n the famous Flea Market of Paris some years back,
Fouad Debbas of Lebanon bought an old wooden box that the dealer said
would hold cigars nicely if Debbas would just throw away the "bits of
glass" in the bottom. Debbas, however, decided not to throw the "bits
of glassU away. A collectorof old photographic postcards, he had
recognized that they were rare UMagic Lantern" slides and delightedly
added them to his collection of old photographs, some 1,200 of which
were taken by the Bonfils family.
In assembling that collection, Debbas ~ot a lot of help from the curators and other experts of the Harvard Semitic Museum (HSM) - what Curator Carney Gavin alternately and affectionately calls his "moles" and his "acommandos". A mix of six full-time photographic experts and five or so knowledgeable, part-time volunteers, they work at the museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mount and accompany exhibits in the United States, Europe and the Middle East and roam the world on photographic "digs" for HSM. Last summer, for example, Dr. Gavin flew his key people to The Netherlands to work on a "dig" at the University of Leiden. Among them were William J. Corsetti associate curator for exhibit design and educational projects, the man who established HSM's photo-laboratory, and assistant curators Ingeborg O'Reilly and Elizabeth Carella. In early 1983, the same team mounted an exhibit of Bonfils photos in Cambridge, Paris and Beirut.
In addition to his "commandos", Dr. Gavin has also developed a network of what he describes as "good people concemed with the preservation of the past, people with an eye beyond today and tomorrow". Among them, he says, are people like Debbas, experts at such collaborating institutions as St. Anthony's College in Oxford, private collectors and small institutions.
Today, says Dr. Gavin, HSM is zeroing in on smaller institutions. "We don't concentrate on stuff in the British Museum or the Louvre, collections already well established and protected. We work largely with individuals - archeologists, perhaps, or workers returned from the oil fields".
From such institutions, as well as individuals, come tips that lead HSM specialists to the odd places where, for some reason, important collections seem to turn up. One such place was a tower room in the castle of the Prince of Liechtenstein. "Prince Johannes the Good took a pilgrimage to the East", said Gavin. "He was granted a pasha's escort by the Sultan, so he got into a great many places the normal tourist of the time would never see. And he brought with him this little aristrocratic toy, the camera".
To enable HSM's staff to track down and assess such collections, Dr. Gavin - with a grant of $600,000 from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - has set up an informal organization that he calls "FOCUS" - for "finding, organizing, copying, using and sharing" photographs of historic import in the Middle East FOCUS has also garnered support from Royal Jordanian and Middle EastAirlines, Eastman Kodak and Polaroid, Aramco, Exxon, Raytheon and other corporations.
In their search, Carney's commandos have come up with many amusing stories. One concerned a photographer who, said Gavin, "may have been a spy for the Kaiser. But he then turned up as a British colonial officer after the First World War. He was very good at taking pictures of things like dhows under British and French flags of protection or of coaling stations."
Another good photographer in those early days was the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. He established a studio on the roof of his city manse, where he trained his nephews in the photographic art (Armenians have long dominated photography in the Middle East, because - Mardik Berberian, son of an early photographer in Damascus, said -"skills cannot be robbed and we could always get new lenses and paper wherever we fled".)
In assessing such collections when they turn up, HSM teams are often able to advise the owners of the historical value of what they've got, or find out its significance from someone linked through the project to the HSM. Those slides that Debbas purchased for the cost of the box - two francs - turned out to be the oldest photographs known of the Al Khalifas, currently celebrating their 200th anniversary as the rulers of Bahrain.
"Finding these things is often a matter of serendipity", said team-member Ingeborg O'Reilly, assistant curator for archives, and coordinator of international duplicatior services. "We put notices in certain jour nals, but often it's word of mouth that brings them to our attention - or us, to theirs"
The first step, she explained, is to "go in and help them catalog". She is devising a computerized cataloging system in which data sheets will be prepared on each photograph and collection, using the same descriptive language and nomenclature of identification. Libraries and institution. using the system will then be able to quickly identify a photograph in other collections they may need for research, and obtain copies.
"Copies" is a key word here, since HSM is not interested in acquiring originals for the sake of owning "originals" HSM, in fact, has long since stopped buying collections of artifacts. As this article was being researched, for example, HSM staff were photographing and packing some 600 cuneiform tablets being returned to Iraq Under an agreement with the National Museum of Iraq in the 193as HSM had agreed to give the tablets back when studies of them were complete. HSM, says Dr. Gavin, simply wants to share the photographs. "When we find an 'orphan collection'," he said, "we try first to encourage the appropriate national repository to buy it- if it has adequate facilities to preserve such collections. Descendants of the first Arab photographer in the Middle East, for example, approached us to buy his collection, then in Switzerland. But since we're not interested in buying these things ourselves and perhaps helping drive their price up, we informed the Institute of Palestine Studies about the collection, and it eventually acquired them".
When this is impossible, members of the team go in to "assess the situation" Wherever possible, Dr. Gavin said, "we try to get the local experts interested, and to look at them" But the staff members themselves often wind up putting their expertise to work. For example, Elizabeth Carella, assistant curator for photographic history, writes a photographic historian's commentary, and, in her basement photo lab on Divinity Avenue, turns out superb duplicate negatives, prints and even murals.
Spectacular collections are not the only concern of HSM's staff. Indeed, they believe that every tourist who ever took a holiday in the Middle East, camera in hand, may have caught something in his lens which could prove to be of inestimable value. The photo-archeologist, after all, is trained to look beyond Aunt Maude in the foreground and perhaps see an inscriptionona temple wall long since lost in windblown sands.
