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Volume 26, Number 5September/October 1975

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The Tin-Box Photos

Written by Katrina Thomas
Photographs courtesy of The Jafet Memorial Library, The American University of Beirut

Tourists and photographs go together like movies and popcorn. In fact, for some people taking photographs has almost taken the place of sightseeing. But back in the days before the portable camera and cheap, efficient developing service, the tourist still wanted a visual memento of the sights he had seen and incontrovertible proof that he had climbed the Matterhorn or stood on the left ear of the Sphinx. He turned, therefore, to the professional photographers in the country of his travels.

In fact, photography and mass tourism developed hand in hand. In November 1851, The Illustrated London News complained, "Every now and then a young gentleman returns from Greece or Egypt, with a beard and an M.S. (manuscript). In a week or two, the new journal of Travels in the East is announced, and a new 'oriental traveller' takes his place among 'wise men' who have preceded him." In the same year, Frederick Scott Archer brought forth the wet collodion process of developing photographic negatives. This greatly simplified the production of photographs, but it was still a far cry from the camera-draped tourist of today. Unless he was adept with pencil or water colors, the 19th and early 20th century tourist had no recourse but the local photographer's shop.

The growth of tourism in the Middle East is attested to by the appearance of Thomas Cook's first tourist handbooks for Palestine, Syria and Egypt in 1876 and of Baedeker's first guide to Palestine and Syria in the same year and one on Egypt in 1877. Baedeker in 1876 listed only one photographer in Beirut, with the good French name of Dumas. By 1894, the new edition of Baedeker was able to report that photographs in Beirut were available from three sources, Dumas, Bonfils and Guarelli. "The photographs, generally good and cheap," Baedeker admonishes, "should be bought only from the photographers themselves, and not from dealers who offer them at the hotels. Unmounted photographs should be rolled on a piece of wood, or packed in a tin box which may be bought at the bazaar for a few piastres." The earlier Baedeker mentions two photographers in Jerusalem, Bergheim and Shapira, both of Christian Street. Bergheim also sold "wine, English beer, etc." and was "a respectable banker." Despite such diversity he doesn't seem to have stayed in the photography business for long; by 1894, the recommended photographers in Jerusalem had changed to Nicodemus, Vester and Hentschel. The American missionary, Bertha Spafford, who married Frederick Vester, a German, recounts in her book Our Jerusalem, (Aramco World, July-August 1967) that the family photographic business began in 1898; one of its first jobs was to photograph the Kaiser Wilhelm II on his journey through Palestine in that year.

In Cairo, the Germans seem to have dominated the photographic scene from the first. In Baedeker's Egypt, Handbook for Travellers published in 1885, Schoefft, Stromeyer and Heymann are listed as the chief sellers of photographs, though there is also "Sebah of Constantinople" and Laroche and Co. Schoefft is recommended for "a good background for groups; also a fine collection of groups of natives and a few desert scenes, some of which are very striking." But, Baedeker goes on to say, "among the numerous photographs of Egyptian landscapes and temples the best are those of Sebah of Constantinople." By 1905, however, A.B. de Guerville, in his New Egypt, complains, "There are very few good photographers in Egypt. To those in Cairo I can thoroughly recommend either M. Lekegian or M. Dittrich, photographer to the Court."

Perhaps it was just as well that the early tourist did not carry his own photographic equipment. Thomas Cook and Son in 1911 advised: "It is always desirable in traveling to dispense with unnecessary luggage, at the same time it is necessary to be well supplied, especially if the journey is to be prolonged for months. . . . Among the miscellaneous articles which it may be found advantageous to take, may be mentioned a leather drinking cup, and a pocket filter, leather straps, small strong writing case, with writing materials, a ball of twine, a good serviceable pocket knife, green spectacles, if the eyes are at all weak; needles, thread, tape, buttons, and other similar articles will suggest themselves to every traveler; soap, a pocket compass, a blue or green veil, as a protection not only against the glare of the sun, but also the dust; a botanical case, or if this cannot be obtained, a tin canister, in which roots, etc. may be preserved. Magnesium wire or torches should be taken to supplement the lights, provided at the dark tombs, temples, etc. Any special 'hobby' that the traveler may have should be provided for before starting, such as sketching books, botanical presses; provision should be made beforehand, if the traveler intends to prosecute geological or entymological researches etc. A good field or opera-glass should be taken." With such an assortment of impedimenta, the tourist was probably relieved to be spared the necessity of taking his own pictures and glad to buy them ready-made.

These photographers of the golden age of travel before World War I were no doubt largely responsible for the image of the Middle East carried back to the stay-at-homes and, given the power of pictures to influence the human eye, even for the visions and memories of the tourists themselves. Many of their prints are probably still preserved in the "tin boxes" and photograph albums of our grandfathers and grandmothers. The accompanying selection of pictures has been taken from the collection of the Jafet Memorial Library of the American University of Beirut.

Ritchie Thomas is Chief Librarian at the Jafet Memorial Library at the American University of Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the September/October 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1975 images.