Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Bonfils Story, A Legacy Of Light (from the Aramco World, Nov-Dec 1983)

Written by Will H. Rockett 
Photographed by Felix, Adrien and Lydie Bonfils 

 This image by the firm of Maison Bonfils depicts the city of Beirut, Lebanon, sometime in the last third of the 19th century. Maison Bonfils was the extraordinarily prolific venture of the French photographer Félix Bonfils (1831–85), his wife Marie-Lydie Cabanis Bonfils (1837–1918), and their son, Adrien Bonfils (1861–1928). 

The Arabic phrase musawwir shamsi - one who makes pictures by the sun is probably the earliest Arabic term for photographer, and tradition has it that scholars, in considering Islamic prohibitions against graven images, decided photographs merely recorded the shadows cast by God's sunlight.
There was, nevertheless, opposition to photography among most religious groups in the Middle East, and, as a result, visual records of peoples, monuments and scenes of the region have been usually made and preserved throughout history by foreigners.

Among the best examples of this are the famous Roberts Prints, by 19th-century British artist David Roberts (See Aramco World, March-April 1970). Another earlier example is the encydopedic record made by some 2,000 European artists, draftsmen and skilled engravers who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's army on its 1798 Egyptian campaign and helped to produce the 20-volume Description de l'Egypte (See Aramco World, March-April 1976). A monumental work, Description incorporated generally excellent drawings of the ruins and monuments of Egypt.

David Roberts, Farhat Art Museum collection
David Roberts, Farhat Art Museum collection

Such illustrations, unfortunately, were not always as accurate as they might have been, since they were subject to dlange as they went from the artists on the spot to engravers and publishers; engravers of that period tended to "translate" illustrations as they made plates for publication. Until rotogravure printing came along, this was a process that would affect all sudh illustrations - as Dr. Carney Gavin, curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM), made dear in this example of 19th-century illustrations: "An Irish nobleman made a sketch of Beirut harbor in 1836. He then gave it to an artist at the Royal Academy, who prettied it up. It was then passed on to a German engraver, who in turn gave it to John Murray of Albemarle Street, a publisher. In the end, what the public saw wasn't at all bad; but it was really a drawing-by-committee."

Then, in 1839, Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre ushered in the age of photography with a public announcement of the first practical photographic process - the daguerreotype - and within weeks, reportedly, so-called "Excursions Daguerriennes" began recording the sights of the Eastfor an avid European audience.

For years before that, Western interest in the Middle East had been whetted by the then - widespread knowledge of the Bible, and by such travel literature as Alexander William Kinglake's Eothen, and William Makepeace Thackeray's Notes of a lourney from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, published under the pseudonym "Titmarsh" As a result, hardy - and wealthy - souls had begun to add Egypt and the Holy Land to their "Grand Tour" itineraries, and they in turn began to publish reminiscences and sketches that stimulated still more interest. 

Now, with photography, travelers could begin to capture such exotica with greater fidelity than was possible with pen and ink - though even the daguerreotype had limitations. A one-shot affair, the daguerreotype image was fixed forever upon a metal plate, and could not be readily reproduced. Engravers, therefore, still had to be brought in - initially to copy the work on a separate printing plate, later to engrave lines directly onto the photographic plate itself.
In 1841, the invention of the paper negative, or "calotype," by William Fox Talbot permitted the reproduction of multiple images from one original, but Daguerre's method which offered a sharper, more durable image, held sway among photographers until Frederick Scott Archer introduced a process using glass negatives in 1851. Prints could be made from these negatives, and then "tipped" onto the pages oft ravel books-i.e. pasted in by hand, in effect making each copy an album of original photographs.

