William J. Stillman an American journalist, diplomat, author, historian, and photographer captured the magic of the Acropolis in 1870 in a series of carbon prints.
He was among the first to photograph this symbol of Western civilization.
Relatively unknown in Greece, Stillman was a great Philhellene who served as the United States ambassador in Crete during the Cretan insurrections of the 19th Century and later married a Greek artist in London.
During his tenure in Crete, he was an avowed champion of the Christians on the island and of Cretan independence. Consequently, he was regarded with hostility both by the Muslim population and by the Turkish authorities.
William J. Stillman captures the Acropolis
In September 1868 he resigned and went to Athens where he tried to depict his love of the country and its ancient civilization in print.
The Acropolis and the Parthenon were the ideal settings for his photography. Critics have commented that Stillman’s album of views of the Athenian Acropolis display an artistic sensibility and a genius of the highest order.
‘The Acropolis of Athens: Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photography in 1870’.
The volume, bound in red leather and measuring 530 by 340 mm, contained 25 carbon prints on paper, with simple captions opposite.
Imposing in size and striking in style and execution, Stillman’s book has since been recognized as among the more important photographic publications of its period.
The book is claimed as a ‘precursor of the twentieth-century modernist photobook’, by virtue of the aesthetic properties of the photographs themselves, but also because of the telling effect to which image, text and blank space are combined
Stillman was not the first to capture the Acropolis. In the distant year of 1842, French photographer and draughtsman Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey took the first-ever photograph of the ”Holy Rock.”
Stillman left Greece for London where in 1871 he married artist Marie Spartali, a daughter of the Greek consul-general Michael Spartali, although without his permission.
Spartali was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and arguably the greatest female artist of that movement. During a sixty-year career, she produced over one hundred works, contributing regularly to exhibitions in Great Britain and the United States.
Stillman’s love for Greece led him back to Athens where he served as The Times’ correspondent in 1877-1883.
After his retirement, he lived in Surrey, England, where he died on July 6, 1901.
MacManus, D., & Campbell, H. (2015). ‘Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photography’: William J. Stillman and the Acropolis in Word and Image. Architectural Histories, 3(1), Art. 22. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/ah.cw