Herald of progress: Karl Emil Biel’s photographs of the technical modernisation of Portugal
Starting in 1850, Portugal embarked on a technical-scientific agenda (historically known as Fontism, after its main advocate, Fontes Pereira de Melo) that pursued the modernisation of the country or, in its broader sense, progress, until the turn of the twentieth century. These efforts were captured through the lens of a German photographer living in Portugal, Karl Emil Biel. For the purposes of this paper, I have analysed around 200 of Biel’s works in which he recorded progress in Portugal. I argue that Biel felt inspired by the sublime inherent to technology to create a technological landscape and a narrative of progress in Portugal, marked by a variety of icons of modernity, similar to those found in cities of Europe’s most advanced countries, especially structures that promoted mobility and contributed to the territorial appropriation of the peripheral provinces. Furthermore, I contend that the publication of his photographs in the illustrated press contributed to the dissemination of this technological landscape and this narrative of progress nationwide and to the promotion of a nationalism fuelled by technology. Finally, I speculate how the current uses of Biel’s photographs at public events still share similar notions of progress, based on technological modernity and sublime.