Frederick Scott Archer

Most of the earliest European photographers of the Middle East - Horace Vernet, Joly de Lotbiniere and others -were daguerreotypists, but Maxime Du Camp, who accompanied Flaubert on the poet's 1849-51 excursion to the Middle East, got excellent results with paper negatives, and Francis Frith, photographer and publisher, secured a firm place in the history of photography using glass negatives. As an Athenaeum critic wrote in 1858, "Mr. Frith, who makes light of everything, brings us the Sun's opinion of Egypt, which is better than Champollion's... Eothen's or Titmarsh's"

As for Frith, he deemed himself an artist in league with the sun, writing, "The Sun himself condescends to pigmify (the image),and pop it bodily into the boxw hich your artist provided". And at one point he gleefully recounted the envy of a French artisthe encountered at MedinetHabu:

"When, in a few minutes, I had possessed myself of more accuracy than his labor of perhaps days would yield, he exclaimed with politeness-and (let us hope) with no dash of bitterness, nor scornfulnes, nor envy - 'Ah, Monsieur! que wus etes vite, vite!'"

Acceptance of photography as a fine art was erratic, but it did catch on as a popular art. The Times of London proclaimed that Frith's photographs "carry us far beyond anything that is in the power of the most accomplished artist to transfer to his canvas," and Queen Victoria compiled 110 albums of photographs. Frith, meanwhile, had turned book publisher, and in addition to various portfolios and volumes of his pictures, brought out a special Queen's Bible in 1862-3. It featured 20 photographic views from his collection, and sold in a limited edition for 50 guineas, a very considerable sum at that time. The British Journal of Photography said Frith's books were "got up in a style that renders them fit ornament for any drawing room", and since the public agreed, Frith's enterprises prospered.

The Holy Bible Illustrated with Photographs by [Francis] Frith. Glasgow: Printed and published by William Mackenzie, 1862-1863. Albumen silver print.
Francis Frith, one of the 20 photos of the Bible

At the root of this popularity was the "awe and wonder with which Victorian viewers greeted Frith's startlingly truthful photographs of the most ancient and his- toric lands known to them", as historian Julia van Haaften wrote in an edition of Frith's Egyptian photographs. But there was another element too: the need for travelers to bring back souvenirs.

Toward the end of the 19th century, middle class Europeans were beginning to travel in such great numbers that some observers had begun to object. Journalist William Howard Russell, for example, protested in The Times that tourists "...crowd the sites which ought to be approached in reverential silence..."

Like their counterparts today, these travelers also demanded keepsakes - and thought that they had a right to them. A Father Geramb, for example, reportedly told Muhammad Ali the ruler of Egypt in 1833, that "it would hardly be respectable, on one's return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other" Thus, when some governments in the Middle East began to crack down on such looting, daguerreotypes and other forms of photography offered travelers an attractive alternative - particularly when they were made and marketed by "Bonfils".

Bonfils, Félix (1831-1885) - 672. Femmes musulmanes Syriennes

Bonfils was by no means the only good photographer of the period; between the time Daguerre introduced his process and the time Bonfils began to take and market photographs, some 200 known photographers were in business - some of them quite good. In Luxor, for example, prints by a man named Beato were on sale, and in Istanbul prints by a photographer named Sebah could be sent home rolled up in metal tubes. But few of them compared to the photography produced by the Bonfils farnily-as Gratien Charvet, founderof the Societe Saentifique et Litteraire in Ales, France, would vehemently argue.

he man who wrote the introduction to the Bonfils' 1878 collection of photographs, Souvenirs d'Orient, Charvet said enthusiastically that the "collection of photographs of the Orient's principal sites - initiated, executed and completed by Monsieur F. Bonfils with unequaled perseverance - should be regarded as one of the most considerable achievements - picturesque, artistic and scientific - of our epoch". 
Arab man smoking pipe, late 1800s. F. Bonfils

Despite this, the Bonfils family had virtually vanished from history by the time that Father Gavin and his staff began to dig into the family history. "All we know of Bonfils", said photographic historian Beaumont Newhall, in answer to Gavin's inquiries, "is that he was a genius".

As recently as two years ago, Gavin wrote in the journal Nineteenth Century: "No one remembers the photographers Bonfils - not even the Sub-Prefect M. Maurice Bonfils - not even the staff of the Evangelical Library in nearby Saint Hippo- Iyte dedicated to collecting biographies of local sons - not even the region's oldest printers and photographers. And at the time of Felix Bonfils', death in 1885, no obituary nor even notice was published in local journals".

