A Thoroughly Modern Girl – and tech savvy too…

Had Alexine been around today, I feel sure she would have loved  Instagram and her account would have had many followers… Totally comfortable in front of the camera, she left us many photos of herself, her world and her travels, in much the same way as a young woman now does with her iphone 6.

Portrait of Alexine in her garden, from the collections of the Hague Historic Museum
Portrait of Alexine in her garden, from the collections of the Hague Historic Museum

During a second day in the National Archives in the Hague, I was lucky  to spend the morning with the curator of her photographs. Beautifully preserved and stored with mind blowing order and precision, Alexine’s life and adventures unfolded before me in photographs on the huge modernist desks in the archives. These photographs. along with several I had seen earlier in the Hague Historic Museum, are adding more to the picture of her.

Portrait of Alexine, (detail) in her garden, in the collection of the Hague Historic Museum
Portrait of Alexine, (detail) in her garden, in the collection of the Hague Historic Museum

Her self portraits in front of a backdrop rigged up in the garden are a delicious blend of amateur and  serious. Her earliest photographs date from 1859, a time when photography was still very new and a revolutionary tool with which to  record the world. The fact that a young girl should take up this craft (according to the curator she is possibly the earliest known Dutch female photographer) is even more extraordinary. Experimenting with the new medium Alexine photographed herself and her family in and around the garden of their home in Lang Voorhout.

Alexine and her mother, from the collection of the Municipal Archives in the Hague
Alexine and her mother, from the collection of the Municipal Archives in the Hague

She had a carriage converted to a darkroom and would move about the Hague taking photographs of streetscapes and then develop them immediately in the carriage.

A view of the prison from the city, from the Municipal Archives in the Hague
A view of the prison from the city, from the Municipal Archives in the Hague

She captured the interior of the house in the most informal and to my mind contemporary manner. Interiors were not subjects for photography, but Alexine obviousy wanted to experiment with technique and record the daily life around her. The results are insightful: the natural informality of the composition give you the feeling that you have just come into the room and glimpsed the interior – and that someone has just left…

interior of theTinne house on Lange Voorhout, from the collection of the National Archives
interior of theTinne house on Lange Voorhout, from the collection of the National Archives
interior of the Tinne house, from the collection of the Hague Historic Museum
interior of the Tinne house, from the collection of the Hague Historic Museum

But it’s the photographs of her travels that interest me the most. They tell us she is observing, recording and involved. Most noticeably for my study’s purposes, they show an involvement with her servants, her staff and the locals she gathered around her into her household.

alexine with her household from hague historical museum
Alexine with her household in the grounds of her house in Algeria, from The National Archives collection

Some are not necessarily taken by her, but have been staged in photography studios in Algiers, Cairo and then later Malta and Naples when she took her household sailing. But even so, one feels Alexine is in the wings. It is she who has arranged for them to be photographed. It is she who has written their names on the surface; Abdullah, Abiba, Jasminah, Biija and Aiisha, she who has paid for the photographs, kept them and stored them. And intriguingly, many have pin-holes from where they’ve been pinned to the walls. Someone has really enjoyed, used and  valued these images.

from the Municipal Archives
from the Municipal Archives
from the National Archives, The hague
from the National Archives, The hague

But what really proves to me that Alexine is not your typical Imperial, class-conscious traveller concerned only with the differences between Europeans and those she encounters in the Orient, is her entrancing portrait of Habiba.

Habiba taken by Alexine, in Algiers in 1867, from the collection of the National Archives in The Hague
Habiba taken by Alexine, in Algiers in 1867, from the collection of the National Archives in The Hague

Habiba was the wife of her faithful servant and companion, Abdullah and she appears constantly in Alexine’s photographs. She is strikingly photogenic and  there are many studio portraits of her as well, as if to say she is always there and nearby in Alexine’s presence. But the portrait Alexine has taken of Habiba holding her new-born baby in her lap, as if just caught resting on the stairs in the house they took in Algeria, is proof to me of their friendship. The baby’s name Abd-el-Kader is written in Alexine’s hand-writing on the bottom of the picture. There is a gentleness to the pose, nothing staged, as if Habiba is totally content in her presence and all is at peace with her world. The informality of the photograph is very telling, and is years ahead of its time.

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One thought on “A Thoroughly Modern Girl – and tech savvy too…

  1. Interesting that the Dutch women are posed in profile, showing off their crinoline dresses? I love the unexpected frippery of the polla dot skirts Habbiba is wearing. I wonder if she writes about the reaction of the staff to viewing their own images?

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