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Volume 55, Number 4July/August 2004

In This Issue

The Diness Discovery
Written by Piney Kesting -- Photographs Courtesy of the Archives for Historical Documentation and the Mari-Cha Diness/Barnier Collection
John Barnier wasn’t looking for treasure when he went to the garage sale in St. Paul, Minnesota this sale included glass-plate negatives. As he walked up to a cluttered table in the back of the dim plates, as well as a few albumen and silver prints and four handwritten notebooks. Assuming they were in 1989. A photographer who specializes in historical printing techniques, Barnier had heard that garage, he spied eight wooden boxes. Barnier was delighted to find in them more than 100 glass old copy negatives, Barnier and his friend bought the boxes and split the negatives between them.

A Demanding Process

When Mendel John Diness used the wet-collodion method in 1858, the process was only seven years old. It was widely used until 1880, when it was displaced by gelatin dry plates.

“Historically, I think the collodion process is the single most demanding and difficult process in photography,” explains John Barnier. The photographer had to carry his darkroom, as well as highly combustible chemicals, wherever he went in order to develop the glass negative immediately after the photograph was taken. Thus Diness’s equipment consisted of chemicals— which he mixed himself—slotted wooden boxes filled with glass negatives, and water for washing them. Of course there were also his cameras, his tripod and the bulky darkroom tent. “The sheer physical effort was incredible,” notes Barnier. “When Diness stood on top of the Golden Gate [Bab al-Rahmah, in the eastern wall of Jerusalem], shooting over to the Haram al-Sharif, he and his helpers first had to carry all of his equipment up there.”

Click to enlarge photograph

That’s when the real work began. In the darkroom tent, Diness would coat a sheet of glass with collodion—guncotton dissolved in alcohol and ether. When the glass was slightly dry, he sensitized it to light by dipping it into a silver-nitrate solution. Then he carefully fitted it into the camera, moved the camera into position and held the lens open to expose the plate, all before the plate could dry. Removing the plate, Diness would move quickly to process it with chemicals, wash it and dry it. If the image wasn’t good, he would scrape the emulsion off the glass and start over. When the shoot was finished, Diness and his helpers would pack up and return to his studio to make salt or albumen prints from their day’s work.


The Diness Collection

The first exhibition of the long-lost Diness collection was at the Harvard Semitic Museum in 1993, three years after Barnier contacted the museum about his mysterious discovery. Father Carney Gavin, then curator of the museum and now president of the Archives for Historical Documentation in Brighton, Massachusetts, organized the exhibition with his team and produced the accompanying catalogue, Capturing the Holy Land: M. J. Diness and the Beginnings of Photography in Jerusalem, illustrated with 59 of the Diness prints. That same year, part of the Diness collection was exhibited at the University of Portland, Oregon, as well as in Jordan.

In 1996, Barnier sold the original collection of prints, glass-plate negatives and boxes to the Israel Museum, where it is currently stored. From November 1996 through March 1997, selected reproductions of the Diness prints were included in the exhibition “Jerusalem: Pictorial and Descriptive. The Holy City in 19th-Century Literature” at the John J. Burns Library of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

The Diness Collection

In 2003, Robert and Marie Chantal Miller purchased the complete set of platinum prints that John Barnier had meticulously made from Diness’s original glass-plate negatives. As curator of this collection, called the Mari-Cha Collection, Gavin and his team exhibited the prints in the spring of 2004 in Rome, Sulmona and Venice, Italy. “There is so much to be learned from these photographs,” explains Gavin, who is now planning a series of seminars and exhibits that will take the Mari-Cha collection back to Italy for exhibition through the spring of next year. These exhibitions will also include a selection of Ermete Pierotti’s maps and lithographs, the latter based on Diness photographs. “It is important to live lives linked with the past,” Gavin notes, “and with these exhibits we are providing visual, personal and interactive access to the oldest accurate, on-the-spot photographs of people and places in Jerusalem.”

Months later, Barnier examined his portion of the purchase. He discovered that the negatives were not copies, but originals. More than that, they were wet-plate collodion negatives. (See “A Demanding Process,” right.) The photographs showed Jerusalem and its environs, and the year 1858 was scratched into the emulsion of some of them. It seemed clear that the photographs would have some historical value, but the name that was scratched on some of them, “M. J. Dennis,” was unfamiliar. Barnier wrote to the Harvard Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which owns an extensive collection of early photographs from the Middle East.

Mary Ellen Taylor, then the museum’s photo archivist, remembered that “Mendel John Diness” was a name mentioned in Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East 1839–1885 (1988, Abradale Press), a book which also reproduced two prints attributed to the name. The book indicated that the extent of this photographer’s work was unknown, and that the rest of his photographs and negatives had disappeared. Taylor compared the prints in the book to the copy slides Barnier had sent. “I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be true,’” she recalls. “‘We are not going to find a collection like this so late in the game.’ But we did, and it turned out to be an amazing story.”

Father Carney Gavin, then curator of the museum and now president of the Archives for Historical Documentation in Brighton, Massachusetts, laughs when he recalls his own reaction to Barnier’s inquiry. “‘Minnesota!’ I thought. ‘How on earth did negatives of Jerusalem end up in a yard sale in St. Paul?’” Suspecting that Barnier’s “Dennis” and Taylor’s “Diness” were one and the same, Gavin persuaded Barnier to buy back the other half of the collection, print the images and send them to the museum for inspection. “There wasn’t much research we could do until John sent us copies,” says Gavin, who admits that despite his years of specialization in early photography from the Middle East, he had no prior knowledge of Diness.

