Pre-state Postcards: A Treasure Trove Hiding in a Dusty Antique Store

About a century ago, a German-born photographer created striking images for a hungry European audience. Today, those images still speak to us.

Nitsa Priluk
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Nitsa Priluk

This article had its start in a dusty, little antiques store in Haifa. It was there, next to a folded and stained marriage certificate ‏(Tel Aviv, 1931‏), and underneath photo albums of family and travels in the Land of Israel ‏(1935), that a greenish paper wrapper peeked out, inside which were eight picture postcards of Cairo, in black and white. On the wrapper were printed the name and address of an emporium, in Arabic and English: Lehnert & Landrock, 44 Sherif Pasha Street, Cairo, Egypt. I bought them. When were the pictures taken? And who was the photographer? I set out in search of the answers.

Rudolf Lehnert ‏(1878-1948‏), a native of Bohemia, studied photography for three years at the Vienna Institute of Graphic Arts. In those days, it was one of the few schools that provided training in that profession. Afterward, he took his inheritance, wandered around Europe on foot for two years, and photographed. In 1903, he arrived in Tunisia, and found himself captivated by the charms of the Orient.

Upon returning to Switzerland, Lehnert showed his photographs to his friend Ernst Landrock ‏(1878-1966‏), who immediately grasped the importance of his work and suggested that the two go into business together. First they opened a shop in Tunis. Lehnert was the photographer and Landrock ran the business.

After a forced hiatus caused by World War I, Lehnert and Landrock relocated to Egypt. Its principal cities, Alexandria and Cairo, had become the photography centers of the Orient back in the 19th century, and the 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun awakened in Europe tremendous interest in Egypt and its ancient civilization. The business Lehnert and Landrock established in Cairo in 1924 continues to operate in the same location to this day.

Lehnert’s photographic territory ran from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, to Abu Simbel in the south, and extended as far as Palestine. Lehnert was first and foremost a portrait photographer, but native Egyptians did not like to stand in front of the camera; most of his clients were therefore foreigners. Lehnert was doomed, he said, to photographing “ancient stones” in Egypt.

Tiberias and Lake Kinneret, 1925.
Rudfolf Franz Lehnert, photographer of the Orient.
The Giza pyramids during the inundation, Egypt 1922.
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Tiberias and Lake Kinneret, 1925.Credit: Rudolf Lehnert
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Rudfolf Franz Lehnert, photographer of the Orient.Credit: Archive
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The Giza pyramids during the inundation, Egypt 1922.Credit: Rudolf Lehnert
Pre-state postcards

The folds of the dunes stretching in waves to the horizon are, to my taste, among the most beautiful of Lehnert’s photographs. In some of them there is no framing of the landscape and no attempt to “subdue” nature by demarcating it. In many photographs, the sandy, flat plane is broken up by a figure, forming a kind of vertical element on which the eye focuses ‏(i.e., a convoy of camels moving away, children playing on a dune‏). Sometimes it is a stone structure that towers in its ruins and disrupts the horizontal dimension.

Lehnert’s photographic art has an aesthetic, crystalline effect that succeeds occasionally in elevating whatever is photographed to a poetic level. Nearly every photo encapsulates a drama, which can be told in words. The photographer’s affinity for his subject is felt distinctly.

“The sands region is far more exciting than is imagined,” art historian Ernst Kuhnel wrote in a geographical-philosophical introduction to Lehnert and Landrock’s album “North Africa,” published in Berlin in 1924. “The landscape rises and sinks as in a mountainous region, the dunes migrate, and overnight the shape of the ground around the tent changes entirely. The enormous dimensions of the horizon are reminiscent of the ocean.”

Kuhnel holds nothing back when describing the oasis: “When one reaches an area of green and wonderful flora, after a whole day of wandering in disheartening wilderness, one feels that paradise has been revealed. The traveler understands that what he is seeing is not a natural wonder, but rather a gigantic enterprise of a mortal being. Day and night, the camels and mules turn the wheels of the pump, the water rises from subterranean reservoirs, and this precious treasure is transferred via small canals to the plants.” (Translation from the German by Judith Shaked.)

