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The Holy Land in Different Hues

May 28, 2009 By:
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At the turn of the last century, travel to what was then called the Holy Land began to become a distinct growth industry (as promotional types like to put it these days). This was the period, of course, when Mark Twain was one of many Innocents Abroad, and his descriptions of the terrain and the people he saw there have been quoted ad infinitum ever since.

The significant swell in visitors -- and at least one of its consequences -- is what Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman's In the Footsteps of Abraham, a thick, well-produced coffee-table book published by the Overlook Press, takes as its starting point.

To satisfy a need among the upscale individuals flooding the region, photos displaying its natural beauty were taken in great quantity -- the most popular being those locales with a connection to the Bible. The major producer of such images was the Matson Photo Agency, made up of members of the American Colony, a group, we're told, of Christian expatriates. All of the scenes reproduced in the book are hand-tinted versions of a collection of glass lantern slides, which now reside at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam. According to Joël J. Cahen of the museum, it is one of the "few fully hand-colored sets in existence, and certainly one of the largest."

Helen Speelman's grandfather, Arie Speelman, a devout Christian, commissioned the hand coloring of 1,200 photos on glass plates, a labor-intensive undertaking. The elder Speelman then traveled around Holland using his extensive collection plates to give lantern slide lectures about these foreign and still exotic locales.

Helen Speelman notes in her introduction that her grandfather and his wife made two tours of the Middle East -- in 1926 and 1931. Like other well-established members of the monied classes, they traveled in style "with a good car, driver, and a guide throughout Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria," explains his granddaughter. During his travels in Jerusalem, the elder Speelman met Eric Matson, at work in his photographic studio, which was located in David Street, immediately inside the Jaffa Gate.

Matson's shop was a popular tourist stop, and as Helen Speelman points out, the owner and his wife "were particularly successful in using oil-paints for hand coloring photographs, producing colored enlargements and sets of color slides that became an important feature of their business. Coloring individual lantern slides or photographs was a time-consuming activity requiring much concentration, cost, and indeed skill, sometimes using a brush of a single hair. The attention to detail employed painting these lantern slides is such that, in many instances, the image can hardly be differentiated from modern color photography. The photographs presented in this volume are a result of this fine work."

Matson himself was born in Dalarna, Sweden, on June 16, 1888. He was 8 years old when his family joined the American Colony. In an essay included in In the Footsteps of Abraham, George S. Hobart of the Library of Congress, writes that the colony was an assemblage of American farmers and Swedes who "shared 'a deeply felt need to dedicate their lives to simple Christian service to God and humanity. They pooled their resources, lived a communal life similar to that of the early church, and bent their efforts toward helping the people of the land.' The [group] ... flourished through hard work and simple living, and in ministering to the sick and needy in Jerusalem. The colonists came to be loved by Arabs, Jews, and Christians alike."

According to Helen Speelman, Matson and the other members of the colony "had a vision of peace in the Middle East, and he hoped that his photography could somehow contribute to that dream."

What is most wonderful about the images reproduced in the book is that, for those who have been to Israel often, the sites captured have both an exactitude -- in terms of attention to detail (even in the broad landscapes) -- while the soft pastel colors that appear to have been so effortlessly superimposed add a dreamy haze to the unmistakable reality.

It's just the right touch -- the perfect nostalgic overlay that makes you long to get back to Israel as soon as possible. 

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