Nor do they limit their interest to very old photographs. "We're even interested in photos taken in the 1930s and 1940s, said Gavin. "So much has happened in the last decade alone - especially in places like Saudi Arabia - that even 40-year-old photographs could be valuable. We're also poking into archives and libraries, and we're particularly interested in aerial survey flights and photographs" Those last could be of great assistance to geologists and agronomists involved in the new science of geomorphology: the evolution of land forms and their application to prob- lems in agriculture.
Finding photographs, of course, is just the beginning. After they found the Bonfils photos in the HSM attic, for example, Dr. Gavin's experts also had to dig up the history of the Bonfils family, and then dig into - in the archeological sense - the 800 spectacularly lovely prints.
"In digging into such a project," said Gavin, "the first thing we leam is not merely to look, but to see. We were looking at a photograph of Istanbul, for example, and I commented on how busy everybody must have been in this imperial capital; there were no people in the picture. But a man named Clark Worswick, who has written on the early photography of China, countered that there were indeed people- the beggars, under the shadows of the trees in front of the Great Mosque, gathered in liffle groups of two and threes. And there were. We just hadn't seen them"
It may have been, Dr. Gavin went on, that everyone with a place to go to was already inside. Under the hot noonday sun favored by mad dogs, Englishmen and photographers - because it shortened their exposure times - the beggars would have only the trees for shelter. But on the other hand, close inspection of the Bonfils photographs shows that there are always hidden touches: two boys reflected in mirrors, peering at their mother having her portrait taken; a solid little building by one of Jerusalem's gates that wasn't there a decade earlier, and was gone again a decade later; scars on a Bedouin woman's face.
Seen through a simple magnifying lens, such details are not only interesting, but revealing. The Bedouin woman, for example, had scars, but not the tattoos common among many groups, and Gavin theorizes that the coming of gypsies to the region years later introduced tattooing to the tribes.
Such "seeing" is important. One Damascene professor of architecture dismissed a palace interior as "very western, very Versailles Hall of Mirrors" - and so it seemed. "But then,' said Dr. Gavin, Uyou look through the magnifying glass at the furniture, and you see the wonderful mother- of-pearl inlays on the arms and legs and backs of the Louis Seize furniture"
The next step is to enlarge the photographs, producing extremely clear, virtually grain-free images of inscriptions on walls, details on jewelry, even cargo on the decks of ships in the harbor of Beirut in one of the panoramas. In the background of one photograph by Adrien Bonfil$ for example, an enlargement picked out some fake hieroglyphs an entrepreneur had painted over the entrance to his restaurant, inside one of the temples.
"There's a limit, of course," said Dr. Gavin, "but we can go into a window, and if somebody was not too far away inside, we can turn up the brightness controls and catch them. Or we can read the labels on the tins of goods inside aJerusalem shop " And by turning to today's new technologyvideo and motion picture lenses, and TV's easy control of image contrast and brightness, which makes it possible to almos literally enter these images - photoarcheologists are able to find things that the Bonfils probably didn't notice.
Thus far the museum's work has been fairly simple in technical terms. "We've an eye on sophisticated image-enhancing techniques", said Gavin, "particularly on the work of Dean Robert Johnston of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where they've been doing that kind of thing for a decade" He thinks it will be particularly useful in dealing with photographs that have been badly damaged or have faded, producing "foxing" - darkand light patches across the print.
But for the moment, these techniques - familiar to anyone who has seen photographs of the planets from NASA's Voyager satellites - must wait while the museum gets on with its job of getting some of its recent images out to the public.
So far, for example, HSM has put the Bonfils collection on microfiche, and Dr. Gavin has written an accompanying text: The Image of the East: Nineteenth-Century Near Eastern Photographs by Bonfil$ University of Chicago Press. And HSM and UNESCO are joining forces to produce a series of 12 posters, including one of a Bonfils panorama of Beirut, based on early photographs. These will make use of laser-scanning printing techniques to produce highly detailed duo-tone prints in large format.
Perhaps the most exciting way of getting the pictures out to the public is their use in television programs. Two of these, one on Jerusalem, the other on the Holy Land in general, have been prepared.
Dr. Gavin and his staff have also combined old photographs with the original words of the photographers in brief shows used to introduce the museum's work to other scholars.
Because Bonfils photographed the Jaffa Gateboth from outsideJerusalem and from inside the city, the camera lens can carry viewers with it inside the one image, and out of the other; motion picture film's great advantage over the still photograph has always been its ability to move into and out of the physical space. Thus, treating the Bonfils photographs with the panning, tilting, zooming of the video or motion picture lens brings thee people in these images to life, and brings us into the same street they walked upon -120 years ago.
From the above, it would seem that HSM is primarily a "photographic" museum. But that, said Carella and O'Reilly, would be misleading. First of all, they said, Dr. Gavin is a classical archeologist himself; he studied at Oxford and Harvard and has a Ph.D. from Harvard's own Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (In between he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest after studying in Innsbruck.) He also went out on digs himself and in the 196aS worked with HSM Curator G. Ernest Wright on cuneiform tablets found in Nuzi in Iraq.
While there is a lot of excitement now about the value and possibilities of photoarcheology, HSM still maintains links with Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Language and Civilizations - and with the Harvard Divinity School, which is also involved in archeology and Middle Eastern languages. For example, they said, Dr. Frank Moore Cross, director of HSM, also is a professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages.
"Moreover", they went on, "HSM is still backing traditional digs". One is underway near the Dead Sea and there are plans to open another soon near the recent discoveries at Ebla (See Aramco World, March-April 1978).
"On the other hand", Gavin says, "photo-archeology is an excellent medium to pursue the goals outlined in the HSM charter. The museum was founded to promote sound knowledge of Semitic languages and history, and it seems to me there are so many crazy stereotypes in this country about the people of the East, that sharing the worthiness of these images and the people in them would be a wonderful thing"