Félix Adrien Bonfils was a French photographer and writer who was active in the Middle East. He was one of the first commercial photographers to produce images of the Middle East on a large scale and amongst the first to employ a new method of colour photography, developed in 1880.
He was born in Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort and died in Alès. Félix worked as a bookbinder. In 1860, he joined General d'Hautpoul's expedition to the Levant, organized by France following the massacre of Christians in the civil conflict between Christians and Druze in Mount Lebanon and Damascus. On his return to France, it is thought that Félix was taught the heliogravure printing process by Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor and opened a printing office in Alès in 1864. Soon after returning from Lebanon, he became a photographer.
In 1857, he married Marie-Lydie Cabanis. When his son, Adrien, fell ill, Félix remembered the green hills around Beirut and sent him there to recover, being accompanied by Félix's wife. The family moved to Beirut in 1867 where they opened a photographic studio called "Maison Bonfils".
Félix Bonfils and his wife Lydie (1837-1918) came from Saint Hippolyte du Fort in the Gard. As a binder, then a printer, and finally a photographer trained by Niépce de Saint Victor, Félix Bonfils stayed in Lebanon in 1860 during France’s military expedition. He soon decided to transfer his activity there, and so Bonfils’s photographic studio was founded in Beirut in 1867. Bonfils was not a pioneer photography, yet he was the first Frenchman to open a studio in Beirut. His wife, soon assisted by their son Adrien (1861-1929), produced portraits and genre scenes as they travelled throughout Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Turkey and Greece before bringing back their shots.
The Bonfils studio was above all renowned for its landscapes, sites and views of architecture made first of all for artists, wealthy travellers, art historians and archaeologists, then for an increasing number of tourists. Bonfils immediately became extremely active: at the beginning of the 1870s his catalogue included some fifteen thousand shots, five hundred and ninety-one negatives from Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece, and nine thousand stereoscopic views. In 1876, Constantinople was added. A new catalogue resuming these images was published in 1876. These shots were sold one by one on demand, but also brought together in albums. In 1872, Bonfils started out by presenting Architecture antique. Egypte. Grèce. Asie Mineure. Album de photographies published by Ducher in Paris and including fifty albumen originals tipped onto cards with printed captions.
For the Paris World Fair in 1878, he produced a series of five volumes entitled: Souvenirs d’Orient : album pittoresque des sites, villes et ruines les plus remarquables…
published by their author in Alès in 1877-1878 and covering the Orient from Egypt and Nubia (volumes I and II) to Athens and Constantinople (volume V). Each album included around forty original, tipped-in photographs, as well as an “historical, archaeological and descriptive notice opposite each plate”. These collections were thus offered to the buyers in a finished form, a little like the engraved keepsakes from the 1830s. They won a medal at the World Fair and the department of Stamps at the then Bibliothèque Impériale acquired the entire collection.
At this time, the firm, which was now divided between Alès and Beirut, was renamed Bonfils et Cie. This enterprise had a commercial rationale: it was important for it to offer as broad an offer as possible covering all the countries of the Middle East, with all the sites, monuments and landscapes sought-out by its clientele. For this reason, Félix Bonfils was soon unable to do everything on his own. Apart from his wife and son, he took on the help of assistants who have mostly remained anonymous, as well as local photographers also from the Gard, such as Tancrède Dumas (1830-1905) and Jean-Baptiste Charlier (1822-1907) who sold on their shots to him.
In 1875 Félix Bonfils felt the need to distribute his prints from Europe, even if he also had a network of foreign correspondents as can be seen in their often bilingual captions. He left his wife and son to manage the Beirut studio and moved back to Alès in the Gard to organize mail ordering of all the images they produced on the banks of the Mediterranean. After his death in 1885, the firm which had opened up several subsidies around the Middle East, was run by his wife and son, until 1895 when the latter turned towards the hotel business. It was only at the death of Lydie Bonfils in 1918 that Abraham Guiragossian, who had been an associate since 1909, brought up the business, which finally closed in 1938.
The entire catalogue of works provided by the Bonfils company is as large as it is interesting, especially because these images marry a documentary concern with an aesthetic approach to composition and framing. The large number of photographers explains the obvious fluctuations of quality. The great demand, trade requirements, and the interest of the clientele in the obviously picturesque explains why a part of the production can be judged to be rather mediocre, unjustly obscuring pieces of great quality. This huge production spread out over more than half a century explains why Bonfils’s photographs are today heavily present in French public collections (the BnF, Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Musée Niépce…).
Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France