A Lone Figure in the Distance: James Graham and 19th Century Photography in Palestine

By Alex Wosford

In today’s blog, I’ve been given access to a fascinating collection of photographs of Palestine and the Levant dating from between 1853 and 1860 taken by James Graham. James Graham’s photography is immensely valuable purely for its age and quality. It provides a unique insight into the landscape of Palestine at a very early date in a series of high quality and well taken shots. The photographs are mainly developed using albumen silver print techniques, although some are produced using the slightly older and more time intensive salt print method. Graham’s collection and its raison d’être differ from some other collections from the same period, since it was not created wholly for commercial resale in the burgeoning photo album industry that grew in hotels and markets throughout the Middle East and in Europe. This contrasts with the more well-known collections of Biblical photographers such as those of Felix Bonfils in Beirut, which were distributed on a more commercial basis.  

Graham’s collection is fascinating in many ways, but what I am focusing on today is the way his photographs are scripted, and how landscapes and people are used in them. The use of people and figures in images from the period go a long way in defining the photographer’s outlook towards the land and the people that live there. Stylistically, the people in the Graham’s photographs function as part of the scenery, presenting a tenuous link between the ancient ruins and biblical sites with the people that once lived there. Barromi-Perlman describes these people-come-scenery as ‘staffage’, as a backdrop to a scene to further illustrate the scenery.[1] These assist in what Badr al-Hajj describes as a ‘conscious attempt to link the sites mentioned in the Bible to specific geographic locations’.[2]  The photographs depict empty landscapes, whilst also intentional evoking imagery of traditional and ancient partnership with the land, unchanged by rapid changes in Europe wrought by industrialisation. This imagery is often Biblical, and photographs are set up to best align with British perceptions, heavily influenced by Evangelical Christianity, of the Holy Land. Palestine is thus selectively photographed and pushed out of the Western progression of time, and locked into what Conor Moynihan calls a “state of eternal timelessness”.[3]

The photo below, depicting a corner of the Haram ash-Sharif compound from below, and looking out towards the Mount of Olives. This photograph is a fascinating example of many trends in Biblical photography: the relevance of the Herodian stones upon which the Temple Mount in built is emphasised by the single figure in the foreground with their arm rested upon the stone, mimicking similar imagery of the Western Wall in Western understanding of Jewish prayer. The lone figure, in conjunction with the single house perched on the Mount of Olives, delivers the familiar motif of emptiness and decay, allowing the viewer to better link 19th century Jerusalem with the ancient Jerusalem of the Bible. It is almost post-apocalyptic, conjuring up biblical connotations of the fall of man, which naturally played into redemption narratives that shadowed growing Western geopolitical involvement in the Ottoman Empire and Palestine. The dilapidated state of the upper half of the wall adds to this effect, making it seem more like a photograph cataloguing an archaeological discovery than a photo just outside the busy heart of Jerusalem.

This blueprint is repeated in another photo depicting a single seated figure set against a backdrop of Greek or Roman tombs in the Kedron Valley. This use of the individual figure is seen time and time again in Graham’s photography as a major technique used to engineer a specific biblical or classical importance to the scenery, whilst simultaneously blurring the identity and existence of the people in Palestine during the period. The lone figure; often in very traditional clothing or depicted as a simple peasant or farmer, acts as a timeless witness to the events of the land, events which play heavily into British Christian perceptions and understanding of Palestine. Despite being separated by thousands of years of history, the photograph’s style and framing shifts a collective and idealized memory onto the shoulders of the lone figure in the photo that becomes as much a part of the scenery as the buildings around him.

It is interesting to follow these trends in [scene setting] [human scenery] into the murkier areas of 19th Century photography, particularly following the expansion of Orientalist travel photography. The presence of people in photos does set Graham apart from many other photographers of the time, who often preferred to photograph the landscapes separately from the indigenous inhabitants, who were often depicted in classically ‘Victorian’ individual portraits or in small groups within some form of a studio environment with props. An example of such a studio in Palestine was the Garabed Krikorian studio, set up in Jerusalem in the 1880’s. In fact, Palestinian-Armenian photographers pioneered the expansion of photography within Palestine, with St James’ compound in the Old City becoming the site of the first photography classes in Palestine.[4] The previously mentioned collections of Felix Bonfils at the Oriental Photography House also show different style to Grahams photographs – Bonfils focuses on empty landscapes or on wider photographs of life in Palestine, such as in the photograph below which shows crowds at Jaffa’s market and a contemporary, lived in Palestine:

From the Collections of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

This underscores the most interesting aspect to the techniques James Graham uses consistently throughout his collection to set the scene in photographs and conjure specific ideas about Palestine and the continuity of religious significance of the region, particularly from a Western perspective. They are a highly thought provoking set of photographs, something which is emphasised; albeit anachronistically, by the albumen and salt print technique used to develop the photographs.

I will leave you with my favourite photograph from the collection – a lone figure; Graham’s ancient witness, lies just out of reach atop the ruins of Baalbec, living in the shadow of a history at the centre of the photographer’s gaze. It didn’t quite fit in with the subject matter above but which I feel it would be a crime not to share.

[1] Barromi-Perlman, E, ‘Visions of Landscape Photography in Palestine and Israel’, Landscape Research, Vol. 45, Issue 5 (2020) 564-582 (p.565)

[2] al-Hajj, Badr, ‘Khalil Raad – Jerusalem Photographer’, Jerusalem Quarterly, Issue 11-12 (Winter 2001) 34-30 (p.35).

[3] Moynihan, Conor, ‘Timelessness and Precarity in Orientalist Temporality: Mehdi-Georges Lahlou’s Aesthetics of Disorientation’, Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture, Vol. 8, (2019) 1-22 (pp.2-3)

[4] Gannit Ankori, Palestinian Art (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2006) p.36.