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Volume 34, Number 6November/December 1983

In This Issue

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The Bonfils Story

A Special Section

Written by William H. Rockett
Photographed by Félix Bonfils
Additional photographs by Adrien Bonfils and Lydie Bonfils

The Arabic phrase musawwir shamsi -one who makes pictures by the sun -is probably the earliest Arabic term for photographer, and tradition has it that scholars, in considering Islamic prohibitions against graven images, decided photographs merely recorded the shadows cast by God's sunlight.

There was, nevertheless, opposition to photography among most religious groups in the Middle East, and, as a result, visual records of peoples, monuments and scenes of the region have been usually made and preserved throughout history by foreigners.

Among the best examples of this are the famous Roberts Prints, by 19th-century British artist David Roberts (See Aramco World, March-April 1970). Another earlier example is the encyclopedic record made by some 2,000 European artists, draftsmen and skilled engravers who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's army on its 1798 Egyptian campaign and helped to produce the 20-volume Description de I'Egypte (See Aramco World, March-April 1976). A monumental work, Description incorporated generally excellent drawings of the ruins and monuments of Egypt.

Such illustrations, unfortunately, were not always as accurate as they might have been, since they were subject to change as they went from the artists on the spot to engravers and publishers; engravers of that period tended to "translate" illustrations as they made plates for publication. Until rotogravure printing came along, this was a process that would affect all such illustrations - as Dr. Carney Gavin, curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM), made clear in this example of 19th-century illustrations: "An Irish nobleman made a sketch of Beirut harbor in 1836. He then gave it to an artist at the Royal Academy, who prettied it up. It was then passed on to a German engraver, who in turn gave it to John Murray of Albemarle Street, a publisher. In the end, what the public saw wasn't at all bad; but it was really a drawing-by-committee."

Then, in 1839, Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre ushered in the age of photography with a public announcement of the first practical photographic process - the daguerreotype - and within weeks, reportedly, so-called "Excursions Daguer-riennes" began recording the sights of the East for an avid European audience.

For years before that, Western interest in the Middle East had been whetted by the then — widespread knowledge of the Bible, and by such travel literature as Alexander William Kinglake's Eothen, and William Makepeace Thackeray's Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, published under the pseudonym "Tit-marsh." As a result, hardy - and wealthy -souls had begun to add Egypt and the Holy Land to their "Grand Tour" itineraries, and they in turn began to publish reminiscences and sketches that stimulated still more interest.

Now, with photography, travelers could begin to capture such exotica with greater fidelity than was possible with pen and ink - though even the daguerreotype had limitations. A one-shot affair, the daguerreotype image was fixed forever upon a metal plate, and could not be readily reproduced. Engravers, therefore, still had to be brought in - initially to copy the work on a separate printing plate, later to engrave lines directly onto the photographic plate itself.

In 1841, the invention of the paper negative, or "calotype," by William Fox Talbot permitted the reproduction of multiple images from one original, but Daguerre's method which offered a sharper, more durable image, held sway among photographers until Frederick Scott Archer introduced a process using glass negatives in 1851. Prints could be made from these negatives, and then "tipped" onto the pages of travel books -i.e. pasted in by hand, in effect making each copy an album of original photographs.

Most of the earliest European photographers of the Middle East - Horace Vernet, Joly de Lotbiniere and others - were daguerreotypists, but Maxime Du Camp, who accompanied Flaubert on the poefs 1849-51 excursion to the Middle East, got excellent results with paper negatives, and Francis Frith, photographer and publisher, secured a firm place in the history of photography using glass negatives. As an Athenaeum critic wrote in 1858, "Mr. Frith, who makes light of everything, brings us the Sun's opinion of Egypt, which is better than Champollion's... Eothen's or Tit-marsh's."

As for Frith, he deemed himself an artist in league with the sun, writing, "The Sun himself condescends to pigmify (the image), and pop it bodily into the box which your artist provided." And at one point he gleefully recounted the envy of a French artist he encountered at Medinet Habu:

When, in a few minutes, I had possessed myself of more accuracy than his labor of perhaps days would yield, he exclaimed with politeness-and (let us hope) with no dash of bitterness, nor scornfulness, nor envy - Ah, Monsieur! que vous etes vite, vite!'

