Photo of a Nation

Simone Fattal

A History of Photography in Lebanon 1840–1944
By Michel Fani
Editions de L’Escalier, 2005

For an American reader, the experience of reading this book and exploring the photographs of Lebanon, which range from the earliest daguerreotypes to those taken in the middle of the 20th century, is likely to be an unalloyed pleasure.

For the Lebanese reader, however, the pleasure might be infused with sadness. It seems to relate the conquest of Lebanon by the French through their Jesuit auxiliary. We are not told specifically where all these photos come from, but one guesses that they were all part of the Jesuit archives in Beirut and stored there until recently. We read that they are now to be found at the Institute of Photography in Lebanon.

The first pictures, made by such visitors as Frederic-Goupil Fesquest (1840), and J-P Giraud de Prangey (1843), are beautiful. They capture a country where towns and villages are scarce, built entirely of stone (an indication of the wealth of the inhabitants) and far away from each other. The earliest pictures taken by visitors and residents alike are of landscapes and the archeological site of Baalbek. These early visitors came from all over Europe and even from the United States, but the majority were French. The French visitors were often sent on missions, first given to lay people like Gustave Flaubert and Maxime du Camp, who visited Egypt and Lebanon on the same trip.

As they continue, the spirit of the pictures seems to change, probably a reflection of the French decision to settle in Lebanon. We see Jesuits opening a school in Ghazir, and then one in Beirut; included are pictures of both schools and their seminarians.

Nowhere do we see the occupations of the inhabitants depicted. We have a picture of Beit Chabab, but not of the industry of the bronze bells that were made there. One picture gives an idea of the richness of the region: the warehouses in the port of Tripoli, but there are no images of either the mulberry trees or the silk industry.

Interest in the Levant has been a constant in European politics, literature and art for ages, but in antiquity the conquest of the Levant was the beginning of lasting cultural and political symbiosis. An era of Hellenistic civilization was prompted by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and an even more integrated civilization was born during Roman times. In contrast, the long conquest of the Levant during the 19th century by the European powers led to disaster and chronic war.

The collection features the work of some famous photographers, many of whom made Lebanon their home. There are also local photographers who learned from their predecessors and opened their own workshops or continued previous ones, sometimes by marriage or inheritance. The American photographers seem to have been interested mainly in the construction of the American University.

Very seldom are unknown civilians photographed, but there are many pictures of students.  Education to Lebanese students was given on the condition of them becoming protestant, in the case of the American missionary, as for the French, as the Lebanese were already catholic, the problem did not arise.

The construction of the American Mission, triggered a campaing of fundraising in America, by a French Jesuit, in the hope of constructing a similarly important Jesuit school, in order to offset the influence of the newcomer.

The earlier pictures, such as those taken during a visit from Maxine du Camp and Flaubert, depict the country itself. However, the building of the Jesuit school seems to have ushered in a shift in focus. The photographers were asked to work for the school and for the newly established press, called L’Imprimerie Catholique, which is still active and still of excellent quality. The photographs produced were to be used as illustrations for books, or for propaganda. Many photographs reflect the political events of the day, they are in fact the first press photographs: the Kaiser arriving in the port of Beirut, the arrival of General Weygand, the declaration of the Grand Liban (the new head of state) and so on. These, of course, are all important historical documents in addition to being works of art.

We see the High Commissioner, the generals Weygand and Gouraud, and then the first Lebanese presidents, Emie Edde, Bechara Khoury, along with various Lebanese journalists and personalities, such as George Naccache and Charles Helou.

Personally, I prefer the early images taken by the European immigrants: Ernest Benecke’s portrait of a beautiful cedar tree, the Dutchman T. Leew’s portraits of young women and the German W. von Herford’s panorama of Baalbek (the only recurring subject throughout the book). The next generation encountered archeologists such as Louis De Clerq, as well as artists like Rogier and Sauvaire settling in the Orient.

In those early years, the silk industry attracted French industrialists. One of them, Charlier, was to abandon his initial occupation in order to pursue photography. He created beautiful landscapes, including a remarkable detail of Baalbeck. The landscapes of Bedford (the son of the famous architect who accompanied the Prince of Wales on his Grand Tour) are massive, maybe because of his training as an architect.

The next generation is represented by Jesuits exclusively. Given permission to start a school in Ghazir, they prepared generations of students to continue their enterprise. The landscape of Louis Ronzevalle and Gérard de Martinprey depicts a land of peasants living their lives amidst exceptional beauty. One photographer has captured the port of Tripoli, with its impressively large warehouses. The countryside appears very well-tended and mountain slopes are cultivated on often high terraces. We are confronted with rugged landscapes and stone cities, such as Beirut, Tripoli, Ghazir, Bickfaya, and Beit Chabab. There are no pictures of Sidon or Tyre, except as included in a panoramic view of the seaside. There are even aerial views of the approach to Beirut in 1936 as World War II approached.

The centrality of the Jesuit school, where so many Lebanese have been educated, to the collection is understandable: the book’s author, Michel Fani, is a product of that same school. He has great familiarity with the subject, having also worked at the Bibliothèque Orientale as curator during the Civil War. Fani is a privileged and knowledgeable witness, and the biographical notices of all the authors are extremely detailed. Yet, we would have preferred that they had been written in a more straightforward language, as the information presented is sometimes difficult to grasp.

This review appeared in Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

© Copyright 2009, 2018 AL JADID MAGAZINE

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