Since then, however, Dr. Gavin and his staff have learned a lot about the Bonfils family. In fact, it was two of Dr. Gavin's volunteers - Al and Phyllis Weisman - who first turned up evidence that there was more than one Bonfils photographer: in a New Hampshire barn, they came across the effects of a missionary who had photographic prints signed, "A. Bonfils". "Until then", Dr. Gavin said, "we had found only 'F. Bonfils'".

"They were an incredible family", said Dr. Gavin. They were descendants of Theodore, the emperor of Abysinia, and are related through marriage to the actor Peter Ustinov. One of them, Adrien, was alternately a sergeant brigadier of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, a photographer in his father's studio and a Beirut hotelier. The father, Felix, was the son of a wood-lathe worker, but built up a photographic business with connections in Cairo, Alexandr. ia, Paris and London, as well as Beirut and Ales, the Bonfils home in France. And when Lydie Bonfils, the third photographer, left Beirut in 1916, it was as an evacuee on the deck of the U.S.S. DesMoines.

Litte of that was known at first, but bit by bit over the last 12 years, research by Dr. Gavin and his staff has pieced the story together. It is a story of affection, piety and devotion - to each other and to their adopted homeland, Lebanon - and it begins in the small French town of Ales about 1860 when the family Bonfils set of for Beirut one after the other.

The first to go was Felix Bonfils. Born in 1831, Felix took up the trade of bookbinder, but in 1860 joined General d'Hautpoul's expedition to the Levant to end an outbreak of factional fighting. Evidence suggests that Felix became a photographer sometime after his return from Lebanon, possibly as an amateur. Then, however, when his son Adrien fell ill, felix remembered the cool green hills around Beirut and sent him there to recover. With him went Felix's wife Lydie Bonfils, and when she returned, apparently as enthusiastic about the Middle East as Felix had been, they decided to return en famille.

Photography of Bonfils studio in Beirut, private collection, documentation of Fouad Debbas, TFDC

Since Felix was by then working in Ales as a printer, producing heliogravures - a photographic process invented by Abel Niepce de St. Victor, cousin of the man frequently called "the father of photography", Joseph Nicephore Niepce - he decided to try and support himself in Lebanon by taking up the trade of la photographie. Though it may seem like an odd decision, it turned out well; in 1867, the Bonfils family arrived in Beirut and four years later Felix reported the results of what must have been staggering labor: 15,000 prints of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Greece, and 9,000 stereoscopicviews.

Those negatives were made on glass plates, coated with a collodion solution sensitized with silver nitrate. The plates had to be prepared on the spot-usually in a tent in the Middle East, although Francis Frith occasionally used cool tombs and temples as well. Then they were exposed and developed immediately afterwards. Prints could be made later, quite literally by sunlight: paper impregnated with a silver salt solution was stretched against the glass plate in a frame, and then exposed out of doors under direct sunlight.

Though the prints, golden in tone, were beautiful, the photographers had to use eggwhite, or albumen, as a binding agent on the paper and this eventually became unpleasant since the Bonfils family apparently prepared the egg-white themselves. Lydie Bonfils in 1917 was heard to mutter, "I never want to smell another egg again", and supposedly forbade them at her breakfast table thereafter.

Portrait of Lydie Bonfils, private collection, documentation of Fouad Debbas

The process could also be dangerous- particularly in the hot climate of the Middle East. As Frith wrote, "When (at the Second Cataract, one thousand miles from the mouth of the Nile, with the thermometer at 110 degrees in my tent) the collodion actually boiled when poured upon the glass plate, I almost despaired of success".

The second Bonfils photographer was Felix's son, Adrien. Born at Ales in 1861, Adrien was six when the family moved permanently to Beirut Like his father he did military service - as a brigadier in a cavalry regiment in Algeria - but on the death of Felix in 1885, he returned to Beirut to take over the family business, and was soon setting off on new photographic expeditions and launching publishing projects that easily matched Frith's in quality and quantity.