Acceptance of photography as a fine art was erratic, but it did catch on as a popular art. The Times of London proclaimed that Frith's photographs "carry us far beyond anything that is in the power of the most accomplished artist to transfer to his canvas," and Queen Victoria compiled 110 albums of photographs. Frith, meanwhile, had turned book publisher, and in addition to various portfolios and volumes of his pictures, brought out a special Queen's Bible in 1862-3. It featured 20 photographic views from his collection, and sold in a limited edition for 50 guineas, a very considerable sum at that time. The British journal of Photography said Frith's books were "got up in a style that renders them fit ornament for any drawing room," and, since the public agreed, Frith's enterprises prospered.

At the root of this popularity was the "awe and wonder with which Victorian viewers greeted Frith's startlingly truthful photographs of the most ancient and historic lands known to them," as historian Julia van Haaften wrote in an edition of Frith's Egyptian photographs. But there was another element too: the need for travelers to bring back souvenirs.

Toward the end of the 19th century, middle class Europeans were beginning to travel in such great numbers that some observers had begun to object. Journalist William Howard Russell, for example, protested in The Times that tourists "...crowd the sites which ought to be approached in reverential silence..."

Like their counterparts today, these travelers also demanded keepsakes - and thought that they had a right to them. A Father Geramb, for example, reportedly told Muhammad AH, the ruler of Egypt in 1833, that "it would hardly be respectable, on one's return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other." Thus, when some governments in the Middle East began to crack down on such looting, daguerreotypes and other forms of photography offered travelers an attractive alternative - particularly when they were made and marketed by "Bonfils".

Bonfils was by no means the only good photographer of the period; between the time Daguerre introduced his process and the time Bonfils began to take and market photographs, some 200 known photographers were in business - some of them quite good. In Luxor, for example, prints by a man named Beato were on sale, and in Istanbul prints by a photographer named Sebah could be sent home rolled up in metal tubes. But few of them compared to the photography produced by the Bonfils family - as Gratien Charvet, founder of the Societe Scientifique et Litteraire in Ales, France, would vehemently argue.

The man who wrote the introduction to the Bonfils' 1878 collection of photographs, Souvenirs d'Orient, Charvet said enthusiastically that the "collection of photographs of the Orient's principal sites - initiated, executed and completed by Monsieur F. Bonfils with unequaled perseverance -should be regarded as one of the most considerable achievements - picturesque, artistic and scientific - of our epoch."

Despite this, the Bonfils family had virtually vanished from history by the time that Father Gavin and his staff began to dig into the family history. "All we know of Bonfils," said photographic historian Beaumont Newhall, in answer to Gavin's inquiries, "is that he was a genius."

As recently as two years ago, Gavin wrote in the journal Nineteenth Century: "No one remembers the photographers Bonfils - not even the Sub-Prefect M. Maurice Bonfils — not even the staff of the Evangelical Library in nearby Saint Hippo-lyte dedicated to collecting biographies of local sons - not even the region's oldest printers and photographers. And at the time of Felix Bonfils', death in 1885, no obituary nor even notice was published in local journals."

Since then, however, Dr. Gavin and his staff have learned a lot about the Bonfils family. In fact, it was two of Dr. Gavin's volunteers - Al and Phyllis Weisman - who first turned up evidence that there was more than one Bonfils photographer: in a New Hampshire barn, they came across the effects of a missionary who had photographic prints signed, "A. Bonfils." "Until then," Dr. Gavin said, "we had found only 'F. Bonfils'."

"They were an incredible family/' said Dr. Gavin. They were descendants of Theodore, the emperor of Abysinia, and are related through marriage to the actor Peter Ustinov. One of them, Adrien, was alternately a sergeant brigadier of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, a photographer in his father's studio and a Beirut hotelier. The father, Felix, was the son of a wood-lathe worker, but built up a photographic business with connections in Cairo, Alexandria, Paris and London, as well as Beirut and Ales, the Bonfils home in France. And when Lydie Bonfils, the third photographer, left Beirut in 1916, it was as an evacuee on the deck of the U.S.S. Des Moines.

Little of that was known at first, but bit by bit over the last 12 years, research by Dr. Gavin and his staff has pieced the story together. It is a story of affection, piety and devotion — to each other and to their adopted homeland, Lebanon - and it begins in the small French town of Ales about 1860 when the family Bonfils set off for Beirut one after the other.

The first to go was Felix Bonfils. Born in 1831, Felix took up the trade of bookbinder, but in 1860 joined General d'Hautpoul's expedition to the Levant to end an outbreak of factional fighting. Evidence suggests that Felix became a photographer sometime after his return from Lebanon, possibly as an amateur. Then, however, when his son Adrien fell ill, Felix remembered the cool green hills around Beirut and sent him there to recover. With him went Felix's wife Lydie Bonfils, and when she returned, apparently as enthusiastic about the Middle East as Felix had been, they decided to return en jam ille.

