When Vineland founder Charles K. Landis visited Egypt in early 1890, he had hoped the country’s climate would improve his health, which it did. But his stay there afforded an opportunity to experience a culture that had captured his imagination and that of the world’s during the 19th century.
In his youth, five decades earlier, Landis had attempted to write a novel and chose as his setting Egypt, an exotic location that would ably serve his tale of adventure, intrigue and romance. His research and imagination, however, could only take him so far and was no substitute for sailing the Nile River, witnessing the sights of Egypt and discovering locations like Ismolia, founded by an individual who planted trees in the desert, brought water and dirt from the Nile River and established “a beautiful little city well shaded,” as Landis noted.
But it’s possible his curiosity about North Africa may have been fueled over the century by others who had been inspired by their own visits.
John Beasley Greene, born to American parents in France and an archeologist by trade, made several expeditions to Egypt in the mid-1800s. The fact that he had studied the young art-form of photography allowed him another way to spend his time when he wasn’t excavating. In a New York Times article last year, Arthur Lubow noted that Greene is best known for his landscapes. “He avoided photographing tourists or other interlopers who would break the spell,” Lubow writes, “thereby lending his photographs a timeless quality.”
The 1854 photograph “Banks of the Nile at Thebes,” is Greene’s most reproduced. “Depicting the riverfront of the Nile,” Lubow explains, “the composition breaks into three zones: the sky above, constituting a bit more than half the frame; the river below, which is a broad stippled band; and a thin interstitial layer, much darker, of an island marked with feathery, dendritic clusters of palms.” Lubow concludes that “the elegance of [Greene’s] minimalist compositions and the subject matter of scattered stones and statues seem to speak our language: the fractured syntax of a modernist sensibility, which finds beauty in the unfinished, the ruined, the half-hidden.”
Whether or not Landis was familiar with Greene’s work, the Vinelander’s aesthetic of sight-seeing, discussed in his Egypt journal entries, seems to apply the same principles as those of the photographer’s work: “the natural operation of the mind for any profit was first to receive a strong, vivid impression—this generates an idea—this idea may produce something in conversation, writing or thought or memory. It is this process only that fills the mind with beautiful pictures and with wisdom.”
In considering others who may have helped prolong Landis’ interest in Egypt, it would be an oversight to omit the influence of an author whose works were very familiar to Vineland’s founder. Mark Twain had arrived in Egypt in 1867 while on a trip to Europe and the Holy Land. He preserved his experiences in a travelogue later published as Innocents Abroad. In it, he shares with Landis, who was filled with pride at the sight of an American flag or an American mission, the tendency to carry his U.S. heritage along with him, as in one passage in which he discusses how one portion of the Nile River is “muddy, swift and turbid and does not lack a great deal of being as wide as the Mississippi.”
But there are moments in Twain’s descriptions that are photographic, almost Greene-like in their rendering. While depicting the Nile in one passage, he informs the reader that “at the distance of a few miles the pyramids rising above the palms looked very clean-cut, very grand and imposing, and very soft and filmy as well. They swam in a rich haze that took from them all suggestions of unfeeling stone and made them seem only the airy nothings of a dream.”
Landis, too, discovered beauty in the ethereal. His explorations included visiting ruins on his own before daylight one morning, despite the danger of which he had been warned. But his determination prevailed, and he describes the beauty of the experience: “A profound silence reigned over all things, and in the soft rays of the moon and the shadows cast, the vast pillars, colossi and broken buildings looked more sublime than ever.”