A Close View: Portraiture in the Holy Land

Early portraits of the people of the Holy Land reveal little about them or their reality. Instead, individuals are framed as elements of a static exotic Orient whose people can be described through recognizable character-type classifications pertaining to religion, ethnicity, origin, or occupation.

L[uigi] Fiorillo
Cavaliers de la mer Morte

Underwood & Underwood
A Christian girl of Nazareth, Ottoman Palestine

Underwood & Underwood
Samaritan High Priest and Pentateuch roll-Shechem

Frank Mason Good
A Group of Bethlehem Men

Felix Bonfils
Grand [rabbin] de Jerusalem


Maison Bonfils?
Juifs Commentant le Talmud

Abbé Fromet
Bethléem et Environs: Jeune Fille bethléémite

Femmes Syriennes

Frank Mason Good
Group of Native Women, Jerusalem

Abbé Fromet
Bethléem et Environs: Femmes de Bethléem

Felix Bonfils
Cheik bedouin des environs de Gaza

Underwood & Underwood
Women Grinding at the Mill-Palestine

Frank Mason Good
Doorway and Niche. Jewish Female Figures in the
Courtyard of a Jewish House

G.W.W [George Washington Wilson?]
The "Fair Water Carrier," Nazareth

Porteur d'eau a Jérusalem

Frank Mason Good
Women of Bethlehem


Sergeant H. Phillips
Jerusalem: Group of Polish Jews

Frank Mason Good
A Bethlehem Girl

Marchands dans les Rues de Jérusalem

Frank Mason Good
"Turkish Delight"


Studio portraits exemplify similar representational practices. These portraits use models playing character-types, often as part of culturally familiar scenes. The models are staged, paired with exotic props and photographed posing against painted backdrops of landscape. The resulting images are balanced and centered, creating an aesthetic effect that flattens the representation almost to the point that one feels as if one is looking at a still-life image rather than a portrait. Even when the subjects are shown posing outside the studio, typically before minimalistic architectural elements, their strict and frozen poses evoke a sense of distance from the photographic moment.

In other instances, the photographers take a more direct approach, aiming to create the impression that the encounter between the photographer and the subject took place within the subject's daily reality. These portraits are shot outdoors, capturing the subjects as they engage in their daily chores or in manual labor under the bright sunlight. Implying primitive or Biblical connotations, these photographs, like highly constructed studio portraits, act to preserve the image of the people of the Holy Land as static and as timeless as the land they inhibit.