I recently read a much re-posted article that claimed that a collection of 9,000 historical photographs taken in nineteenth century Palestine showed few if any Arabs. This absence was suggested as a proof that there were almost no Palestinian Arabs in nineteenth century Palestine. I doubted that, but I really wanted to see more of these exquisite pictures. What I discovered were scores of gorgeous photos of as many Arabs, Bedouins and Jews as well as landscapes. I also found a surprising connection of these photos connection to the impeachment of an American president.
In 1889 a museum Harvard opened the Semitic Museum. It was funded by a Jewish financier named Henry Schiff who directed its first curator, Professor Lyon, to acquire all of the extant photos a French photographer active in the third quarter of the 1800s, Felix Bonfils had worked first as a book binder, then as a printer working in heliogravures, a photographic printing process that transferred images onto metal plates for printing. The family moved to Lebanon, the “Paris of the East” where Felix opened a photographic studio at the very beginning of the age of photography, doing portraits and landscapes, the latter being sold to travelers. He made thousands of beautifully composed and skillfully printed images from 1867 to his death in 1885.
It might be hard for a generation raised literally teething on high resolution cell phone cameras and taking a trillion and a quarter photos a year to imagine what a difficult process photography was in 1867, requiring heavy equipment, specialized chemicals and skilled techniques controlling light, temperature, and processing. A single image was captured on a sheet of glass coated with silver iodide that reacted to light. That image was projected onto light sensitive paper that photographers had to produce themselves because of its short shelf life. The Albumen” process was so called because photographers had to mix liquid egg whites with silver nitrates and other chemicals and soak and dry their own photo paper. Bonfils’ paper was imported from one of only two manufacturers in Europe. Bonfils wife Lydie was the chemist and paper maker for the family enterprise. All of these images we see today are Albumen process, floating on a film of egg whites Lydie said she said she grew to hate the smell of.
There were other photographers in the “Levant” but an 1878 publication of his photographs in Paris was heralded as “one of the most considerable achievements – picturesque, artistic and scientific – of our epoch’’ and was widely seen in Paris, an impressive and exhaustive effort of years of work. His son continued to market the images after Bonfils death into the early twentieth century.
Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat in 1895 in Paris. He did not even see Israel with his own eyes until 1898. It is likely that these Felix Bonfils photos were the first images France saw of Israel and formed the thoughts and dreams of a generation, including Herzl’s as he penned his vision for a modern Jewish state.
Felix Bonfils travelled Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece and produced thousands of beautiful images, portraits of local people and landscapes. Visitors to the “Levant” certainly could not take their own photos so they purchased images made by the Studio Bonfils. Some of Bonfils photos were colorized by special process called “Photochromie”.
The Bonfils photos collection was the cornerstone of the Harvard Semitic Museum when it opened in a building Jewish financier Henry Schiff endowed. The building still stands today and though the name “Semitic Museum” is carved above the entry, the museum’s website barely mentions its Jewish roots or original charter. In fact there is no mention of “Bonfils” in past, present or future exhibitions of the Museum, only in an archive listing.
As the Museum’s mission dwindled and the collection was mothballed, the University began to sublet space in the building. The third floor became home to the Harvard Center for International Affairs (HCIA) which included classified military research. Henry Kissinger’s offices were located in the Semitic Museum’s third floor in the 1960’s. In October of 1970, the offices were bombed by anti-Vietnam war protesters in a case that’s never been solved. Some sensationalized accounts suggest that the Bonfils photos were completely forgotten in a sealed attic above the HCIA’s ceiling and the blast stunningly rescued them in an Indiana Jones-like cloud of dust and splinters, a glowing halo of discovery around crates of Bonfils treasure. In fact the photos were stored in the basement. But a Bonfils exhibit did indeed follow the bombing.
But a more momentous reveal was brewing in the Semitic Museum, where a couple doors down the hall from the bombing, an HCIA analyst named Daniel Ellsberg was quietly photocopying classified documents about the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Just as Bonfils photos of the Holy Land were being awakened from shadowy neglect, Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” were splashed across the front page of the New York Times revealing how Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon deceived the public about the possibility of victory in Vietnam. Nixon was so enraged by Ellsberg’s actions that he dialed up the “White House Plumbers” to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to discredit him. The “Plumbers” even plotted to put LSD in Ellsberg’s soup before a public appearance to further portray him as unstable. That went awry but Nixon seemed to like the Plumbers. Within a year they were breaking into the Watergate Complex’s office of the Democratic National Committee. That one did not go quite as swimmingly as the Plumbers were caught and Nixon’s cover up of ended his presidency in impeachment.
“Watergate” became a household word. Felix Bonfils faded back into obscurity. But his photos had likely already hit their mark. The gorgeous photographs of the nineteenth century Israel captured portraits of the diverse people of nineteenth century Israel full of many faiths and dreamlike landscapes. Though they’ve been misinterpreted and neglected, their impact may have been more powerful than Bonfils could have ever known: these were likely the very same images that Herzl held in his very hands and heart.