Western Photographers in the Holy Land

[B]oth fetid Oriental wasteland and resplendent biblical garden … [i]t was a tourist attraction and a place to see, a mission field and a place to evangelize, a Promised Land and a place to colonize, a wilderness, an outpost, a treasure chest of antiquity.

Lester I. Vogel, To See a Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p.216

Louis De Clercq

Felix Bonfils
Mount Tabor

Arthur B. Cotton

Francis Frith
View at Hebron

Peter Bergheim
Panorama of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Frank Mason Good
The Well of Beer-Sheba

Felix Bonfils
Tombeau de la Vierge, grotte de l'agonie. Palestine

Frank Mason Good
The Mosque of Omar, Jerusalem

Wilhelm Hammerschmidt
Vue de Mont des Oliviers panorama

To Western audiences, the Holy Land was the stage where the stories of the Old and New Testaments unfolded, where the self-narrative of the Christian tradition was born. To most, the Holy Land was an idea, a subject of belief, inspiration, and imagination, nourished by extensive religious literature and art. The advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century allowed, for the very first time, concrete and objective documentation of the material existence of the Holy Land and its present condition.

Early attempts to produce images of the Holy Land were mostly limited to wide, postcard-like views of the holy sites of Jerusalem and Nazareth. As more photographers explored the Holy Land, new subjects and compositions emerged, unfolding the Biblical past in images of timeless rural landscapes and ancient sites.

The religious source of Western infatuation with the Holy Land translated into commercial demand for aesthetic photographs of places of religious interest. The photographic gaze that dominated early Holy Land photography hence sought to affirm the expectations and assumptions of its audience by evoking a Biblical timelessness that transcended the realities of the land. The long-distance views of landscape or fragmented details of architecture chosen by photographers were therefore devoid of people or any other present-day context. The land, as shown in these images, was desolate and frozen in time.