Religious faith, Kuhnel avers, becomes essential for people who live in the awe-inspiring monotony of this landscape, under an endless sky. In the photos of oases, poses were staged and romance was drizzled: These include a youth deep in conversation with a girl beneath a tall palm tree; a couple in robes striding, as if on an evening constitutional along a European promenade, her palms in his hand. The subjects were doubtless paid for their “performance.” Apparently, the photograph’s narrative was more important than its authenticity.

Lehnert was not a pioneer among photographers of the Orient. European interest in the East, and with it the flow of wealthy tourists, pilgrims and photographers, had begun in the second half of the 19th century. Orientalism, as an artistic stream, looked at Eastern culture with Western eyes, shaping in its image the imagination of believers, both Christians and Jews, around the world. In the early decades of the 20th century, the European photographer would come for a quick working visit to the region. The work of many was “commissioned,” and therefore served the message of the institution that employed them.

The invention of the postcard ‏(in Austria, October 1869‏) acted as a catalyst for the distribution of photographs. The holy sites, landscapes of the East, and “typical” figures were established in photographs on postcards, which were sold to tourists and collectors. A British article from 1903 called on professional photographers not to miss out on an opportunity to work in this new and developing field. The photographed postcard became the latest communications medium.

Jews appear in Lehnert’s city photographs of Tunis. Three strong-looking women, identified as Jews, in dark flat shoes, walk toward us along the sidewalk. A strip of pale cloth is wrapped around their bodies over their clothes; identical fabric is wrapped around their heads and covers a tall pointy hat ‏(like a clown hat‏). Their faces are uncovered. Another photograph shows the Jewish moneychanger at work. There is no doubt that this beautiful scene has been staged. Coins are spread out on the wooden table, and next to them a quill pen and inkwell, a sheet of paper with Hebrew letters written on it and also a swollen cloth pouch full of coins. The iconography of money-changing as an occupation is rendered complete by the hands of the esteemed man, which are examining a coin. The light, shining in the photo to the right of the seated man, illuminates his soft beard, the furrowed wrinkles on his face, and his tarboosh and the cape around his shoulders ‏(both of which look new‏), while the surrounding space is in total darkness.

Thanks to Kuhnel’s in-depth and picturesque travelogue, we get descriptions of the city Tunis on top of the sights that Lehnert immortalized visually about a century ago: “The stranger arriving here from Europe finds himself suddenly planted in the center of the Orient. He gets lost in narrow, winding alleyways. The bazaar has preserved here the character of the Middle Ages: tall wooden gables, workshops and stores. Leatherworker, shoemaker, cloth merchant, side by side, no envious glances. A colorful commotion: The merchants squeezing through the crowd, announcing their wares and waving them about.

“In the book-merchants’ alley, distinguished scholars are hunched on their heels in tiny rooms, preoccupied with studying a manuscript, detached from the ruckus around them. Taps and blows of a blacksmith and of a jeweler, and amid them sit the moneychangers, in narrow dark bedchambers like in Rembrandt’s paintings. Stout Jewish women skipping along the pavement stones in their archaic garb.”

Flooded fields

Lehnert and Landrock’s Cairene chapter was the subject of a 2012 book by Edouard Lambelet, Ernst Landrock’s grandson and the current proprietor of the business. The book, “Postcards of the Past: Loving Egypt,” contains 170 black-and-white photographs of Egypt, which have been organized geographically: the pyramids and Sphinx of Giza, Islamic Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, the Suez Canal, Luxor, Karnak, the desert and more. Each image is dated and accompanied by a brief description.

