Endangered archives blog

07 March 2014

The Good Woman named Bonfils

To mark International Women's Day we have a guest blog by Yasmine Chemali, grant holder of EAP644. The blog gives us a fascinating insight to photography of the Middle East and Lydie Bonfils - a very inspiring woman.

Marie-Lydie Cabanis Bonfils (1837-1918)

An attempt at photograph identification

Photography arrived in the Middle East in 1839, the same year that Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre produced his first daguerreotype in France[1]. Félix Bonfils, a French printer who migrated from France to Beirut along with his family in 1867, established one of the first professional photographic studios in the Middle East. Very little is known about women photographers in the region. Félix’s wife, Lydie Bonfils, can be considered the first professional woman photographer in the region.

This blog will focus on the Bonfils production and especially on the photographs that could be attributed to Lady Bonfils. The Fouad Debbas Collection, based in Beirut, Lebanon, is the most important private collection of photographs and archives of the 19th and of the first half of the 20th centuries currently conserved in the Middle East, with approximately 40 000 photographs of the region. EAP 644 is currently focusing on digitization and assessment of the Debbas Bonfils collection[2].

Much has been written so far about the Bonfils family and their photographic establishment in Lebanon. From the moment they moved from France (Gard) to Beirut, Lebanon, until the establishment was sold to Abraham Guiragossian in 1907, Félix (father), Lydie (mother) and Adrien (son) produced one of the largest bodies of photographic work in the Middle East. Here is their story through Fouad Debbas’s archives including his personal notes, his collection of approximately 3000 original photographs, and other documents such as interviews of Bonfils descendants thirty-five years ago.

The Bonfils family studio

  Photograph of the studio with a camera in the foreground.
Fig.1: photography of Bonfils studio in Beirut, private collection, documentation of Fouad Debbas, TFDC.

In 1857, Paul-Félix Bonfils (1831-1885) from Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort (Gard, France) married Marie-Lydie Cabanis (1837-1918) from Congénies (Gard). They had two children, Félicité-Sophie in 1858 and Paul Félix Adrien in 1861.

In 1860, a French military expedition was sent to Lebanon to calm down the Druze uprising and the massacre of Christian communities. Félix Bonfils, aged 29, was part of the expedition. After his return to France, Félix was enchanted and kept telling stories to his wife who dreamed of visiting the Orient. A few years later, the young Adrien got severely sick from whooping cough and the doctor recommended a trip across the seas. With no hesitation, Lydie took her son to Beirut. Back in France, Lydie was transformed and urged her husband to move to Beirut and to change the family business to photography. At that time, Félix Bonfils was the head of a printing office in Alais for heliogravure, a process he had learned from Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor. Trained in photography, the Bonfils family set up in Beirut in 1867, opened a photographic studio (Fig.1) and developed branches in Cairo and Alexandria as well as a business correspondence with a New-York agency. The beginnings were difficult especially because of the heavy photographic material but they worked hard and travelled all around the Middle East covering Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Greece. The studio produced literally tens of thousands of prints and lantern slides forming one of the most extensive visual anthologies of the Middle East material culture. Already in 1871, in a letter to the Société Française de Photographie, Félix reported having taken a large number of photographs of Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece, views of Jerusalem and several panoramas. He mentions that his stock comprises 15 000 prints and 9000 stereo views from 590 negatives[3]. Bonfils’s anthological structure was divided into five distinct photographic sections, following the outline of the firm’s 1876 catalogue[4]: 1) Egypt, 2) Palestine / the Holy Land, 3) Syria, 4) Constantinople and Greece, 5) the Costumes/ Genre, Scenes and Ethnographic Types of the Orient. Prints were offered in three different sizes (18x24, 24x30, 30x40 cm) as well as stereoscopic views.

