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An important chapter in the history of photography in Israel is strikingly displayed and detailed in a new book by Swedish journalist and photographer Mia Grondahl.
Recently, she spoke about her publishing project at a book-launching event at the American Colony Hotel.
The location was highly appropriate. Titled The Dream of Jerusalem: Lewis Larrson and the American Colony Photographers, the book tells the story of an extremely talented and ambitious team of young men (and at least one woman). According to the author, they used photography as an escape from the oppressive atmosphere of the intensely religious Christian sect known as the American Colony.
Actually, Grondahl said, it should have been known as the Swedish-American Colony, as 70 of its 120 members came from Sweden, but they were relegated to a secondary status.
The activity of these early photographers quickly evolved into a flourishing business, as early 20th-century tourists bought souvenirs, postcards and even "stereo" scenes produced by twin images inserted into a looking device. The Colony photographers excelled in producing color images by adding oil paints to the photos. The result is subtly colorful scenes in an era of black-and-white photography.
One such photo in the book shows the Cotton Market, a remarkable Mamluk-period structure in the Old City (now sadly neglected) with light pouring through early in the morning.
"Lewis Larrson knew Jerusalem exactly," Grondahl told the audience. "He knew at what hour, in which season, to photograph a scene."
It took Grondahl five years to research the subject and assemble the photos, including works by the group that were previously unknown. The text is in English and Swedish, and the book is published by Journal, a Swedish company specializing in quality photo reproductions.
The launch event was hosted by the Swedish Consul-General, Nils Eliasson. A wide selection of photos was screened on the wall to illustrate the talk.
Grondahl emphasized that Larrson (who changed his Swedish first name to Lewis) was the group's chief photographer, although credit was taken years later by Eric Matson, who had returned to America and donated thousands of negatives and 11 albums of contact prints to the Library of Congress.
"Larrson was chief and Matson his assistant, not the other way round," she said.
Other photographers included Elijah Meyers and Furman Baldwin.
The group began its activity during German Kaiser Wilhelm II's visit to Jerusalem in 1898. Numerous "photo ops" recorded that trip for posterity. The group then moved its lab and operations from the American Colony Hotel to the centrally located Jaffa Gate area, branching out into various diverse subjects.
One such subject was termed by Grondahl "biblification" scenes: romantic but precisely staged views of an Oriental shepherd tending his flock by a shaded spring, for example, or Arab women gathering stalks in the field, evocative of Ruth the Moabite.
News and documentary photography provided another topic, including the only photo of the unplanned, almost comical surrender of Jerusalem to a passing British sergeant in the Romema section (near the current Jerusalem Post building) in December 1917. The official surrender took place a couple of days later.
There are also beautiful shots of the Dead Sea, Sinai, the pyramids and Petra.
The group photographed celebrities such as as T.E. Lawrence, as well as studies of "simple people" - an old Jew or a Beduin woman described as a "doctor."
An interesting aspect is the photographic record of the Swedish-American Colony itself. Anna Spafford, the strict and demanding leader who ruled the sect, is seen in a group portrait with her two daughters, one of whom, Bertha, took over when Anna died. Larrson married Edith, also from the sect, and the formally attired wedding party is seen in front of the hotel.
The sect came to Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century, convinced that the Second Coming of Christ was about to take place. It broke up in 1934, no longer able to contain the stress, mainly between Swedes and Americans.
Now their best-known activity, photography, has been documented in a comprehensive volume. Its sale, at a cost of NIS 400, is handled by the American Colony Hotel bookstore.