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John Beasley Greene (American, born in France, 1832-1856) created some of the most visually sophisticated and enigmatic photographs of the 19th century in Paris, Egypt and Algeria. Greene was born to an American banking family living in France, the country that was to remain his home throughout his tragically short life. Where his interest in archaeology was kindled is not known, but as a young man he became a member of the Société Asiatique and Société Orientale. After studying privately with Gustave Le Gray in Paris and Fontainebleau, Greene was adept with waxed paper negatives and soon became one of the founding members of the Société Française de Photographie.

Greene made his first self-funded expedition to North Africa and Egypt in the fall of 1853 and stayed until June 1854 photographing monuments and landscapes. Later the same year, Greene returned to Egypt to produce additional photographs that he presented as part of a larger group to the Société Française de Photographie in 1855. His final voyage, the next year, was to Constantine, Algeria, but Greene soon returned to Egypt, where he died in November 1856 at twenty-four years of age. Although he never visited his native country, J. B. Greene’s photographic vision is more American than French. Bold, straightforward and practical, sparse in response to the bold landscape, it embraced his subjects with a frankness uncommon to photography on paper, one that remains utterly modern.

The exhibition, Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 31 August 2019 – 5 January 2020, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, 8 February – 31 May 2020.

Recommended reading:
Corey Keller, Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2019).
Eugenia Parry Sun Pictures Catalogue Twenty-Three, John Beasley Greene (New York: Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc., 2016).

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