Wish You Were Here!! Cultural Tourism and the Parthenon Exhibit, Parthenon East Gallery

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Wish You Were Here!!

Cultural Tourism and the Parthenon

Exhibit, Parthenon East Gallery

January 28-May 19, 2012

The Photographs of William J. Stillman


High School Lesson Plans

By DeeGee Lester, Education Director

The Parthenon, Nashville, TN.


The exhibit, Wish You Were Here: Cultural Tourism and the Parthenon focuses on the link between travel and photography through two holdings in the museum’s collections: A rare 1870 album of photographs of the ancient Acropolis by William James Stillman, titled The Acropolis of Athens, Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photography, and the museum’s collection of over 200 postcards of the Parthenon and its setting in Centennial Park. The high school lesson plan focuses on the Stillman collection.

William Stillman Biography:

William James Stillman was born in Schenectady, New York in 1828 and graduated in 1848 from Union College of Schenectady. His love of art, passion for creativity, desire for adventure and gift for networking with the creative minds of the 19th century, combined in an exciting life. After college, Stillman studied art under Frederic Edwin Church. Traveling to England, the young Stillman became friends with JMW Turner (considered England’s greatest artist) and influential art critic/author John Ruskin. Stillman’s desire for adventure and intrigue led to two disappointing efforts. Hungarian journalist/statesman/freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth enticed Stillman to travel to Hungary on a failed secret mission to dig up and recover the Hungarian crown jewels. Later in Paris, while waiting and hoping to take part in a planned uprising in Milan, Italy (which never took place) Stillman bided his time studying art under militarist painter Adolphe Yvon.

Upon his return to the United States, Stillman followed Ruskin’s ideal for stimulating artistic discussion and criticism by founding America’s first art journal, Crayon. Though short-lived because of a lack of funding, the journal’s contributors provided another opportunity for Stallman to connect and build life-long friendships with leaders in American arts, philosophy, and education including James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Plagued by poor health, Stillman was rejected for service during the American Civil War, but through his many connections, obtained appointment as US Consul to Rome and later to the island of Crete and to Athens where his photographic talents and architectural interests combined in the 1870 album The Acropolis of Athens, Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photography (published in London in 1870). Stillman spent most of the remainder of his life as a journalist and photographer, serving briefly as editor of Scribner’s Magazine and in Europe as correspondent for The Times of London serving in Athens and Rome and covering insurrections in the Balkans. He was author of four books and retired to Surrey in England where he died in 1901. Stillman was married twice. His first wife died by suicide in Athens and his second wife was an artist and daughter of the Greek consul-general. Stillman had three children. His son Russie (named after his friend John Ruskin) assisted his father during the photographing of the Acropolis and died in Athens shortly after completion of the project. Before publication, Stillman removed all photos in the book that included shots of Russie.

Photography Timeline through 19th Century:

400 BCE – China’s Mo-ti provided the first know mention of the basic concept that became the pinhole camera.

350 BCE – In Greece, Aristotle offered a practical use for the pinhole camera in observing a partial solar eclipse.

1000 CE – Ibn al-Haytham (Basra, Iraq) studied the behavior of light and reverse imagery formed by a tiny hole.

1485 CE – Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus offers first detailed description of the pinhole camera.

1604 CE - German astronomer Johannes Kepler first used the term camera obscura.

1685 CE – The first detailed diagrams and descriptions of camera obscura and the magic lantern were provided by Johann Zahn, while Dutch Masters such as Johannes Veneer use the pinhole camera as a device for producing art.

1827 CE – Joseph Niepce captures the first photographic image (heliograph) on metal plate.

1837 CE – Luis Daguerre creates first daguerreotype fixed image photograph.

1840 CE – Alexander Walcott takes first patent on a camera.

1841 CE – William Talbot patents the first negative-positive process enabling photographers to create multiple copies from one photograph.

1851 CE – Frederick Scott Archer invents the Collodion (wet plate) process for faster exposure.

1865 CE - Copyright protection is provided for photos and negatives.

1871 CE – Richard Maddox invents the dry plate process.

1880 CE – Eastman Dry plate Company is founded.

Major 19th Century Photographers/ Subjects

Francis Frith – Photographs of Egypt Jacob Riis – Photographs of tenements

John Thomson – Photos: China & Cambodia Carleton Watkins – Western US photos

Matthew Brady – Photographs of the American Civil War Charles Clifford – Photographs of Spain

Roger Fenton – Photographs of the Crimean War Henry Moulton – Photographs of Peru

Lesson Plan: The William Stillman Photographs

Considered a “gentleman’s hobby” in the 19th century, photography required a substantial investment and, particularly for those who ventured out of the studio for location photography (whether shooting locations or covering conflicts), a means of transporting bulky equipment including cameras, glass plates, and chemicals. In thirty four years, photography moved in rapid succession from daguerreotype to multiple copies and from wet plate processing through panoramic photography to the dry plate process. Patent and copyright laws struggled to keep up in the rapidly changing industry. Suddenly, ordinary people from around the world could see exotic locations, look into the faces of soldiers on the eve of battles or view the resulting carnage. Photography offered a never before experienced window on the world.

