Photographs of the Middle East were the focus of a recent public program sponsored by the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division. Well-illustrated presentations by speakers from four diverse libraries and archives introduced the audience to significant collections of Armenian, Jewish, Islamic and general Middle Eastern images. Speakers explained how their institution acquires, documents and provides access to photographic holdings.
Robert Burton, Mellon Project cataloger for photographs at the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University (http://preserve.harvard.edu) opened the program with a historical overview of the Middle East region. He pointed out that photographs "offer visual evidence of people, places and things that no longer exist" and allow us to see "how individuals are affected by the forces of history." According to Burton, photographs provide an understanding of the area's history and diversity.
Ruth Thomasian, founder and executive director of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives Inc. in Watertown, Mass. (www.projectsave.org), took the audience on a personal and professional journey of discovery through her lecture titled "Connecting with the Middle East: Collecting and Documenting Photographs of Armenians." With a broad collection policy that welcomes any and all photographs dealing with Armenia and Armenians, Project SAVE has accessioned some 25,000 images with item-level documentation since 1975.
Thomasian, who started acquiring photographs 31 years ago, said, "I was searching for my ethnic identity." After showing an 1860 image of Etchmiadzin Cathedral and Monastery, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the historic Armenia area of the southern Caucasus in the Russian Empire, she illustrated the breadth of Armenian subject matter that could be studied through photographs of Ottoman Empire cities such as Van, Kharpert, Marash, Constantinople, Aleppo and Beirut; Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Palestine; Port Said, Egypt; Tehran, Isfahan and Sultanabad in Persia; and Mosul, Iraq. She concluded with images of a contemporary Armenian family in post-Soviet Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
In her lecture, "Photographs of Hadassah's Medical Care in Jerusalem, 1913-1960," Susan Woodland, director of Hadassah Archives (www.hadassah.org), explained how photographs of Hadassah's medical activities in Israel "bring alive a rich history while work continues in the present. Hadassah was established in 1912 in New York City as a membership organization to fund health care for women and children in Jerusalem.
"From its first few days, Hadassah workers included a camera or a photographer as part of their medical equipment," said Woodland.
The photographs depict Hadassah-funded hospitals, clinics, visiting nurse programs and classes in nutrition and well baby care that were open to all. Other photographs, such as those taken by the nurses on their days off, show life outside the medical facilities. Woodland noted that the images "served a dual purpose: to educate the membership in the medical needs of the community overseas and to raise funds for ongoing work." Some photographs portray the effects of conflicts in the region on Hadassah's work and facilities. According to Woodland, studying the Hadassah photographs can help people better understand the politics of 20th century Jerusalem.
In her lecture titled "From Algiers to Samarqand: Online Access to Middle East Photographs for the General Public," Arden Alexander, a cataloging specialist in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, discussed the approximately 20,000 digitized Middle East images available in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (www.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html).
Referring to this photographic catalog, which now contains more than 1 million items (see Information Bulletin, June 2006), Alexander said, "This catalog makes these rich collections freely available throughout the world to everyone, including the general public, scholars, filmmakers, librarians and many others." She showed images from the Matson Negatives, which document Palestine (present-day Israel and the West Bank), Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Egypt between 1898 and 1946. Alexander also mentioned rare collections, such as the Abdul Hamid albums and the Turkistan albums, and general visual resources to be found in newspaper photo morgues and poster files. She recounted how some researchers, after viewing the images online, are sending the Library more detailed information, which is added to the catalog. Alexander encouraged institutions with Middle East photograph collections to "put them online … so that others can participate in describing, identifying and using them."
Jeff Spurr, Islamic and Middle East specialist at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University (http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/ finearts/collections/semitic.html), presented a lecture titled "From Scholars to Missionaries: The Origins, History and Organization of Middle East Photograph Collections at Harvard's Fine Arts Library." He discussed the development of the collections dating back to the 1890s, when David Gordon Lyon, the first Harvard Semitic Museum curator, started purchasing photographs and Harvard's Fogg Art Museum began its visual library. In 1963 this visual library became part of the newly established Fine Arts Library, formed by the merger of the Fogg Art Museum and Harvard's Widener Library collections. Oleg Grabar, appointed professor of Islamic Art in 1969, fostered the growth of the visual collections. In 1979 Grabar was instrumental in founding the Aga Khan Program of Islamic Architecture with its Documentation Center at the Fine Arts Library.
The program "supported a dramatic increase in our holdings of photographs and slides documenting Islamic visual culture in all its variety," said Spurr.
Resources from the Aga Khan Program of Islamic Architecture also made it possible for the Documentation Center to receive the Harvard Semitic Museum Photographic Archives in 1995, and to develop archival collections since that date. Spurr showed numerous images including mosques in Iraq and Egypt photographed by architectural scholar K.A.C. Creswell, early picture postcards of Damascus and images taken in Iran in the 1950s and 1960s by the Belgian Baroness Ullens.
The panelists responded to numerous questions from the audience about fundraising, rights issues, and the challenge of collecting and preserving digital photographs.
An annotated bibliography of approximately 25 sources for historical photographs of the Middle East is available online at www.loc.gov/rr/print/resource/mepbibliographySAA.pdf.
Arden Alexander, cataloging specialist in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, and Helena Zinkham, head of technical services, in the Prints and Photographs Division, contributed to this story.