Picturing the Holy City

Photo Essay

By Marissa Brostoff

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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Talk about the dustbin of history: In 1989, an American photographer happened upon a garage sale in St. Paul, Minn., and left with a box of the earliest-known photographs of Jerusalem from the 19th century.

Taken by Mendel Diness, a Jewish watchmaker in Jerusalem, the photographs are currently on exhibit — along with shots by James Graham, a Scottish missionary and Diness’s mentor — in a traveling show titled Picturing Jerusalem.

Picturing Jerusalem opened in New York at the Yeshiva University Museum on December 4 and will be up until April 6, 2008. Its last stop will be The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Graham was one of the first Europeans to travel to the Ottoman-controlled Middle East in the 1850s and was a pioneering photographer of the region. He and Diness, who later converted to Christianity and moved to the United States, photographed synagogues, churches, mosques landscapes and Jerusalem’s inhabitants.

The pictures, said Gabriel Goldstein, the Yeshiva University Museum’s associate director for exhibits and programs, help to create “interest in the Holy Land not only as a conceptual, spiritual location, but also as a real, physical location, [and] can thus be linked to later developments such as increased pilgrimages and even Zionism.”

Goldstein detects a mutual influence between Graham and the Pre-Raphaelite painters, some of whom were among Graham’s friends. (A picture of Graham and painters Thomas Seddon and William Holman Hunt, taken by Diness, adorns the cover of the exhibit catalog).

“Pre-Raphaelites were interested in Holy Land scenes and biblical scenes, and they based parts of their scenes — as well as [formal elements like] composition, lighting, the panoramic view — on photos,” Goldstein said. “It was a discussion between a new medium and a new aesthetic school.”

Besides marking the initial public display of Diness’s work, the exhibit is the first that focuses on Graham since 1862.

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