Pre-Visit Briefing

The Ruskin Influence:

Traveling to England in 1850, William Stillman made the acquaintance and established a friendship with that nation’s most influential art critic and theorist, John Ruskin. Still basking in the success of his 1849 essay, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (later expanded and included in a three volume tome The Stones of Venice), Ruskin eagerly shared his views with the young American. The lamps were Ruskin’s seven principles of architecture – Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, and the last – Obedience (to English values). And while these principles focused on the debate surrounding Gothic Revival architecture, other Ruskin teachings and ideas are clearly reflected in Stillman’s work on the Acropolis almost twenty years later as well as his own selected book title The Acropolis of Athens: Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photographs.

  • Ruskin moved beyond traditional architectural line drawings used by art critics by including photographic renderings of buildings and architectural features in his writings.

  • Note Stillman’s use of the word picturesquely. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin uses the term and provides a list of characteristics of what he considers “picturesque”: angular and broken lines, vigorous oppositions of light and shadow, and grave, deep or boldly contrasted color. Ruskin then goes on to insist that “the picturesque is therefore sought in ruins and supposed to consist in decay.” In 1856, Ruskin compares the dilapidation of lower picturesque (for example, the ruins of a peasant cottage) with the elevated status of the noble picturesque.

Exhibit Visit Activities & Discussion

During your class visit to the Parthenon and the Stillman exhibit, take time to look at the mounted 1869 photographs as well as computerized slide show and consider the following:

  • Recalling examples from Ruskin’s views described above, how are elements of Ruskin’s writings and views reflected in Stillman’s photographs?

  • Expand on your answer after reading the following quotes by Stillman:

  1. In the opening lines of his book, Stillman writes: “The ruins have never been treated intelligently by the local photographers.”

  2. In a letter to his friend Rossetti: “I am in fine weather, amusing myself by taking a series of photos of the Acropolis; not only picturesque, but to show the Technical characteristics of Greek culture.”

  • In addition to the influence of Ruskin, the photographic “eye” and considerable skills of Stillman contribute to the overall impression of the exhibit. As you tour the gallery, take time to explore and appreciate the clarity and artistic beauty of Stillman’s achievement in the early years of photography.

Plate 11: Stillman broke with traditional photography of the Parthenon by providing interior views and by his inclusion of a man in Greek dress.

Plate 18: “Whoa! Early Photoshop?” A problem that plagued 19th century photography was the inability of glass plates to simultaneously capture details in both a building and the sky. Stillman’s solution, called combination printing, used two negatives – one capturing the building and the other providing dramatic cloud formation he desired. The combination of negatives gave a mysterious image as if the Parthenon itself is the source of light.

Plate 17: The illustrative power of photography is championed by Stillman as he offers viewers a unique opportunity to see for themselves the Parthenon’s architectural refinements. The photos unusual composition dramatically demonstrates the refinements that had been rediscovered and explained by Francis Penrose in 1851.

Plate 10: Stillman’s photograph offers the modern viewer a rare glimpse of graffiti scratched onto the surface of the columns and dating back to the 1820s. Later removed during restoration, the shocking image of graffiti etched into the historic and iconic structure jolts viewers.

Compare online images of the modern Parthenon with the images from the Stillman collection and discuss the following:

  • What has been lost in the restorations of the Parthenon?

  • What are Stillman’s contributions to our appreciation of this iconic ruin?

  • Can students identify evidence of Ruskin’s influence on Stillman’s work?


  1. The Autobiography of a Journalist, Volume II, Chapter IV, by William James Stillman. On-line at Read Central.com. http://readcentral.com/chapters/William-James-Stillman/The-Autobiography-of-a-Journalist.

  2. The Acropolis of Athens, Illustrated Picturesquely and Architecturally in Photography by William James Stillman (London, 1870).

  3. Antiquity & Photography: Early Views Ancient Mediterranean Sites, by Claire L. Lyons, John K. Papadopoulos, Lindsey S. Stewart and Andrew Szagedy-Maszak (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005).

  4. Athens – Photographed by WJ Stillman”, by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume LXX, Number 3, spring, 2009, pp. 399-431.

  5. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, by John Ruskin. London, 1849. (London: British Library: Fiction & Prose Literature, 4th edition, 2011).

  6. http://www.obsurajournal.com/history

  7. http://bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/photographicproject/worldinfocus.html.

Note to Teachers:

The Stillman book and photographs are part of the Parthenon’s permanent collection. As such this exhibit will be periodically shown over the years and this lesson plan can be used in connection with each of those exhibitions.

DeeGee Lester, Education Director
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