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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 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.