William James Stillman (1828-1901). Athens, ca. 1869. Portfolio containing 25 albumen prints, each approximately 7 ½ x 9 ½ inches (19.1 x 24.2 cm.) or the reverse, numbered sequentially in the negative (lacking no. 17), photographer’s initials and date in a few negatives; two trimmed with arched tops, mounted on card with printed title labels (some foxing to mount of plate 1, not affecting image) University College London, ink collection stamps (cancelled) on reverse of mounts; in original black morocco portfolio (rebacked and relined with ties replaced), titled and with photographer’s credit Photographed by W.J. Stillman in gilt on top flap, overall size 18 3/8 x 14 ½ inches (46.7 x 35.9 cm.).
Thanks to the support of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Graphic Arts collection is fortunate to have acquired Athens, a rare nineteenth-century portfolio of albumen photographs focused on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. This scarce work by the American diplomat, journalist and photographer, William Stillman, is the product of a tragic, but artistically rich period in his life.
Following early careers as a painter associated with the Hudson River School and as founding editor of the art journal the Crayon, Stillman took up photography in 1859. Continuing as a journalist and travel writer abroad, Stillman put his skills as a photographer to use while serving as consul in Rome and Crete in the mid-1860s.
Stillman moved to Athens in 1868, where his young son died and his wife committed suicide. In response, Stillman devoted his life to his photography, executing this fine series of views of the Acropolis. A selection of 25 views from this series (with one small frontispiece image) was published in 1870 by the London firm, F. S. Ellis, printed in the carbon process by the Autotype Company. The title, as published, was The Acropolis of Athens: Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photographs.
This portfolio pre-dates the publication of Acropolis and represents Stillman’s earliest work in attempting to capture both the history and the beauty of Greek architecture. As opposed to the 1870 publication, which was printed by the Autotype Company, these images are printed by Stillman himself using wet-collodion-on-glass negatives developed onsite and then, contacted printed to albumen-coated paper. The photographs themselves are at once documents of a civilization past and sublime elegies in light and shadow. They begin with distant views showing the imposing nature of the Acropolis within its city surroundings, and move closer with dramatic and picturesque studies of individual structures and sculptural details. The photographs include several figures, one of whom is thought to be Stillman himself.
See Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, “Athens. Photographed by W.J. Stillman,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, 70, no.3 (spring 2009): 399-432.