Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

All dressed up

Reviewed by Nigel Ryan

Felix Bonfils was one of the first European photographers to set up shop in the Middle East, opening a studio in Beirut in 1867. He was joined by his wife, Lydie, who continued to be involved in the business until her deportation, as an enemy alien, to Cairo in 1916. Their son, Adrien, also played a prominent role, though in Lydie's later years in Beirut the business was managed by Abraham Guiragossian, who finally dissolved the company -- by then operating under the name Successor to Maison Bonfils -- in 1938.

Dancers Dance of the almas (Egyptian professional dancers), Cairo. Albumen print, signed; ca.1885-1901
If in his brief introduction Douglas Haller skips over the tediously circular debate over questions of representation that dogs so much writing on 19th and early 20th century photography in the Middle East it is, happily, in favour of such details, and the occasional anecdote. Lydie, upon her arrival in Cairo, we are told, had developed such a hatred of eggs that she could not stand the sight of them, let alone eat the things, her unusual phobia a result of decades of coating albumen paper with egg whites.

Maison Bonfils, of course, operated as a commercial concern, producing images by a lengthy and, during the early years of the business, expensive process, for a local market that consisted mainly of tourists. It was an unapologetic exercise in packaging local colour for consumption elsewhere: pseudo-documentary, it is in the accidental accretion of details that any archaeological interest might lie.

Observing the highest production standards this volume contains a selection of 58 photographs taken in Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and covers the expected genres -- street scenes, portraiture, architectural subjects and panoramas -- the majority reproduced from original albumen prints. Today, for the non-specialist, it is the street scenes that are likely to provoke the greatest interest, if only because they have become the easiest, the least complex, vehicles for nostalgia -- though it would be an inadmissible oversimplification to congratulate oneself that this is because they are somehow more objective than the others. Formally, the most satisfying tend to be the architectural studies, exercises in that near impossible geometry that is the prerogative of the overview. The portraits -- like contemporary photographic portraits everywhere -- tend towards the costume drama, and have yet to escape the atmosphere of the dressing up box. Yet it is these posed, dressed up, static, staged portraits that manage, in the end, to move and this almost -- though not quite -- in spite of the intentions of the photographers. Among the accidental accretion of detail, it is, as always, the face that shines through.


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