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Fine Arts & Leisure


Published in the New York Times June 20, 2003

Felix Bonfils (1831-1885), a French bookbinder and photographer, traveled to the Middle-East and North Africa and fell in love with what he saw. The remarkable photographs of Palestine, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt in this show are documents of that infatuation.
Apprenticed by the nephew of the pioneering photographer Joseph Nicéphore Nièpce, Bonfils opened a commercial studio in Beirut in 1867, primarily to produce commissioned portraits and images of local "types" of which there are several examples here.

In a charming portrait of a young Jewish woman, the sitter's face is demurely veiled by a little ruff of lace. An elderly man in patchy clothes described as a "peasant" in one picture may also be the austerely robed bishop in another picture. Among several intriguing group shots is one of a renowned family of Egyptian dancers, who here seem to have been lulled into a kind of stupor by a lengthy studio session.

Of particular interest, in light of the destruction and looting in Iraq, are Bonfils's archeological and architectural pictures. The archaeological include a crisp close-up of a relief from Syria, an invaluable record of always-endangered material, and a shot of what might be pharaonic mummies unceremoniously propped against a sun-raked wall, suggesting a less savory side of 19th-century adventurism.

As for architecture, the overstuffed Orientalism of the British consulate in Syria circa 1870 now seems as much a part of the past as any ancient monument, while the harmonious play of shadow and light over the arcaded façade of a mosque perfectly captures the time-suspending beauty of Islamic design, which can be found around the world even today.


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