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Collection Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection

About this Collection

This collection is a rich source of historical images of the Middle East. The majority of the images depict Palestine (present day Israel and the West Bank) from 1898 to 1946. Most of the collection consists of over 22,000 glass and film photographic negatives and transparencies created by the American Colony Photo Department and its successor firm, the Matson Photo Service. Over 1,000 photographic prints and eleven albums are also part of this collection.

Digital images for the negatives and transparencies and a sample of the photographs are available online.

Background and Scope


The G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection (formerly known as the "Matson Photo Service Collection") contains over 23,000 glass and film negatives, transparencies, and photographic prints, created by the American Colony Photo Department and its successor firm, the Matson Photo Service. The collection came to the Library between 1966 and 1981, through a series of gifts made by Eric Matson and his beneficiary, the Home for the Aged of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Los Angeles (now called the Kensington Episcopal Home).

Shepherd outside Jerusalem,…
Shepherd outside Jerusalem, illustrating "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness," from the 23rd Psalm.

The American Colony Photo Department

The American Colony Photo Department in Jerusalem was one of several photo services operating in the Middle East before 1900. Catering primarily to the tourist trade, the American Colony and its competitors photographed holy sites, often including costumed actors recreating Biblical scenes.

The American Colony outlasted the other services, successfully making the transition from 19th-century large-size albumen views to the smaller, less expensive picture postcard format which dominated the twentieth century. The firm's photographers were actual residents of Palestine. Their intimate knowledge of the land and people gave them an advantage over commercial photographers who were not based in Palestine and made their coverage more comprehensive. They documented Middle East culture, history, and political events from before World War I through the collapse of Ottoman rule, the British Mandate period, World War II, and the emergence of the State of Israel.

Sir Herbert Samuel, first British High Commissioner visiting Jewish settlements...
Sir Herbert Samuel, first British High Commissioner visiting Jewish settlements, Palestine, probably Richon le Zion, July 27, 1920

The Matson Collection also includes images of people and locations in present-day Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey. Additionally, the firm produced photographs from an East African trip. (For further background information on the American Colony and its Photo Department, see The American Colony and the Matson Photo Service).

Staff have selected sample images relating to the following topics to suggest the range of imagery available in the collection:

The Negatives

The glass plate negatives in the collection include the following formats: 4" x 5" or smaller, 5" x 7", and 10" x 12". Some of these are stereographic negatives.

The Matson negatives were a working file used by the staff of the American Colony Photo Department and the Matson Photo Service for almost 70 years. Evidence of the photographers' work can be seen in crop marks, tape, and other markings used in producing photographic prints. Some of the negatives have been damaged through use, transportation over long distances, or earlier storage conditions. Cracks, missing pieces, and loss of emulsion from water damage are visible in parts of the collection.

In cataloging the collection, Prints & Photographs Division staff used titles found on the original negatives and their storage sleeves, a photo register compiled by photo service staff, printed photo service catalogues, as well as other contemporary sources cited in the Bibliography section for the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photo Collection. Subject headings have been added for the geographic places represented, but access by other topics relies primarily on information in the title.

Because the titles vary in the amount of information they give and how it is expressed, it is best to try general searches, removing terms if you don't find desired images using multiple words or names. Those searching the records should be aware of more specific information regarding three approaches to the material:

Geographic names

Title and other information derived from the negatives or photographers' captions, reflects geographic place names for the time period 1898 to 1946. Staff has added the geographic headings for the current location of places to many of the records.

Examples of geographic headings added:


The geographic headings included in the records appear in an alphabetical list in the online Subject Index, which is also available through the "Browse: Subject and Format Headings" link in the Matson Negatives search screens.

Photographs of Jerusalem

An "All Text" search for "Jerusalem" retrieves images that do not show Jerusalem because the term "Jerusalem" appears in many records as part of the name of the American Colony Photo Department. To search for photographs showing Jerusalem, enter "Jerusalem" in the search box and choose Jerusalem from the Subject facet list.

Non-geographic Subjects

Some records include topical subject headings and more will be indexed in the future. When searching for the names of objects, ethnic or religious groups, activities, or other subjects, it is best to use as many different keyword variants as possible. For example, if one is searching for pictures of pottery, doing separate searches for the keywords pottery, potter, ceramics, faience, and jar will retrieve more records with relevant images than a search for one of these terms.

Photographers' names

Although the names of many of the American Colony Photo Department and Matson Photo Service photographers are known (see the American Colony and Matson Photo Service section on the American Colony photographers), most of the catalog records do not contain the name of a photographer. Therefore, searches for individual names will not yield many images.

Attribution of negatives to particular photographers is difficult as the communal principles of the American Colony encouraged group rather than individual credit. Some photographs are marked only "American Colony, Jerusalem." Many published photographs give credit to "the photographers of the American Colony in Jerusalem," "the American Colony Photo Dept.," "American Colony Photographers," or the "Matson Photo Service." Attribution of the negatives to specific photographers remains a task for future researchers.

Text prepared by: Verna Curtis, Curator of Photography, and Arden Alexander, Cataloger, March 2004. Revised April 2010.

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