The team of Rudolf Franz Lehnert and Ernst Heinrich Landrock is probably the best known of all Orientalist photographers. Lehnert was born in 1878 in what is now the Czech Republic, and was then part of the Hapsburg Empire. Landrock was also born in 1878, in Germany. In 1904 Lehnert and Landrock became partners in a photographic studio in Tunis. For ten years they produced a large quantity of photographs and postcards in Tunisia. Landrock was the manager, and Lehnert was the photographer.
Orientalism, a romanticized depiction of the Middle East, was a popular style of art in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Painters and writers made the genre popular before the advent of photography and thus Lehnert and Landrock adopted the Orientalist style. Some critics have complained that Orientalism is denigrating to the people of the Middle East, but I would disagree. Those opposed to Orientalism say that any portrayal of a non-western culture must necessarily depict it as primitive and inferior. This attitude seems to me to indicate an intolerant attitude of the critic rather than of the Orientalist artist. Opponents also say it is not realistic.
I am not qualified to judge if Lehnert and Landrock postcards realistically portray early 20th century Tunis, but I know that postcards in general are not meant to depict reality. I live in Florida. I know that Florida’s climate is humid, with frequent rain. On beaches here you will see people of all ages and both sexes, and occasionally a discarded soda can. On postcards of Florida beaches you will only see sunny sky, spotlessly clean sand, and attractive young women. It’s true that this is unrealistic, but it is not disparaging of Florida, and most people have enough sense to know that reality may be different from a postcard.
The nudity shown on Lehnert and Landrock postcards may be realistic. Islamic societies are often thought to have strict dress codes for women, but there are exceptions to this rule. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) visited Cairo in 1869 and wrote of seeing people of both sexes naked in public. (See Chapter 31 of his book The Innocents Abroad) Michael Wolgensinger photographed a girl he saw naked in public in Iran in 1958. Pigtails in Paint posted the photo here.
It would not be possible in one post to adequately cover the vast amount of images that were photographed by Lehnert and Landrock, so this post will be limited to a few of the photos of just one of their many models. She appears to me to be among the youngest of their models. Her name is not known. Although Lehnert and Landrock photographed both clothed and nude models, I have only found nude photos of this particular girl. The first three photos show the girl alone. Titles in French are from the internet source of the photo (most are from Wikimedia Commons). I composed the titles in English for pictures that had no title.
In the next two pictures the girl is with Fathma, one of the few Lehnert and Landrock models whose name is known.
The following two photos show the girl with a young boy. His race indicates that he is probably a slave. When the photo was taken, Tunisia was a protectorate of France. Although slavery was illegal in France, the protectorate status meant that Tunisia was internally self-governing and slavery was legal in Tunisia. Note that the boy’s genitals are censored, but the girl’s are not. Lehnert and Landrock made other photos with nude females and clothed or censored males. An example has been posted on Pigtails here. I have not discovered why there was this aversion to male nudity. My guess would be that male nudity was offensive to many of the people who bought postcards; Lehnert and Landrock may have felt they could sell more postcards by avoiding male nudity.
Female nudity was also censored sometimes, usually by only slightly blurring the vulva. I could not find a censored picture of the particular model who is the focus of this post, but here is a censored photo, from a postcard, of another young Lehnert and Landrock model. The following is the same photo from the book Woman, an Historical and Gynaecological and Anthropological Compendium by H.H. Ploss, M. Bartels, and P. Bartels; edited by E. J. Dingwall (1935). This is the only instance in which I have found a censored and uncensored version of the same photo.
There seems to be no obvious reason why some are censored and some are not. The age of the model, and the situation being photographed appear to have no bearing on whether the photo is censored. If a photo was censored for postcards sold in a more restrictive jurisdiction, I would expect that there would be both censored and uncensored versions of the same postcard. I have not found an example of this (in the photos above the uncensored version is from a book, not a postcard). The next two photos can both be found at multiple places on the internet, and may give an idea of why we don’t find two versions of the same picture. The second photo is merely a cropped version of the first, yet it appears many different places on the internet. Apparently one postcard collector cut the card to fit the space in his album, and multiple internet sites posted scans of that one card. This indicates that although there are many instances of a photo posted on the internet, they may all be scanned from one or two postcards. Therefore, there may be two different versions of the same postcard, but only one has been posted on the net.