One of the photographs, “At the Pyramids of Giza during the Inundation”(1922-24), ranges between reality and dream. The Nile’s water level began to rise in Aswan in mid-June, and reached its climax in September. Until the Aswan Dam was completed, in 1971, for three months, the fields would be flooded, villages were cut off, and movement took place by boat. The trunks of palm trees rising out of the water, the little floating ark with its people in the forefront of the photograph, and the pyramids in the background make it look as though nothing has changed since the days when the Israelites slaved for Pharaoh with mortar and bricks.

Cairo is different from Tunis. The photographs, which also document the sites of Cairo and its historic buildings, radiate a suspension of sorts. This atmosphere is especially pronounced in the absence of human figures outdoors. In focusing on Muslim architecture, Lehnert carries on the French school of Oriental photography. From his home in Cairo, he set off on photography trips to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. About three-quarters of his Holy Land pictures focus on ancient Jerusalem. This destination had immense marketing potential in Christian Europe. Nazareth, Lake Kinneret, Tiberias, Hebron and Jaffa also make appearances.

Lehnert reached Bethlehem, traversed the length of the Jordan River, and captured the Dead Sea with his lens. In addition to sacred cities and landscapes, he took portraits of the locals: Palestinian girls in embroidered holiday outfits, women in Ramallah and Bethlehem, Bedouin and ultra-Orthodox Jews in their traditional black garments. The exotic clothing and appearance are doubtless what determined the choice of subject. This consideration on the part of the photographer consciously strays from a representative depiction of the population makeup.

Back to Tunisia

Gone from this later work of Lehnert’s is the enthusiasm that motivated him in his early period, in Tunisia, and along with it declined the aesthetic elegance. It is pointless to seek in his work that which is characteristic of Oriental-style photos of Mandatory Palestine. The city-in-progress, Jewish holidays, Hebrew kindergartens, moshavot and kibbutzim − these images do not appear in his pictures. Lehnert’s fastidious gaze was directed at the past; devout Christians were his audience.

Lehnert and Landrock’s Palestine collection contains 375 photographs, most of them probably taken in 1925. Forty-eight were published in postcard form. The glass negatives ‏(18x13 centimeters‏) are today housed at the Musee de l’Elysee, in Lausanne, Switzerland. An exhibition of their Palestine photographs, from the years 1924-1930, was on display at the American University in Cairo in 2001. The catalog of that exhibition, which was curated by Abdallah Schleifer, is now in my possession. It was sent from the Lehnert & Landrock shop in Cairo after I contacted Dr. Edouard Lambelet there. From Switzerland, I also received photographs of Palestine, along with information about the collection. Upon inquiring at the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, I learned from curator Yudit Caplan that it owns Lehnert & Landrock photos. Photo postcards of theirs from Palestine are also in the possession of local collectors.

In 1930 the partnership was disbanded. Lehnert, fed up with the bustling Cairo metropolis, sold his share to Landrock and returned to live in his beloved, peaceful Tunisia. Some 6,500 of his photos from North Africa and Palestine remained the property of his ex-partner, who passed them on to his heirs, for whom Cairo continued to be home. Landrock’s stepson, Kurt Lambelet, born in Switzerland in 1905, managed the business in Cairo and also kept up the photography end, until his death, in 1997. He photographed Sinai and Palestine from an airplane ‏(1931‏), and returned in his car to take pictures of landscapes stretching from Be’er Sheva to Haifa.

Landrock’s grandson, Dr. Edouard Lambelet, a geologist, joined the business in 1978. In 1982 he discovered a treasure trove in the shop’s attic: thousands of Lehnert’s old glass plates. After years in which nobody was interested in black-and-white photographs, and color ruled the roost, he decided to bring the collection back to life. Since then Lehnert’s photographs have been shown in many exhibitions and reprinted in books. An art gallery was added to the veteran Lehnert & Landrock bookshop. Today, the photo postcards are sold there, as in days gone by.

Ocean Desert, Algeria 1910.Credit: Rudolf Lehnert
Watermelon season in the Jaffa market, 1925.Credit: Rudolf Lehnert

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