Site Seeing

Jerusalem in the 19th century was a terrifically contested space, an uneasy home to people of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It was also a ruined city, with open sewers and dirty water, teeming with people living on the barest essentials. But these living conditions don't come through in the photographs. Again, because of the medium's limitations, stationary objects photographed better than moving ones, so these shots show mainly empty streets and ruined buildings. They present Jerusalem as the site of past history rather than as a living city.

And many explorers, armed with cameras, set themselves the task of documenting the legendary history of the Holy Land. Louis De Clerq used photography, the tool of scientific inquiry, to "document" the path Christ took toward the crucifixion. Working with no hard archeological evidence whatsoever, De Clerq "found" and photographed the 14 Stations of the Cross, each one an alleyway or deserted corner of Jerusalem. The photos must have seemed like incontrovertible proof to the viewer who wanted to believe.

Sgt. James McDonald's photographs were more secular and scientific in nature. McDonald produced photographs in the service of the British Empire, on a number of different surveys conducted in Palestine to assess the viability of imperial expansion into the territory. McDonald learned to photograph on these surveys, becoming stylistically adept and incredibly resourceful, producing three-part panoramic scenes and wonderfully composed picturesque views of the Sinai Peninsula.

More romantic in nature are the works of Felix Bonfils, who made a living selling photos of the Holy Land to eager collectors and armchair tourists in Europe; and Frank Mason Good, who photographed people in "biblical costume" in settings suggested by Scripture. That there was a huge market for these photos is itself profoundly revealing about popular European notions of Palestine, its history and its people.

Ultimately, all of these photographs reveal less about Palestine itself than they do about the 19th-century European ideological interests and perceptions of it. And though Revealing the Holy Land contains some fascinating individual images, taken as a whole it also serves as a primer in photographic theory, a demonstration of the lesson that photographs (and photographers) impose an order onto a scene rather than merely reporting what is to be seen.

Currents 77: Diana Thater continues through April 18 and Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine through May 23.

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