Since Felix was by then working in Ales as a printer, producing heliogravures - a photographic process invented by Abel Niepce de St. Victor, cousin of the man frequently called "the father of photography" Joseph Nicephore Niepce - he decided to try and support himself in Lebanon by taking up the trade of la photographic Though it may seem like an odd decision, it turned out well; in 1867, the Bonfils family arrived in Beirut and four years later Felix reported the results of what must have been staggering labor: 15,000 prints of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Greece, and 9,000 stereoscopic views.

Those negatives were made on glass plates, coated with a collodion solution sensitized with silver nitrate. The plates had to be prepared on the spot-usually in a tent in the Middle East, although Francis Frith occasionally used cool tombs and temples as well. Then they were exposed and developed immediately afterwards. Prints could be made later, quite literally by sunlight: paper impregnated with a silver salt solution was stretched against the glass plate in a frame, and then exposed out of doors under direct sunlight.

Though the prints, golden in tone, were beautiful, the photographers had to use eggwhite, or albumen, as a binding agent on the paper and this eventually became unpleasant since the Bonfils family apparently prepared the egg-white themselves. Lydie Bonfils in 1917 was heard to mutter, "I never want to smell another egg again," and supposedly forbade them at her breakfast table thereafter.

The process could also be dangerous -particularly in the hot climate of the Middle East. As Frith wrote, "When (at the Second Cataract, one thousand miles from the mouth of the Nile, with the thermometer at 110 degrees in my tent) the collodion actually boiled when poured upon the glass plate, I almost despaired of success."

The second Bonfils photographer was Felix's son, Adrien. Born at Ales in 1861, Adrien was six when the family moved permanently to Beirut. Like his father he did military service - as a brigadier in a cavalry regiment in Algeria - but on the death of Felix in 1885, he returned to Beirut to take over the family business, and was soon setting off on new photographic expeditions and launching publishing projects that easily matched Frith's in quality and quantity.

It was Adrien to whom a London agent named Mansell was referring when he wrote, in 1892, to a certain David Gordon Lyon, "I hear from Bonfils that he has made an addition of 150 views to his Egyptian series - shall send these to you when I receive them."

This, says Dr. Gavin's staff, seems to be the first reference to what was becoming the Bonfils collection and to the man who took it upon himself to acquire the photographs: Professor Lyon, the first curator of a new museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the Harvard Semitic Museum. Founded in 1899 - with donations from Jacob Henry Schiff of the New York banking house of Kuhn, Loeb & Company -HSM, according to its charter, was intended to provide "a thorough study and a better knowledge of Semitic history and civilization, so that the world shall better understand and acknowledge the debt it owes to the Semitic people."

To that end, Lyon began to collect artifacts from the Middle East, particularly the Bonfils photographs. It is not known whether he realized how valuable they would be in archeology, but if s unlikely. It is only now, Gavin says, that researchers are coming to realize the value of photographs. "Librarians have learned to pay careful attention to handwritten notes and diaries, as well as to books and manuscripts. Curators carefully tend sketch pads and old engravings as 'works of art.' But photographs... have until recently remained forgotten."

Nevertheless, Dr. Gavin says, Lyon did work hard at collecting Bonfils photographs. "Lyon's interest was encyclopedic; one can infer from the Mansell note that he's told the agent he wants all the photographs." Furthermore, he nearly succeeded; despite occasional difficulties with U.S. Customs, he secured nearly half of what was available and went on to catalog them, giving them English titles and museum code numbers.

This is known, because Adrien himself had issued three catalogs, organizing 1,684 photographs into nine groups covering Lower and Upper Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia and Greece. In addition, there was a series of 25 "panoramas" consisting of two or more separate pictures which, when placed side by side, showed broad city-scapes of such Eastern centers as Cairo, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Damascus and, of course, Beirut. The series was rounded out by a selection of Egyptian views and costumes - including desert scenes and a wedding and a collection of scenes and costumes of Palestine and Syria.

As these catalogs suggest, Adrien's output was prolific. But in addition to this expansion of his father's business, he was also experimenting with mechanically colored prints - they were done in Zurich, by the photochromie process - and made four trips to Philadelphia to explore publication opportunities, including a proposed New Testament Illustrated with Photographs, anda book on the journeys of St. Paul.