In 1914, the First World War began. Lehnert and Landrock were both nationals of countries at war with France, the protecting power in Tunisia. Their business was closed and they had to leave Tunisia. In 1924, after the war, Lehnert and Landrock started their business over again in Cairo, Egypt. Lehnert died in 1948 and Landrock in 1966. Their business in Cairo has continued after the death of its founders. In 1982, the new manager of the shop discovered the old negatives in storage. There was a resurgence in popularity of Lehnert and Landrock’s art. There was some concern that the negatives of nudes may not be safe in Cairo, so they were sent to the Elysée museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Let me add some corrections and updates. I am pretty much sure that Michael Wolgensinger’s photographs of a naked girl in public were taken in the city of Konark (Konarak) in India, not in Iran. See my comment to the post on Wolgensinger. As for Mark Twain’s book “The Innocents Abroad”, the adventures on a road to Cairo are outlined in Chapter 58 (not 31!) and this fragment reads as follows: “Somewhere along this route we had a few startling exhibitions of Oriental simplicity. A girl apparently thirteen years of age came along the great thoroughfare dressed like Eve before the fall. We would have called her thirteen at home; but here girls who look thirteen are often not more than nine, in reality. Occasionally we saw stark-naked men of superb build, bathing, and making no attempt at concealment. However, an hour’s acquaintance with this cheerful custom reconciled the pilgrims to it, and then it ceased to occasion remark. Thus easily do even the most startling novelties grow tame and spiritless to these sight-surfeited wanderers.” It seems that (1) if the girl was indeed nine year old her nakedness might not have been treated on an equal footing as adults’ nudity and (2) the men were bathing, so their nudity could be easily explained. I agree that attitude toward nudity in the early 20th century Tunisia (and North Africa in general) might have been more relaxed than we usually think, but I do not think that adult women were romping around the streets of Tunis sans clothes. If you have a look at the entire collection, only a small part of it shows prepubescent girls (and one little boy). Most of the subjects are very young, yet adult women, usually completely naked.
I would not draw any far-reaching conclusions from the models’ names. Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont wrote an interesting article on the photography of Lehnert et Landrock (https://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques/747). We can read that: “Lehnert et Landrock used “typological” legends to the photographs like «young Arab», «Arab model», «Bedouin girl»; less often a proper name «Aisha», «Fathma», «Ahmed» or even «Mohamed», the name given to several young models (for example, in the photo 806). These names served to personalize the subject while also bringing it into the Oriental and Muslim category.” It seems that these nicknames had nothing to do with the real names of the subjects. However, to answer Moto’s question if the postcards realistically portrayed Tunis and the models we should ask ourselves the most basic question: who were the models?
I do not think that they were slaves. They look all clean, well-groomed, seemingly healthy. Interestingly, while always barefoot and mostly naked they wore often ornaments: necklaces, earrings, drapes on their heads. The description of one of the photos reads: “German: Beduininnen. English: Note: The women are Berbers, and are not Bedouin. The photo is probably from a brothel in Tunis city. The erroneous text is designed to increase sales.” (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abb._510._Beduininnen.jpg) In my opinion, almost all (if not all) of the models are either prostitutes or children of prostitutes.
