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On Site: Greetings from the Holy Land

Libi Astaire

When early photographers snapped the first photos of Eretz Yisrael, “point” and “click” were what you did to your donkey, not your camera

Thursday, December 08, 2016


MADE YOU LOOK How truthful are portraits that were taken during this era? Were they caught on the spur of the moment, or carefully posed to create a pleasing image that would sell well in the shops that catered to tourists? (Photos: Lior Mizrachi)

Some news truly is explosive.

Around midnight on October 14, 1970, the curator of Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, Dr. Carney Garvin, was at home when the telephone rang. A bomb had gone off in the third-floor library of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Among other damage, the bomb blew out the skylight, scattering plaster and other debris all over the attic floor above the library. Garvin was asked to help assess the scope of the destruction. When he did, he discovered hundreds of crimson boxes tucked under the attic’s eaves and covered with dust; apparently they had sat there for decades, forlorn and forgotten.

The boxes contained more than 28,000 photographs, slides and stereoscopic views of the Middle East dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s. Among the collection were some 800 photographs taken by the Bonfils family.

The find catapulted the heretofore rather sleepy museum into the center of Middle Eastern studies, as scholars from around the world studied the photographs for glimpses into the daily life of a world that had mostly vanished by the Vietnam War era. (Yes, the bomb had been planted in protest of some of the policies of Dr. Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration in Vietnam.) At a conference where he presented some of the photographs for the first time, Dr. Garvin commented, “We suddenly realized we were into something that was the other side of history — something not found in any written report.”

Indeed, photographs can tell us stories about times long past that no written text could ever convey: the way a worn coat draped on a shepherd’s shoulder signals a sense of dignity amidst the poverty, the look of devastation on the face of an old Jew lamenting at the Kosel on Tishah B’Av. Photographers like the Bonfils family and others are our telescopes into times past, providing historic documentation of our longing for the land and our people’s determination to resettle its capital.

The Dead Sea and the Judean Desert were captured by Felix Bonfils in 1868, one of 600 images tourists could purchase long before Kodak created memories

But who were these photographers who braved malarial swamps and endured donkey trains to earn their living? It turns out that many of them were astute businessmen, as well as artists, who were attracted to the challenge of capturing the timeless beauty of an ancient and hardscrabble land.

Souvenirs from the Grand Tour

Traditionally, Western Europe looked to Ancient Greece and Rome when it came to tracing its cultural roots. But after French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte successfully invaded Egypt in 1798 — an attempt to seize the port city of Acco in Eretz Yisrael a year later was less successful — European scholars and tourists became fascinated by the “Orient,” the lands we refer to today as the Middle East.

Books describing the sights and personal experiences of travelers doing a tour of Eretz Yisrael, Egypt, Syria and other countries in the region often became best-sellers. But if they had illustrations, they were usually engraved drawings and they were not always accurate. That began to change in the 1830s, when early photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre figured out how to create permanent photographic images that wouldn’t deteriorate when exposed to light. By the summer of 1839, Frenchman Frederic Goupil-Fesquet was snapping photos in Eretz Yisrael, making the Holy Land one of the first areas in the world to be extensively photographed.

But it was hardly a snap to take a picture in those early years. Unlike the cameras in today’s lightweight cell phones, where you can point, click, and send to all your friends in less than a minute, cameras were big and unwieldy. Developing the photos was cumbersome as well. The daguerreotype invented by Daguerre could make just one print, which was on a metal plate, making it a very expensive process. Another drawback was that an exposure could take up to 15 minutes, making it difficult to photograph people; if the person moved during those 15 minutes, the image would come out blurred.

Several prints could be made from one paper negative using Talbot’s “calotype” process, but the quality of the print wasn’t nearly as good as a daguerreotype. The wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 was a big advancement, because you could take a good-quality image in a second and reproduce it as many times as you liked. But this process also had a significant drawback: You had to cart along your darkroom wherever you went, because the photographs captured on the chemical-smeared wet plates had to be developed before the chemicals dried.

The next technological advancement, the silver-gelatin dry-plate process, the forerunner of film, came in the 1870s. The silver-gelatin emulsion was poured on the glass plate and allowed to dry. The plate could then be stored until ready for use, which meant a photographer on the move could prepare many plates in advance. After the photo was taken, the plate could be stored again, until it was brought to the darkroom to be developed.

Some photographers still continued to schlep their darkrooms with them, albeit for a different reason: The strong Middle Eastern sunlight was much different from the light they were used to back home. Because there were no automatic adjustment features in their cameras, they had to learn how to make the adjustments manually. If they got the exposure wrong, they might discover in their darkroom back in Paris or London that all they had to show for their hard work was a collection of blank, overexposed plates. Some photographers therefore set up their on-site darkrooms in a tent, which could be put up and dismantled fairly easily. Others, like George and Constantin Zangaki, known professionally as the Zangaki Brothers, used an enclosed, specially outfitted horse-drawn wagon, which accompanied them on their travels.

But despite the many hardships, it’s estimated that during the 1800s about 300 photographers made the trip. Why did so many come? Who bought their photographs?

While some of the photographs were commissioned by organizations like the Palestine Exploration Fund or other scholarly organizations, or bought by book publishers for illustrations in their travel books, another profitable source of income came from selling photographs to a brand-new market: European and American tourists making the “grand tour.”

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