Carl Passavant Grey Album

The Passavant collection is an outstanding and unique collection of 274 photographs from West and Central Africa held by the Basel Ethnographic Museum (Museum der Kulturen). These photographs documenting the coastal area between Sierra Leone and Angola (including the islands of Madeira and Tenerife) were taken mostly by African photographers between 1870 and 1885. They were purchased and brought back to Europe by Carl Passavant, a young Basel citizen, from two voyages he had undertaken to West and Central Africa between 1883 and 1885. We do not know in detail where and how Passavant acquired these photographs but assuming that he bought them from local African photographers we receive an impression of the kind of photographs that were circulating, displayed and offered to customers at a time when the scramble for Africa gained its decisive momentum as well as of the photographers who took them. Consequently, the photographs Passavant bought during his travels convey more than just glimpses of peoples and places but present a rare coherent snapshot of the early history of African photography. Carl Passavant (1854-1887) was the son of the banker Emanuel Passavant-Bachofen and Adèle Bachofen, a sister of the anthropologist and sociologist Johann Jakob Bachofen. Passvant had done part of his medical studies with Julius Kollmann, a German anatomist and physical anthropologist teaching at the University of Basel. For the preparation of his dissertation he undertook two travels to West and Central Africa which, in that respect, turned out to be both a failure. Sick from his stay on the coast he returned to Basel in 1885 and died two years later only 33 years old.

Carl Passavant's Africa photographs are kept in two different albums. One album which is bound in red leather contains 91 photographs of which 42 relate to Africa. The others relate to Madeira and Tenerife (9), the Caucasus and Turkey (25) and Hawaii (15) where Carl had travelled before and after his African travels. The second part of Carl Passavant's photographs (the "Grey Album") has been integrated into a much larger album which once belonged to his younger brother Georges Passavant-Fichter (1862-1952). The format is 46x31 cm. All in all 214 photographs have been mounted on 44 pages. Of these 214 photographs 23 relate to Madeira and Tenerife and 188 to Africa. There is no information available neither in Passavant's very short travel report nor in the albums themselves as to who the photographers of the images were. The only exception concerns the photographs from Madeira which carry the stamp of João Francisco Camacho, a well established studio at the time, and one African photograph which features the photographer W. J. Sawyer's company logo. Research and comparison with the same photographs which are kept in other archives have however brought to daylight at least some names. John Parkes Decker was certainly one of the photographers. Another one was Francis W. Joaque. A third is the above mentioned W. J. Sawyer of whom we do not know whether he was African or European. There are possibly some photographs taken by a member of the Lutterodt family.

See introduction (in German) in Fotofieber. Bilder aus West- und Zentralafrika. Die Reisen von Carl Passavant 1883-1883 (Basel: Christoph Merian Verlag 2005).