Meanwhile, the Bonfils family had added a third photographer to its roster: Lydie Bonfils, a fact that emerged when the HSM staff found a reference by an English clergyman named Manning, in his 1874 volume, Palestine Illustrated by Pen and Pencil, to photographers whose prints he used in preparing his own sketches. Among them was "Madame Bonfils of Beyrout."

Lydie, it seems, had decided that mixing albumen for her husband and son was not enough, and apparently got involved in portraits and costume studies in the Beirut studios; descendants, in fact, have confirmed that she worked in the family's Beirut studio for some time after her son abandoned the trade in the early 1900s. There is evidence too that she ranged more widely. In Brummana, a member of the Maksad family told of "Lady Bonfils" stopping a Druze shaikh to pose for her one morning, just after the outbreak of the First World War. And her own photo, according to Nitza Rosovsky, an historian of old Jerusalem, appears in one of the prints in the Harvard cache; she is standing on the pyramid at Giza.

Thus Lydie, despite a growing distaste for eggs, apparently continued the business after Adrien had begun to turn his attention to a proposed medical spa in the mountains of Lebanon - even issuing her own catalog until the First World War forced her removal from Beirut and brought an end to the prolific photographic output of this remarkable family.

By then, however, the work of the Bonfils family was not only extensive, but of an unparalleled quality. It is, in fact, an incomparable legacy to both history and art - for reasons that Dr. Gavin explains in detail in The Images of the East.

For one thing, writes Gavin, "Bonfils prints were meticulously processed originally/' Although only 18 glass negatives are known to have survived (the rest were washed clean to make fresh negatives, lost in troubled Beirut, even smashed to provide lensmakers with fresh "ground glass" during a shortage in the 1950s), the original prints are virtually grain-free, thanks to the albumen emulsion and the fact that they were made directly from contact with the plates. Consequently, writes Dr. Gavin, the prints "can often yield invaluable visual data to modern image enhancement techniques."

In addition, the Bonfils subjects "were selected in a consciously encyclopedic spirit that has preserved a vast range of data for the geographical, ethnographic, biblical, archeological, architectural and historical studies that Bonfils intended to promote."

This was certainly true of Adrien - as his introduction of the unpublished, photographically illustrated Bible proves: Twenty centuries have passed without changing the decor and physiognomy of this land unique among all; but let us hasten if we wish to enjoy the sight. Progress, the great trifler, will have swiftly brought about the destruction of what time itself has respected... Already in the ancient Plain of Sharon ... The immortal road to Damascus has become no more than a... railway!

To Adrien, his family's duty was quite clear:... before progress has completely done its destructive job, before this present which is still the past has forever disappeared, we have tried to speak, to fix and immobilize it in a series of photographic views.

Such foresight at that time is amazing since very few of the photographers of that period nor their subjects were conservators. Mardik Berberian of Amman, son of one of the first Armenian photographers in Damascus, told Dr. Gavin that many pictures were lost because no one cared for them:

"We loved those pictures... but no one was interested then. Those who had sat for portraits had died; Amman was shown as a mere village; all the places we had photographed have changed so much we couldn't imagine anyone ordering a new print from those old negatives."

Even today such attitudes are not uncommon. "Everywhere in the world people are unaware they have such photographs," said Gavin. "Most people don't realize that they've captured that moment... that will never come again."

The Bonfils family, fortunately did realize what they had - and kept them. Thus their photographs include shots taken decades apart, another reason why the Bonfils collection is incomparable. Indeed, Dr. Gavin wrote, "Bonfils' activity spanned the period when the most profound changes began to alter Eastern landscapes and ways of life irretrievably, so that the family was consciously able to record scenes unchanged for millennia as well as (towards the end of Adrien's activity) the advent of occidental technology and mores."

The Bonfils' records have practical as well as historical value. Some years ago, for instance, at an Oxford conference, Subhe Qassem, Dean of Science at the University of Jordan, told Dr. Gavin he could "identify virtually every tree in the pictures taken around Jaffa. That means I can tell you how these people are living and how the agricultural year is going for them." Such are the things we can learn today about our past from photographs that might have been scrapped in the normal course of the photographers' career.

At that same conference, a geologist named Finzi, said that archeologists could make more of a contribution to modern science if they could "tell us how man has lived with the soil through the centuries." Dr. Gavin showed his photographs of Jordan in the last century to Finzi, and Finzi said such a photographic record could revolutionize geology and agronomy. "I can see where the topsoil is in the picture, and if we can tell how it's moving, then we can plan for the nutrition of the future." This approach - geomorphology - may still be highly theoretical, but the work of the new photo-archeologists like Dr. Gavin may well make it a reality.

