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Fine Arts Library Acquires Tassel Collection of Historical Photos

Hemment with GSAS student

Jerusalem, "Arch of the Ecce Homo" (title on mount); Bonfils (based in Beirut as of 1867), albumen silver print, 1868-1870.

In the early 1980s, Daniel Tassel volunteered at Harvard's Semitic Museum on days off from his full-time work as a practicing physician in Burlington, Mass. His introduction to its Maison Bonfils photograph collection — Bonfils ran a famous and prolific studio in Beirut that produced many images of the Middle East in the 19th century — set Dr. Tassel on a journey of personal collecting that spanned 25 years and led to his acquiring an extensive collection of thousands of historical photographs, primarily of the Middle East. Now Tassel's efforts have come full circle back to Harvard with the Fine Arts Library (FAL) and Fogg Art Museum's acquisition of several thousand photos from his collection.

Dr. Tassel already had a strong interest in history, archaeology, and photography — he was a photographer in his own right — when Carney S. Gavin, Curator of the Harvard Semitic Museum, proposed a then-and-now exhibition project using the Museum's collection. Over the next several years, Dr. Tassel made a series of photographic excursions to Israel, framing his photos very much as Bonfils and others had more than a century earlier. The resulting exhibition was shown at the Semitic Museum in 1983, Israel in 1984, and later at other sites in Canada and the United States.

It was also at the Semitic Museum that Dr. Tassel first began to think seriously about a photo collection of his own. One day in 1982, he says, he met a man at the Museum with beautiful, well-preserved images that he was willing to sell. "I was bowled over and bought just about everything I could get," he says. Soon after he attended an auction in New York and purchased another two volumes of 19th-century Middle East photographs. "I had previously bought a torn, faded photo in Jerusalem that I thought was terrific. I now realized that there were great prints available outside of museum collections."

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"Femmes de Bethléhem" - Photoglob Zurich (via Detroit Publishing Co., American agent), photochrom, ca. 1900, probably based on Bonfils neg. ca. 1880s.

Dr. Tassel's quest over the next 25 years took him to museums, libraries, dealers and auctions, both in the U.S. and abroad. By 2000 he had created a collection of such depth that he contacted Deborah Kao, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard University Art Museums, and offered items from his collection for the upcoming December 2000 Fogg exhibit, "Sightseeing: Photography of the Middle East and its Audiences." The loan served as the impetus for giving his collection to the Fogg and FAL.

The photographs from Dr. Tassel's collection, acquired by FAL in December, focus primarily on Palestine and Israel, but contain very strong representations of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, and also include Jordan, Iraq, Greece, and India. Over several years the Fogg has acquired a small number of pristine and rare prints, while FAL acquired more than 2,000 photographs, remarkable for their high-quality. The formats range from large-scale 19th-century albumen prints and stereographs, including rare glass stereo views, to early postcards and lantern slides, the latter including a set of documentary views of Istanbul from roughly 1900. There are landscapes and cityscapes — often detailed and documentary-like — as well as close-ups of buildings, structures, and individuals and groups attired in traditional costume.

Hemment with GSAS student
Jerusalem, "Zion Gate" (on mount); Bonfils, albumen silver print, 1868-70.

One collection highlight are the photos by Photoglob Zurich, a company that produced colored photographs, often by Bonfils, using a sophisticated photochromolithographic process. While not true color, they create an interesting representation and can often be compared with black-and-white prints of the same subjects. Just a few of the wide-ranging images include Bethlehem, the Wailing Wall, landscapes like the Jordan River, and numerous images of stonecutters and other occupational types.

Not surprisingly, another highlight of the collection is a well-preserved set of 19th-century Bonfils photographs of Palestine that include many images of Jerusalem, ancient churches, mosques, and synagogues, tombs outside the city, and iconic landmarks like the Tower of David, the Arch of Ecce Homo, and the Dome of the Rock. The earliest are particularly noteworthy for their uncommon views, the path to Jerusalem, for instance. Later, due to the growth of tourism and an influx of religious and "grand tour" visitors and wealthy travelers, most photos of the Middle East were created to appeal to a middle- and upper-class Western audience. Even at home, armchair tourists were fascinated by the Holy Land images, depictions of ancient sites, and exotic people.

But the items mentioned above form merely a small sampling of the 2,000-plus photographs in the Tassel Collection, whose acquisition was negotiated by Jeff Spurr, Islamic and Middle East Specialist in the Aga Khan Program at the Fine Arts Library, along with Kao.

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"Bethlélem" - Photoglob Zurich (via Detroit Publishing Co., American agent), photochrom, ca. 1900, based on Bonfils neg. ca. 1880s.

"This is not simply a question of adding new images of previously undocumented subjects," says Spurr, "but also of enlarging the holdings of photographers already represented." The Tassel acquisition gives FAL unparalleled holdings of photographs by Maison Bonfils, as well as images by noted photographers Bedford, Bergheim, Good, Cramb, Dumas, Hammerschmidt, and McDonald. Other additions supply FAL with photographers never before represented, like Leeuw, Vignes, Benor-Kalter, and Ben-Dov.

"I really felt that this collection, particularly the photos of Palestine and Israel, really should be in a place that they'd be used and appreciated," says Dr. Tassel. "I'm very pleased that this is at Harvard and will be used for Harvard students and scholars for many, many generations to come."

Researchers interested in using items from the Tassel Collection should contact Jeff Spurr at 617-495-3372 or via email at spurr@fas.harvard.edu.