No one at the museum knew who he was,” adds Nitza Rosovsky, then curator of exhibits and a Jerusalem scholar. “If Barnier had found the photographs 10 years earlier, I don’t think we would have been able to make the connection.” She explains that Diness first came to the attention of scholars in 1985, when Dror Wahrman, a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton, published an article identifying Diness as one of Jerusalem’s earliest photographers. Wahrman’s research was based on mentions of Diness that Wahrman found in the memoirs of travelers Titus Tobler and William Mason Turner, who explored Palestine in the mid-19th century.

“Except for the mystery of Minnesota, it was extremely easy, almost cut-and-dried, to identify Barnier’s purchase as the missing Mendel John Diness photographs,” explains Gavin. In September 1990, Barnier and Wahrman met with Gavin and his staff at the museum. Barnier brought 40 stereoscopic images, along with 80 silver prints probably printed in the 1890’s. Wahrman came with copies of lithographs from Ermete Pierotti’s two-volume Jerusalem Explored, published in London in 1864. Prior to the discovery of the prints in 1985, it was assumed that none of Diness’s work had survived except for several images reproduced as lithographs in Pierotti’s book.

The lithographs and the prints were identical: Barnier’s negatives were the Mendel John Diness collection. Emphasizing the importance of the discovery, Gavin explains that Diness’s work marked the beginning of photography in Jerusalem. He was not only one of the very earliest photographers, but the first to be trained in Palestine itself. He was also the first resident photographer in Jerusalem, and the first to take stereoscopic views in Palestine. “As far as I know, Diness was also the first person to make a visual travelogue of the Holy Land with his photographs of Galilee, Nazareth and Bethlehem,” Gavin adds.

According to Gavin, the Pierotti–Diness connection establishes Diness’s place in the cultural and photographic heritage of the Middle East. The Italian architect and engineer hired Diness in 1856 to take photographs for him as he researched the topography and ruins of Jerusalem for his book. Pierotti and Diness were among the first on the site when the smaller “Ecce Homo” arch was discovered in 1857. In 1859, when the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, Sürayya Pasha, hired Pierotti to make restorations on the Dome of the Rock, Diness was one of the few non-Muslims granted access to the interior of the structure. His consequent access to the pasha resulted in the first photographic portrait of an Ottoman ruler of Jerusalem. (See slide show, above.)

“Esthetically and technically, Diness was an extraordinarily good photographer, but Pierotti gave his photographs a raison d’etre,” says Gavin. “This was photography directed toward the preservation, restoration and understanding of historic sites.”

How did Diness’s photographs end up in a Minnesota garage sale? A search into missionaries’ archives and historical societies provided clues to Diness’s life and employment in the United States—and, incidentally, led to another lucky discovery in the archives of the Speer Library at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where an obscure, unmarked paper bag was found to contain 60 original silver prints that also proved to have been made by Diness.

In April 1992, Kitty Eisele, a Minnesota-based producer for National Public Radio (NPR), broadcast a story on Barnier’s discovery, and as her interview with him aired, one listener in Minneapolis couldn’t believe his ears. “That’s my stuff! That’s the junk from my attic!” exclaimed William Poland, who contacted NPR, which in turn put him in touch with Gavin.

Poland explained that in the process of moving his elderly mother to Minneapolis in the late 1980’s, he had cleared out her home in Summit, New Jersey. There he had found the wooden boxes, which he recalled had previously been stored in his grandmother’s attic. He had offered them to a New Jersey historical society, which rejected them. In Minneapolis, he donated them to his friend’s garage sale.

When Poland met Barnier and Gavin several months later, he shared his family history, including the facts that his grandmother’s maiden name had been Mary Bishop Dennis, and that his great-grandfather, who died in 1900, had been Mendenhall John Dennis. Information from the family tree, as well as a handwriting sample that matched the notebooks found in the boxes, confirmed that Mendel Diness and Mendenhall John Dennis were the same.

The man who died as Mendenhall John Dennis on December 1, 1900 in Port Townsend, Washington was born Mendel Diness in 1827 in Odessa, in today’s Ukraine. Trained as a watchmaker, Diness moved to Jerusalem in 1848, where one year later he caused a family scandal by accepting baptism as an Anglican Christian. Several years later he was baptized yet again, this time as a Campbellite, by an American missionary named James Turner Barclay. Diness’s relationship with Barclay and other missionaries apparently launched his career: A Scottish missionary named James Graham taught him photography.

By the time Graham left Jerusalem in 1856, Diness was sought after as the only local photographer. Both the Swiss physician Titus Tobler, one of the foremost 19th-century explorers of Palestine, and American traveler and author William Mason Turner compared his work to that of the best European photographers. Over the next three years, however, growing competition from other photographers—among them James Robertson and O. von Ostheim—encroached upon Diness’s livelihood, and he decided it was time to search for a better life in America. Armed with letters of recommendation from Barclay, Diness and his family arrived in Cincinnati in October of 1860.

Over the next three decades, Diness struggled variously as a watchmaker and photographer, and finally as an itinerant preacher and lecturer. For reasons unknown, the profession which had earned him a place in the photographic history of 19th-century Jerusalem failed him in his new life. Partnerships in Cincinnati with H. S. Bosworth and Benjamin St. James Fry proved unsuccessful. Diness preached and lectured at churches in Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri, using his own photographs and stereoscopic images to illustrate talks about Jerusalem and Palestine. He spent several years as a clergyman in Boston; in Dayton he spent seven years, from 1887 to 1894, as chaplain at the Dayton Asylum for the Insane. At the time of his death, he was known only as an author and minister.

“I don’t think any of us in the family ever knew he was a photographer,” comments Poland. “I’m glad someone found the photographs who realized their value and didn’t just try to resell them. This is how we keep history alive.”

Piney Kesting Piney Kesting ([email protected]) is a free-lance writer living in Boston who has specialized in Middle Eastern subjects for more than two decades.

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the July/August 2004 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2004 images.