No one is making greater use of the photographs than the archeologists themselves. Experts have used Bonfils photographs to help preserve facades and an arch at Petra. "The arch," noted HSM's photographic historian Elizabeth Carella, "had collapsed long ago. Our photographs show the arch with such clarity, stone by stone, that it is possible to reconstruct it."

Another example had to do with a Bonfils panorama of the Roman forum of Philadelphia, now engulfed by Amman's business district, but still remarkably well preserved when Bonfils took the photograph. Still other photos promise help in restoring the interiors of stately old Damascene palaces, long forgotten by Damascenes themselves.

American Indians used to call photographers "soul-catchers," because they believed a part of their spirit was lost when they were photographed. But today the reverse is true: archeological photography is helping the Middle East to recover the spirit of the past.

This is particularly true regarding the men and women of the past whose lives, skills, and character the Bonfils photographs capture with love and respect. "The Bonfils enjoyed a very special rapport with their sitters," says Dr. Gavin - and the photographs do seem to suggest a close relationship between photographer and subject, one reason, perhaps, why the portraits have a special power.

In the Bonfils photos, the landscapes, the cityscapes and the ancient ruins, are bathed in the golden light good memories bring to bear on places still dear to us in dreams. But it is the human face that most clearly speaks to us in these photographs - faces of dignity, of grace, of serenity. Such portraits - an old man with a mandaf, for beating mattress stuffing into freshness, a woman posed with a cigarette; a man with great mustachioes, bedecked in the full gear of the tourist-guiding Dragoman, a girl of Bethlehem, dressed in her best embroidery - are, along with the landscapes and cityscapes, indeed a legacy of light.

Will H. Rockett, is an associate professor at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, and editor of its journal Endeavors.

Carney And His Curators
Written and photographed by William H. Rockett

In the famous Flea Market of Paris some years back, Fouad Debbas of Lebanon bought an old wooden box that the dealer said would hold cigars nicely if Debbas would just throw away the "bits of glass" in the bottom. Debbas, however, decided not to throw the "bits of glass" away. A collector of old photographic postcards, he had recognized that they were rare "Magic Lantern" slides and delightedly added them to his collection of old photographs, some 1,200 of which were taken by the Bonfils family.

In assembling that collection, Debbas got a lot of help from the curators and other experts of the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM) - what Curator Carney Gavin alternately and affectionately calls his "moles" and his "commandos". A mix of six full-time photographic experts and five or so knowledgeable, part-time volunteers, they work at the museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mount and accompany exhibits in the United States, Europe and the Middle East and roam the world on photographic "digs" for HSM. Last summer, for example, Dr. Gavin flew his key people to The Netherlands to work on a "dig" at the University of Leiden. Among them were William J. Corsetti, associate curator for exhibit design and educational projects, the man who established HSM's photo-laboratory, and assistant curators Ingeborg O'Reilly and Elizabeth Carella. In early 1983, the same team mounted an exhibit of Bonfils photos in Cambridge, Paris and Beirut.

In addition to his "commandos," Dr. Gavin has also developed a network of what he describes as "good people concerned with the preservation of the past, people with an eye beyond today and tomorrow." Among them, he says, are people like Debbas, experts at such collaborating institutions as St. Anthony's College in Oxford, private collectors and small institutions.

Today, says Dr. Gavin, HSM is zeroing in on smaller institutions. "We don't concentrate on stuff in the British Museum or the Louvre, collections already well established and protected. We work largely with individuals - archeologists, perhaps, or workers returned from the oil fields."

From such institutions, as well as individuals, come tips that lead HSM specialists to the odd places where, for some reason, important collections seem to turn up. One such place was a tower room in the castle of the Prince of Liechtenstein. "Prince Johannes the Good took a pilgrimage to the East," said Gavin. "He was granted a pasha's escort by the Sultan, so he got into a great many places the normal tourist of the time would never see. And he brought with him this little aristocratic toy, the camera."

To enable HSM's staff to track down and assess such collections, Dr. Gavin - with a grant of $600,000 from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - has set up an informal organization that he calls "FOCUS" - for "finding, organizing, copying, using and sharing" photographs of historic import in the Middle East. FOCUS has also garnered support from Royal Jordanian and Middle East Airlines, Eastman Kodak and Polaroid, Aramco, Exxon, Raytheon and other corporations.

