Exactly 180 years ago, in the summer of 1839, Jerusalem became the first site in the Land of Israel to be documented with a camera. It was only a few months after practical photography was invented in Paris. In the coming years, there was a steady increase in the number of photographers who came to Jerusalem from Europe with various types of cameras. Biblical landscapes, the cradle of Jesus’ birth and especially the city itself assumed a real and concrete shape for the first time.
Through the lens of the camera, a small, neglected and poor town at the remote edge of the Ottoman Empire became a magical city where time stood still, full of shadows and secrets. Everyone who came to the Middle East visited Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem was photographed more than any other place in the region during that period.
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There are thousands of negatives and prints of Jerusalem from those years, made using various techniques, in Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel. Some were created by professional photographers who offered their wares to Christian pilgrims and tourists, most of whom did not have a camera.
These works reflect the “Orient” and the spirit of the Bible. They are often empty, spacious landscapes, perhaps due to the difficulty of photographing passersby with the long exposures necessary for the glass plates that were coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. Occasionally, when the composition demanded it, one can actually see the Jerusalemites of those distant days, extras within a glorious setting. Here are the works of two legendary photographers: Felix Bonfils and Luigi Fiorillo.