ike 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 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".
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.
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.