In their search, Carney's commandos have come up with many amusing stories. One concerned a photographer who, said Gavin, "may have been a spy for the Kaiser. But he then turned up as a British colonial officer after the First World War. He was very good at taking pictures of things like dhows under British and French flags of protection or of coaling stations."

Another good photographer in those early days was the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. He established a studio on the roof of his city manse, where he trained his nephews in the photographic art (Armenians have long dominated photography in the Middle East, because - Mardik Berberian, son of an early photographer in Damascus, said - "skills cannot be robbed and we could always get new lenses and paper wherever we fled.")

In assessing such collections when they turn up, HSM teams are often able to advise the owners of the historical value of what they've got, or find out its significance from someone linked through the project to the HSM. Those slides that Debbas purchased for the cost of the box - two francs - turned out to be the oldest photographs known of the Al Khalifas, currently celebrating their 200th anniversary as the rulers of Bahrain.

"Finding these things is often a matter of serendipity," said team-member Ingeborg O'Reilly, assistant curator for archives, and coordinator of international duplication services. "We put notices in certain journals, but often ifs word of mouth that brings them to our attention - or us, to theirs".

The first step, she explained, is to "go in and help them catalog." She is devising a computerized cataloging system in which data sheets will be prepared on each photograph and collection, using the same descriptive language and nomenclature of identification. Libraries and institutions using the system will then be able to quickly identify a photograph in other collections they may need for research, and obtain copies.

"Copies" is a key word here, since HSM is not interested in acquiring originals for the sake of owning "originals." HSM, in fact, has long since stopped buying collections of artifacts. As this article was being researched, for example, HSM staff were photographing and packing some 600 cuneiform tablets being returned to Iraq. Under an agreement with the National Museum of Iraq in the 1930's HSM had agreed to give the tablets back when studies of them were complete. HSM, says Dr. Gavin, simply wants to share the photographs. "When we find an 'orphan collection'," he said, "we try first to encourage the appropriate national repository to buy it - if it has adequate facilities to preserve such collections. Descendants of the first Arab photographer in the Middle East, for example, approached us to buy his collection, then in Switzerland. But since we're not interested in buying these things ourselves and perhaps helping drive their price up, we informed the Institute of Palestine Studies about the collection, and it eventually acquired them."

When this is impossible, members of the team go in to "assess the situation." Wherever possible, Dr. Gavin said, "we try to get the local experts interested, and to look at them." But the staff members themselves often wind up putting their expertise to work. For example, Elizabeth Carella, assistant curator for photographic history, writes a photographic historian's commentary, and, in her basement photo lab on Divinity Avenue, turns out superb duplicate negatives, prints and even murals.

Spectacular collections are not the only concern of HSM's staff. Indeed, they believe that every tourist who ever took a holiday in the Middle East, camera in hand, may have caught something in his lens which could prove to be of inestimable value. The photo-archeologist, after all, is trained to look beyond Aunt Maude in the foreground and perhaps see an inscription on a temple wall long since lost in windblown sands.

Nor do they limit their interest to very old photographs. "We're even interested in photos taken in the 1930s and 1940s," said Gavin. "So much has happened in the last decade alone - especially in places like Saudi Arabia - that even 40-year-old photographs could be valuable. We're also poking into archives and libraries, and we're particularly interested in aerial survey flights and photographs." Those last could be of great assistance to geologists and agronomists involved in the new science of geomorphology: the evolution of land forms and their application to problems in agriculture.

Finding photographs, of course, is just the beginning. After they found the Bonfils photos in the HSM attic, for example, Dr. Gavin's experts also had to dig up the history of the Bonfils family, and then dig into - in the archeological sense - the 800 spectacularly lovely prints.

"In digging into such a project," said Gavin, "the first thing we learn is not merely to look, but to see. We were looking at a photograph of Istanbul, for example, and I commented on how busy everybody must have been in this imperial capital; there were no people in the picture. But a man named Clark Worswick, who has written on the early photography of China, countered that there were indeed people - the beggars, under the shadows of the trees in front of the Great Mosque, gathered in little groups of two and threes. And there were. We just hadn't seen them."

It may have been, Dr. Gavin went on, that everyone with a place to go to was already inside. Under the hot noonday sun favored by mad dogs, Englishmen and photographers - because it shortened their exposure times - the beggars would have only the trees for shelter. But on the other hand, close inspection of the Bonfils photographs shows that there are always hidden touches: two boys reflected in mirrors, peering at their mother having her portrait taken; a solid little building by one of Jerusalem's gates that wasn't there a decade earlier, and was gone again a decade later; scars on a Bedouin woman's face.