It was Adrien to whom a London agent named Mansell was referring when he wrote, in 1892, to a certain David Gordon Lyon, "I hear from Bonfils that he has made an addition of 150 views to his Egyptian series - shall send these to you when I receive them".

Lind and Adrien Bonfils

Rachel's tomb (circa late 19th century) by Adrien Bonfils.

Adrien Bonfils outside the family's Beirut studio, from which flowered a prolofic output of meticulously processed prints. 
This, says Dr. Gavin's staff, seems to be the first reference to what was becoming the Bonfils collection and to the man who took it upon himself to acquire the photographs: Professor Lyon, the first curator of a new museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the Harvard Semitic Museum. Founded in 1899 - with donations from Jacob Henry Schiff of the New York bank ing house of Kuhn, Loeb & Company- HSM, according to its charter, was intended to provide "a thorough study and a better knowledge of Semitic history and civilization, so that the world shall better understand and acknowledge the debt it owes to the Semitic people".

To that end, Lyon began to collect artifacts from the Middle East, particularly the Bonfils photographs. It is not known whether he realized haw valuable they would be in archeology, but it's unlikely. It is only now, Gavin says, that researchers are coming to realize the value of photographs. aLibrarians have leamed to pay careful attention to handwritten notes and diaries, as well as to books and manuscripts. Curators carefully tend sketch pads and ok engravings as 'works of art' But photographs... have until recently remained forgotten".

Bedouin mothers carrying their children on their shoulders. Color photo taken in the late 19th century by the French photographer Félix Bonfils

Nevertheless, Dr. Gavin says, Lyon did work hard at collecting Bonfils photographs. "Lyon's interest was encyclopedic; one can infer from the Mansell note that he's told the agent he wants all the photographs". Furthermore, he nearly succeeded; despite occasional difficulties with U.S. Customs, he secured nearly half of what was available and went on to catalog them, giving them English titles and museum code numbers.

This is known, because Adrien himself had issued three catalogs, organizing 1,684 photographs into nine groups covering Lower and Upper Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia and Greece. In addition, there was a series of 25 "panoramas" consisting of two or more separate pictures which, when placed side by side, showed broad cityscapes of such Eastern centers as Cairo, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Damascus and, of course, Beirut. The series was rounded out by a selection of Egyptian views and costumes - including desert scenes and a wedding and a collection of scenes and costurnes of Palestine and Syria.

As these catalogs suggest, Adrierl's output was prolific. But in addition to this expansion of his father's business, he was also experimenting with mechanically colored prints - they were done in Zurich, by the photochromie process - and made four trips to Philadelphia to explore publication opportunities, including a proposed New Testament Illustrated with Photographs, and a book on the journeys of St. Paul.
Meanwhile, the Bonfils family had added a third photographer to its roster: Lydie Bonfils, a fact that emerged when the HSM staff found a reference by an English clergyman named Manning, in his 1874 volume, Palestine lllustrated by Pen and Pencil, to photographers whose prints he used in preparing his own sketches. Among them was "Madame Bonfils of Beyrout".

Young woman from Lebanon, albumin print, attributed to Lydie Bonfils

Lydie, it seems, had decided that mixing albumen for her husband and son was not enough, and apparently got involved in portraits and costume studies in the Beirut studios; descendants, in fact, have confirmed that she worked in the family's Beirut studio for some time after her son abandoned the trade in the early 1900s. There is evidence too that she ranged more widely. In Brummana, a member of the Maksad family told of "Lady Bonfils" stopping a Druze shaikh to pose for her one morning, just after the outbreak of the First World War. And her own photo, according to Nitza Rosovsky, an historian of old Jerusalem, appears in one of the prints in the Harvard cache; she is standing on the pyramid at Giza.

Thus Lydie, despite a growing distaste for eggs, apparently continued the business after Adrien had begun to turn his attention to a proposed medical spa in the mountains of Lebanon - even issuing her own catalog until the First World War forced her removal from Beirut and brought an end to the prolific photographic output of this remarkable family.

By then, however, the work of the Bonfils family was not only extensive, but of an unparalleled quality. Tt is, in fact, an incomparable legacy to both history and art.