A New Art in an Ancient Land: Palestine through the Lens of Early European Photographers

By Merli, Andrea | Jerusalem Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

A New Art in an Ancient Land: Palestine through the Lens of Early European Photographers


Merli, Andrea, Jerusalem Quarterly


Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective - distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. . . . Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition - it is dream-land.

Mark twain in The Innocents Abroad1 of all narrative accounts about Palestine written by Western travellers in the nineteenth century, the harsh words of American writer Mark twain strike even the most disenchanted reader. Except for its spiritual dimension, Palestine appeared to him as a dull and characterless place, miles away from the magnificent sights he found in Damascus or Giza. Other visitors to the region, who felt quite disappointed by the evident decay of the ottoman province of Palestine, shared twain's view. Their memories are consistent in describing a place of poverty and backwardness, as if it had been frozen, or dismissed from history, after having accomplished its mission of giving birth to Jesus - almost a "curse," as twain puts it. Many of the early Western travellers to Palestine did not hesitate to trust their first impressions of the land, which were recorded in their diaries and journals.

At the same time, as Rosovsky points out, visual artists followed a very different approach:

Just like painters, photographers selected and "edited" the scenes they captured. The brush and lens portrayed things differently from the pen because writers could describe both the good and the bad in one book, while painters and photographers had but one shot at a scene, and depictions of dirt, poverty, or misery did not sell. 2

Thus, a discrepancy emerges between the narrative and the visual accounts of the same subject: while literature might be expected to have a natural bent for imaginative departures from reality, in this context it turned out to be very focused on the present day and interested in the current conditions of the natural and social environment.

On the other hand, while photography was acclaimed as an extraordinary tool for depicting reality as accurately as ever thanks to the precision of science and technology, in Palestine it often turned away from contemporary subjects in order to search for evidence of a timeless past of biblical memory.

In the nineteenth century Palestine was indeed a neglected province of the ottoman Empire, but since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and his subsequent campaign along the Palestinian cities of the coast - Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa and acre - the Holy land attracted more and more interest in the West. Because of its paramount significance for Christianity, but also for its crucial position on the route to Syria and India, Palestine became the target of several ventures, mainly led by French and British explorers. Inspired by a wave of enthusiasm for the exotic and the sacred - both abundant in the Holy land - many pioneer photographers crossed the Mediterranean Sea to capture images that the European public was eager to see.

The first photographers heading eastwards to Palestine were Frenchmen Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, Horace Vernet, Girault de Parangey and Swiss-born Canadian Pierre Joly de lotbinière. The year 1839, writes Howe, saw "Goupil-Fesquet anxiously peering at the silvered plate in his mercury vapor development chamber, hoping to see a miniature of Jerusalem appear. …

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