For many people, August means going on vacation and the more exotic the locale the better. For anyone who loves traveling to unique destinations, but can’t afford sky-high airfare, a current Getty Villa exhibit may be just the ticket.
“In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th Century Photography," which opened in March and runs to Sept. 12, offers an extraordinary look at some of the world’s most legendary and historic regions through the eyes of curious travelers and renowned shutterbugs between the 1840s and early 1900s.
Many of these visitors were hoping to find the "Land of Milk and Honey," "The Shining City on the Hill," or a lush oasis described in Scripture passages or depicted in paintings. Instead, what they saw may have come as a shock or disappointment. Those seeking the wonders of the Holy Land with magnificent structures and gorgeous vistas encountered dusty outposts and villages, stone remnants of once grand sites and locals living in stark conditions unchanged for centuries. Still, the journey had a profound effect on these travelers—most famously Samuel Clemens, who jotted down his impressions for a future memoir.
Guest curator Kathleen Stewart Howe said that Clemens, who is of course better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, joined a package tour of the Holy Land organized by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher's Brooklyn congregation in 1867. Beecher was considered by some to be the most famous preacher in the U.S. at the time, noted Howe. According to Howe, Twain wrote about his travels for a San Francisco newspaper at the time. He also compiled his accounts from the Holy Land in a book, Innocents Abroad: Or a New Pilgrim's Progress.
“Throughout the book he takes a jaundiced view of 'Yankee' tourists as they confront difficulties of travel and react to foreign customs," said Howe. "Twain will occasionally stop to consider that a barren valley, now traversed by his fellow travelers in their traveling outfits, umbrella sun shades and blue tinted lenses, was the land on which Abraham and Isaac tended their flocks."
The Getty exhibit features an interesting variety of displays and photographs, including daguerreotypes, salted-paper prints and stereographs. Albumen silver prints created between the 1840s and the early 1900s by such famous photographers as Félix Bonfils, Felice Beato and Maxime Du Camp are also in the collection.
The exhibit is divided into five sections: "Views of Jerusalem," "Early Photographs," "Peoples of the Bible," "Travels in Bible Lands" and "British and French Expedition." The selections include views of Bethlehem, Nazareth as well as Jerusalem landmarks such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Damascus Gate and the Dome of the Rock.
As with many of the Getty’s installations, the art comes with a wealth of rich, historical data and interactive displays that help viewers immerse themselves in a specific time and place—in this case, 19th century Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and other regions.
Books with colorful souvenir postcards paired with dried flowers also reveal how local shops catered to tourists. Early View of Jerusalem is one of the fragile daguerreotypes on display that are both intriguing to the eye and a reminder of the volatile, early days of photography. One must give credit to the Getty for its ability to preserve and showcase these antiquities.
“I would hope that visitors first of all enjoy some remarkable photographs made before railroads and modern construction changed the look of this place," said Howe. "The work of these early photographers can stand against some of the best photography today in visual impact and aesthetic value."
"I would also hope that a visitor might stop to consider how we change the past [historic landscapes] when we preserve it. How as travelers and tourists today we usually see what we've gone to find and perhaps miss much of what is really there," she added.
Anyone who enjoys time traveling to wondrous lands via rare snapshots should go “In Search of Biblical Lands” before it closes next month. For more information, contact the Getty online, or call 310-440-7300.