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Photo Book

Photographer: Félix Bonfils
By Félix Bonfils, Douglas M. Haller
Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
Publication date: 2000
Print length: 96 pages
From street scenes to portraits, landscapes to architectural studies, this fascinating collection of photographs allows us to glimpse a time and way of life now past: Ottoman Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the latter half of the nineteenth century. P. Felix Bonfils was the first French photographer, and one of the first European photographers, to settle in the Near East, establishing a studio in Beirut in 1867. He is credited with introducing the genre of Near Eastern photographic portraiture, and the selection published here, taken by Felix, his wife Lydie, and his son Adrien, includes remarkable portraits of Bedouin, Ottoman officials, Shiite Muslims, and village peasants, as well as examples of the clothing worn by different sections of society. While many of these and other pictures were posed and made use of models, and while some have been criticized for pandering to the taste for the exotic prevalent in Europe at the time, the Bonfils collection is nevertheless an invaluable social record, containing many sensitive ethnographic portraits and objective and unobtrusive field-shots.

The Bonfils landscapes, panoramic views, and architectural studies of Near Eastern cities and monuments are also important historical records of places and buildings that have deteriorated, disappeared, or been reconstructed since the images were made. Many of these photographs are masterpieces of geometric composition, carefully framed and occasionally making use of models to suggest scale, while the exposure time of others allowed the movement of objects and water to be captured. Several photographs also capture the contrast between the traditional and the modern, a Nile bark juxtaposed with Cairo’s Qasr al-Nil drawbridge in British Egypt being one example.

The fifty-nine black-and-white and color images presented here have been compiled from original Maison Bonfils albumen-print photographs and photochromes in the archival collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. Whether seen as historical documents, works of art, commercial products, or all three combined, one thing is certain: they capture the monuments, landscapes, and people of the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of an era, a society about to be changed forever by Western technology, culture, and colonial rule.
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