I found also this extremely interesting note in one German blog: (https://diestoerenfriedas.de/bauchtanzromantik-und-prostitution-die-ouled-nail/): “In Algeria, the prostitutes of the “Ouled Naïl”, women from the city of Bou-Saada, were photographed by the German photographer Rudolf Lehnert in the beginning of the last century. Probably not just photographed, as he was wandering around the red-light districts. The pictures are horrible documents of colonialism and prostitution. Very young girls present themselves naked, immortalized on postcards for the masturbation needs of European men. They were probably left with no additional financial compensation for posing. Rudolf Lehnert, together with Ernst Heinrich Landrock (L & L), were well known more than a hundred years ago as photographers of oriental studies. Lehnert traveled to Tunisia in 1904 and opened a photo studio in Tunis in cooperation with Landrock. Photos from the Orient were his “passion”, especially the photo series of very young girls. He also photographed the young girls of the Ouled Naïl from Bou-Saada. The story of the “Ouled Naïl” is less exotic and erotic than the romanticized Orientalism would have us believe. (…) The population of Bou-Saada originally consisted, before the 18th century, of various ethnic groups such as Arabs, Jews, Mozabites, Europeans, the soldiers, and the “public women” (filles publiques), from which the Ouled Naïl emerged. They performed in front of audiences at festivals and events showing traditional dances. When Bou-Saada was colonized in 1845, 5,000 people lived here. During this period a garrison of 500 men moved into the village. In the evenings the traders and soldiers sat in the Moorish cafes to entertain themselves. The young girls of the Ouled Naïl began dancing there with their festive clothes and decorations. As prostitution quickly developed from this entertainment, and the “Asyl of the Naila”, a closed area, was created. In 1930 Bou-Saada already had 50,000 inhabitants and a “tolerance zone” was created, which was also known as the street of the Ouled Naïl. In 1952 there were twenty houses here with an average of five prostituted girls or women. Bou-Saada has always been a tourist city and in the evenings “m`bita” were initiated, where people sang and danced. The dances initially corresponded to traditional dances, such as the Saadaoui dance, which was also called Naili. The costumes became more and more unusual and eye-catching in order to be interesting for the men. It finally came to the “naked dance” on the second part of the evening. The musicians then usually turned their faces against the wall and played. As Muslims, they did not want to see naked women. The women of the Ouled Naïl were always without their veils in the whole district of prostitution, but outside they wore the veil bu’awina, which only allowed one eye to be seen. Under the veil, the Ouled Naïl wore all their jewelry and costumes. The young prostitutes of the Ouled Naïl were recruited from their families or the village communities. For the initiation into dance, which represented the rite of passage into prostitution, a longer “training” was necessary. Fatima the captain [probably the local bawd], for example, owned 20 young dancers whom she had recruited from her village, and Yamina had introduced all of her sisters and nieces to oriental dance and, accordingly, to prostitution. Little more is known. The administration of Bou-Saada set the taxes and set the prostitution days for the individual groups to avoid conflicts (soldiers and civilians were separated). Rules for prostitution were also set by the administration in Algiers, as were health checks. (…) Prostitution financed homes, gardens, and livestock for the families of the Ouled Naïl. It allowed them to live. (…) There were many children around because traditional contraception was not always effective. They usually lived with their mothers and other prostitutes. The girls were then also destined for prostitution, and the boys could sometimes leave the milieu through education or “manage” the affairs of the prostitutes who were their family members. (…) Many of the “Ouled Naïls” were soon trashed by alcohol, tobacco, and drugs and became impoverished. It seems that in this different time and culture, prostitution was still apparently closely tied to the consumption of addictive substances. Some women managed to get out of it. Sometimes they could choose God’s way as an option. They then came to the community of sisters in Islam and donated money to charity. If enough money was available, they invested in a trip to Mecca.”
Now it all makes sense. L & L’s subjects were prostitutes and their children. While in Europe and America we can think of stockings, very high heels, miniskirts, lace bras, etc. as a “traditional attire” of prostitutes, in Africa at the entrance to the brothels they often display themselves naked (except for wearing jewelry and ornaments). The ornaments worn by little girls could be borrowed from the older women, or they could be already working as prostitutes themselves (modern conceptions of an ‘age of consent’ did not exist in Tunisia around 1900). Hence, I cannot agree with Robert Firth that “the young girls seem proud of their bodies and the decorative jewelry”; instead they seem to be completely unashamed of their blatant nudity, as they were brought up in such a specific place. I am also not sure if the specific way the woman were hogtied, as shown in the photographs, actually testifies to them being slaves. Except for the picture mentioned by Azra Yilmaz (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lehnert_et_Landrock_-_Bound_Slave,_Tunisia_c.1900.jpg) there are other examples, like https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lehnert_et_Landrock_-_161.jpg or this image of ‘Fatma’ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lehnert_et_Landrock_-_Fatma_aux_cordes_Tunisie,_vers_1904.jpg Indeed, Wikimedia refers to these pictures as orientalist photographs of women claimed to be ‘slaves’ (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Orientalist_photographs_of_nude_or_topless_%27slaves%27). I think that this type of bondage, including breast bondage and the rope passing between legs and pressing on a model’s vulva, has evident sexual connotations and can be regarded as part of a BDSM practice, rather than the means of restraining slaves. I agree with Ray that the women of Ouled Naïl were not enslaved, but on the other hand, what they did at the time had nothing to do with sacred prostitution. The L & L collection constitutes rather touching evidence of human misery.
Thanks for the information! Sorry for the mistakes, but I’m glad that you caught them.