Seen through a simple magnifying lens, such details are not only interesting, but revealing. The Bedouin woman, for example, had scars, but not the tattoos common among many groups, and Gavin theorizes that the coming of gypsies to the region years later introduced tattooing to the tribes.

Such "seeing" is important. One Damascene professor of architecture dismissed a palace interior as "very western, very Versailles Hall of Mirrors" — and so it seemed. "But then," said Dr. Gavin, "you look through the magnifying glass at the furniture, and you see the wonderful mother-of-pearl inlays on the arms and legs and backs of the Louis Seize furniture."

The next step is to enlarge the photographs, producing extremely clear, virtually grain-free images of inscriptions on walls, details on jewelry, even cargo on the decks of ships in the harbor of Beirut in one of the panoramas. In the background of one photograph by Adrien Bonfils, for example, an enlargement picked out some fake hieroglyphs an entrepreneur had painted over the entrance to his restaurant, inside one of the temples.

"There's a limit, of course," said Dr. Gavin, "but we can go into a window, and if somebody was not too far away inside, we can turn up the brightness controls and catch them. Or we can read the labels on the tins of goods inside a Jerusalem shop." And by turning to todays new technology - video and motion picture lenses, and TV's easy control of image contrast and brightness, which makes it possible to almost literally enter these images - photo-archeologists are able to find things that the Bonfils probably didn't notice.

Thus far the museum's work has been fairly simple in technical terms. "We've an eye on sophisticated image-enhancing techniques," said Gavin, "particularly on the work of Dean Robert Johnston of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where they've been doing that kind of thing for a decade." He thinks it will be particularly useful in dealing with photographs that have been badly damaged or have faded, producing "foxing" - dark and light patches across the print.

But for the moment, these techniques - familiar to anyone who has seen photographs of the planets from NASA's Voyager satellites - must wait while the museum gets on with its job of getting some of its recent images out to the public.

So far, for example, HSM has put the Bonfils collection on microfiche, and Dr. Gavin has written an accompanying text: The Image of the East: Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfils, University of Chicago Press. And HSM and UNESCO are joining forces to produce a series of 12 posters, including one of a Bonfils panorama of Beirut, based on early photographs. These will make use of laser-scanning printing techniques to produce highly detailed duo-tone prints in large format.

Perhaps the most exciting way of getting the pictures out to the public is their use in television programs. Two of these, one on Jerusalem, the other on the Holy Land in general, have been prepared.

Dr. Gavin and his staff have also combined old photographs with the original words of the photographers in brief shows used to introduce the museum's work to other scholars.

Because Bonfils photographed the Jaffa Gate both from outside Jerusalem and from inside the city, the camera lens can carry viewers with it inside the one image, and out of the other; motion picture film's great advantage over the still photograph has always been its ability to move into and out of the physical space. Thus, treating the Bonfils photographs with the panning, tilting, zooming of the video or motion picture lens brings the people in these images to life, and brings us into the same street they walked upon - 120 years ago.

From the above, it would seem that HSM is primarily a "photographic" museum. But that, said Carella and O'Reilly, would be misleading. First of all, they said, Dr. Gavin is a classical archeologist himself; he studied at Oxford and Harvard and has a Ph.D. from Harvard's own Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. (In between he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest after studying in Innsbruck.) He also went out on digs himself and in the 1960s worked with HSM Curator G. Ernest Wright on cuneiform tablets found in Nuzi in Iraq.

While there is a lot of excitement now about the value and possibilities of photo-archeology, HSM still maintains links with Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Language and Civilizations - and with the Harvard Divinity School, which is also involved in archeology and Middle East languages. For example, they said, Dr. Frank Moore Cross, director of HSM, also is a professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages.

"Moreover," they went on, "HSM is still backing traditional digs." One is underway near the Dead Sea and there are plans to open another soon near the recent discoveries at Ebla (See Aramco World, March-April 1978).

"On the other hand", Gavin says, "photo-archeology is an excellent medium to pursue the goals outlined in the HSM charter. The museum was founded to promote sound knowledge of Semitic languages and history, and it seems to me there are so many crazy stereotypes in this country about the people of the East, that sharing the worthiness of these images and the people in them would be a wonderful thing."

