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Taking a shot at an intriguing but challenging subject

Early photographers flocked to the storied Holy Land only to find that the landscape offered little to make their images memorable. An exhibit at the Getty Villa presents the works they produced.

March 05, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

When the new science of photography was developed in the 1830s, the world became instantly accessible in a way it never had been before. Photographers turned first to the places that burned brightest in people's imaginations, none more than that sliver of Earth called the Holy Land.

There was just one problem.

"They encountered the fact that this incredibly important … land didn't have a lot of appeal in a photograph," said Kathleen Stewart Howe, the curator of an exhibition that opened this week at the Getty Villa, "In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th Century Photography."

Or, as another 19th century traveler put it: "Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince."

That was Mark Twain, writing in "The Innocents Abroad."

The Getty exhibit, drawn from its own collection of early photography, displays daguerreotypes, salted-paper prints and albumen silver prints created from the 1840s to the early 1900s by leading photographers of the time, who flocked to Jerusalem and the surrounding lands within months of the invention of cameras that captured images on film.

They came in the name of science, in the name of faith and in the name of cash: Photography was an instant craze, and the market for exotic photos was huge.

There was a hunger, especially in Christian Europe and North America, to see the places that had been invested with such enormous symbolic power through the Bible. The British in particular felt "almost as if they owned the space by right of their religious feeling," said Howe, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art.

The place names were among the central metaphors of Western civilization: Jerusalem. Bethlehem. The River Jordan. The Garden of Gethsemane.

Painters had been getting fat off these places for centuries, often without the distraction of having actually seen them.

But what the photographers found was a land whose days of glory were seemingly behind it. In the book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," scheduled for publication next week, author James Carroll describes how that city had devolved into "a backwater town in a minor, ever more impoverished province." By the start of the 19th century, he writes, its population was about 9,000, roughly half Muslim, one quarter Jewish and one quarter Christian (although those figures are subject to robust debate).

Early photographs of Jerusalem in the Getty exhibit show a city that was poor, dusty, ramshackle. Only the magnificent Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's most sacred buildings, hints that this wasn't just another desert hamlet.

The city's Damascus Gate, photographed by James Robertson of Britain in 1857, looks forlorn. A few people mingle on a dirt road that runs through rocky scrubland up to the imposing gate.

Still, perhaps in part because of the photographs, European and American tourists began flocking to the Holy Land on religious pilgrimages in the mid-19th century. Samuel Clemens, also known by his pen name, Mark Twain, was chronicling just such a tour when he passed through the region in 1867.

One photograph at the Getty shows a sign for Thomas Cook Tours just outside Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate in the 1880s, by which time tourism (largely Christian) and immigration (largely Jewish) had contributed to a much more bustling city.

The exhibit begins with a pairing of two views of Jerusalem. One is a lithograph made by a Scottish illustrator in 1839, showing a group of travelers resting outside the city walls. The sky is enlivened with billowing clouds; the foreground with leafy palms. Standing in contrast is a photograph, "Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives," taken by English photographer Francis Frith in 1858. There are no clouds. There are no people. The trees have a scattered, random look.

"Indeed," Howe said, "you can see that the person who is doing it with pencil and paint has a bit of an advantage."

Some photographers decided that they, too, could have an advantage. An 1875 photograph of the Jordan River by the Frenchman Felix Bonfils "looks like a bad Photoshopping job," Howe said. The Jordan of lore may have been "deep and wide," as the song goes, but the Jordan of reality was no match for the rivers that Europeans and Americans knew — the Mississippi, the Thames, the Rhine, the Seine.

So Bonfils got creative, sandwiching three negatives. He perched a desert camp on the banks of the river and next to it, a Bedouin and his camel. That made it more interesting, but the technology of the time had its limitations. Each element appears oddly out of scale. The Bedouin appears big enough for the NBA. The river? Still unimpressive.

C'est la vie.

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