love and loathing. But as I’ve done twice before, it provides an exit-strategy that’s very much lacking where I am at the moment. And the current state of nostalgia for comfort may just be enough to push me towards a visit I very much hope will make things seem okay if only for a short while.

Until the decision is made, Barbara Levine’s Around the World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums provides some consolation. The book photo-documents adventurer Clara Whitcomb’s travel diary chronicling her trips to Egypt around the turn of the twentieth century (see interview below). Including photos, maps, souvenirs and related thoughts, it beautifully depicts fragments of her time in the country I now struggle to reconcile with and may soon set foot in again after two years of absence. After all, we all could use a vacation every now and then…

Around the World
Interview with Barbara Levine
By Rosecrans Baldwin
January 28, 2008
The Morning News

When your cousin can upload 400 pictures from her Tahitian vacation but not find time to whittle them down, do you care too much about her journey? Barbara Levine and Kirsten Jensen’s new book, Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums takes us back to when travel albums possessed depth instead of breadth, reflections rather than refractions. The pictures selected for this gallery are from Chicagoan Clara E. Whitcomb’s diary, written around the turn of the century during her travels in Egypt. […]

‘The majority of the photographs are of native people—Bedouins, shopkeepers, veiled women carrying children or jars of water.’

When did your interest in travel albums begin?

I started collecting photograph albums in 1982. I am interested in how people record memories and tell their personal stories in photograph albums. In my collection I have photograph albums showing all facets of people’s lives. Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums focuses on travel albums made between 1883-1929.

What’s the oldest you’ve found?

The oldest travel album I have is from 1883. It is the story of a couple’s trip from New York to Ireland, Scotland and England. The album they used is a Victorian Scrapbook and they filled it with ship menus, hotel receipts, and albumen photographs.

Around the turn of the century, what sort of cameras were travelers using?

In 1900, the most popular cameras were Kodak’s Brownie and Autographic cameras. The Monroe Vest Pocket camera was also popular.

How popular was travel as a leisure activity when the camera was invented?

It may be only coincidence that Thomas Cook’s first organized tour occurred only three years after the invention of photography in 1839. Around The World tells the story of travel albums at a specific moment in time, approximately 1880-1930, a period that saw a rapid rise in tourism, changes in modes of transportation and communication, and the invention of the personal camera. George Eastman introduced the first roll film camera in 1888. The Kodak Camera was a small box camera that came pre-loaded with a 100-exposure film roll; when the roll of film was completed, all you had to do was send the entire apparatus back to Kodak where your film would be developed, new film would be loaded, and everything would be returned to you. By 1900, Thomas Cook & Son offered around-the-world excursions, there were popular travel guides such as the Baedeker series and Murray’s Handbook, and the Kodak Brownie camera could be purchased for $1.00. Photography and travel as leisure activities were hugely popular and forever intertwined.

‘All the photographs in her album are purchased souvenir views, the kind that any tourist in Egypt could have bought at a hotel, print shop, or from one of her many guides.’

Given the ease and popularity of Snapfish and Flickr, do people today taking the same care to document their voyages?

The impulse to document and tell a story of travel experiences today is the same but the tools are now very different. You can simultaneously experience, record, and email your friends about what you are seeing. Generally speaking we are no longer making material albums that have a long shelf life. We are making albums which are less intimate to view and on small screens or projected on to television sets. If we look together we are crowded around a screen. More importantly, we are making online albums or storing lots of photos on hard drives and servers which will more than likely become obsolete in the near future. I think people are taking the same care to tell the story of their travels but are not thinking about what will become of their travel story in the future. In other words, they are not taking the same care to ensure their memories and experiences of what they saw will be available for future generations.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

See also: Kate Bush, ‘Egypt’

The Bangles, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’

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