A Moment Of Light

To Carney Gavin, curator of Harvard University's Semitic Museum, the bomb that exploded in Harvard's Center for International Affairs in 1970 was "a moment of light." For although it was undoubtedly an act of violence, the explosion unearthed one of the great photographic collections of all time: some 28,000 photographs of the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including 800 lovely - and historically valuable - photographic prints by a family of photographers called Bonfils. Acquired by the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM) starting about 1892, the photographs had first been forgotten and then lost.

The bombers - thought to be two young women - apparently wanted to protest the alleged involvement of Henry Kissinger and his Harvard think tank, the Center for International Affairs, in plans to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Though Kissinger by then had left Harvard to become President Nixon's Special Advisor on National Security, the center, reportedly, was still working with him on defoliation and was still renting space in the HSM building on Divinity Avenue, a quiet corner of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A venerable Harvard institution - it was founded in 1889 to provide "a better knowledge of Semitic history and civilization" - HSM had fallen on hard times during and after World War II. First commandeered as a school for U. S. Army chaplains, it was later turned into a U. S. Navy Japanese language instruction center and then taken over by Kissinger's group. By the time Dr. Gavin came as assistant to the curator in 1970, most of the museum's collections - including cuneiform tablets, Sumerian glass, Palestinian costumes and other artifacts from digs in Cyprus and North Africa - had been relegated to basement and attic store rooms or lent to other museums.

But then, on October 14, 1970, the bomb exploded and things began to change. Planted in the center's third-floor library and apparently timed to go off at midnight so no one would get hurt, the bomb, according to Dr. Gavin, blew out a skylight, charred a few beams and scattered plaster all over the fourth-floor attic. Dr. Gavin, assessing the damage, noticed, for the first time, "hundreds of crimson boxes, covered in dust and tucked under the roof's eaves." In the boxes were more than 28,000 photographs, slides and stereoscopic views - among them 800 golden-hued prints made by the amazing Bonfils photographers.

For Middle East archeologists, these photographs were to be important; astonishingly clear and detailed, they handed archeology a new tool - to study Semitic history arid civilization - and to an extent revitalized HSM just as Dr. Gavin came aboard.

Before he accepted the post of assistant to the curator, Carney Gavin had already worked as a "dirt archeologist" on digs as far a field as Germany, Austria, Britain and Jordan - some of them sponsored by HSM. He knew, therefore, the value of HSM's collection and was delighted to find among the photographs a tin box containing records of the museum's treasures.

But it was the Bonfils photographs that began to engage the attention of Dr. Gavin and his staff of dedicated professionals and volunteers who burrowed into the crimson boxes found under the attic's eaves.

"The realization of what we had was a gradual one," Dr. Gavin said. "I recall bringing Adnan Abou Odeh, Jordan's Minister of Information, down to Boston City Hall in January, 1976, for Arab-American Ethnic Heritage Month - we had lent portraits of people of the Levant for the exhibit - and as he stood before the images he began to get excited, saying things like, 'that lace comes from a village in the foothills near Damascus.' He really began to dig into each picture."

In Jordan that same year, while Dr. Gavin was attending an international conference on the restoration of Jerash, something similar happened. Various experts had presented their carefully researched findings, Dr. Gavin said, including reports on probes and soundings and speculations on whether there had been a wall here or there and whether this find was part of a temple or a colonnade. Then Dr. Gavin produced photographs of Jerash more than 100 years ago - when it was still relatively intact - and suddenly all the experts realized that they had a new and highly effective archeological tool to use in answering just such questions.

That was just the beginning. As the conference went on, leaders of the Circassian community of Amman came forward to inspect the photographs and pointed at a group of men standing in the middle of the Roman stadium. "See their Astrakhan caps, their Cossack-like dress? "they said excitedly, "they are the Circassian scouts to Jerash to see if the water was drinkable."

The Circassians, the leaders explained, had been granted the land around Jerash by the Ottoman sultan -Jordan was then part of the Ottoman Empire - as they fled a massacre in Russia. And when their scouts found that the water was drinkable the Circassians moved there in 1879.

As this information came pouring out, elicited by the sight of the photograph, Dr. Gavin and the other experts at the conference saw that something very important was happening. "We suddenly realized we were into something that was the other side of history - something not found in any written report."

It was about then too that Dr. Gavin and his staff began to think more kindly of the two women suspected of planting the bomb in the museum building. "They were never caught," he said, "and who could wish for that today in light of their inadvertent gift? In fact, some people around here think we ought to put up a little plaque to them."

This article appeared on pages 8-31 of the November/December 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1983 images.