Although it seems that Félix Bonfils has produced almost all the early work, it is still very difficult to identify the different makers and attribute the images to any of the family members. While we know Lydie looked after the administration, it seems she also did some portraits. Lydie remained in Beirut to run the family business when Félix set up in Alais in 1876 for the publication of a series of albums titled “Souvenirs d’Orient”, sold to order through his agents in Paris, London, Switzerland and in the US. In 1878, Adrien came back to Beirut to help his father – he had been studying in France: the company became F. Bonfils et Cie[5]. Adrien was 17 and took the responsibilities of photography, including the numerous and laborious trips around the region, whereas his father took care of the promotion and of the business administration. In Alais, Félix had created a phototype studio in 1880 and died there in 1885. La Maison Bonfils continued to flourish after his death under the directions of his wife Lydie and his son Adrien. Traditionally, all photographs signed Bonfils were attributed to Félix, but it is now clear that both Lydie and Adrien contributed to the firm’s pictorial output. Specific authorship, however, is at best very speculative…

Furthermore, the establishment also employed an unknown number of unidentified assistants, among them George Sabungi or Abraham Guiragossian, who were also active in enlarging the stock of negatives. A catalogue published in the mid 1880’s states: “Our employees are constantly travelling in order to renew our negatives in accordance with every latest development in photographic art. Thus our views are known throughout the world and justly appreciated for their perfect execution and their permanence.”[6]

In 1979, Roger Bonfils, son of Adrien, reminded his father telling him stories about their family business[7]. As for fixing photography, eggs were largely used: many women spent entire days to separate egg yolks and egg whites. Egg whites were used in the albumin process, whereas egg yolks were salted and sent in barrels from Beirut to Alais because they were used in the glove factory. Lydie Bonfils would have declared being evacuated on the deck of the U.S.S. Des Moines leaving Beirut in 1916: “I do not want to smell another egg again!”[8]

It seems that Lydie had decided that mixing albumen for her husband and son was not enough, and apparently got involved in portraits and costume studies in the Beirut studios. Descendants have confirmed that she worked in the family's Beirut studio for some time after her son abandoned the trade in the early 1900s.

There is evidence too that she ranged more widely. In Brummana, a member of the Maksad family told of "Lady Bonfils" stopping a Druze shaikh to pose for her one morning, just after the outbreak of the First World War[9]. Reverend Samuel Manning in his book Those Holy Fields: Palestine illustrated by Pen and Pencil, published in 1874 in London cites many of the book’s engravings were from photographs by “Madame Bonfils of Beyrout.”[10] Due to social conventions in the Middle East, it is presumed that Lydie made the photographs of female subject. “Madame Bonfils” is also mentioned by traveller Abbé Antoine Raboisson in his book En Orient published in Paris in 1886; she would have prepared the Beirut studio for some of the pictures he took.[11]

At the turn of the century, with the apparition of Kodak (1888) and the decline of professional photography, Adrien abandoned the family business to become hotel manager in Brumanna, Mount Lebanon. In 1899-1900, he constructed the Villa des Chênes and moved in with his wife, Marielie Saalmüller. Lydie took up the reins of the Maison Bonfils in Beirut, assisted by Abraham Guiragossian, among others.

Front cover of the catalogue
Fig.2: cover page of 1907 catalogue of “Vve Lydie Bonfils”, TFDC.

She published the Catalogue général des vues photographiques de l’Orient, Beyrouth in 1907, where it is noted that there were branches of the firm in Jerusalem and Baalbek. The catalogue is signed “Vve L. Bonfils”(Fig.2). It seems that Madame Bonfils continued to photograph until her evacuation from Beirut by the United States navy in 1916[12]. In 1909, Madame Bonfils formed a partnership with A. Guiragossian who eventually bought their archives – studio and all its content – after Lydie died in 1918. Guiragossian signed his photographs “Lydie Bonfils photographe, Beyrouth (Syrie) successeur A. Guiragossian”, inscribing himself in total legacy of Maison Bonfils.

Portrait of Lydie Bonfils by her descendants based on accounts and interviews from 1979[13]

Lydie Bonfils
Fig.3: portrait of Lydie Bonfils, private collection, documentation of Fouad Debbas, TFDC.

In 1979, Roger Bonfils remembers: “Grandmother Lydie was visiting us in Brumana every summer. She left Beirut for two or three months and spent some time in the mountains. She was quite austere and strict but we loved her very much. (Fig.3)

One day, my little sister Marcelle entered her bedroom very impressed because she saw grandma with no teeth and she cried. Then grandmother told her to go pray hard so that the Good Lord would give grandma her teeth back. Marcelle prayed very hard and when she came back she was so delighted to see her prayer fulfilled!

Grandmother said also that when you were about to commit nonsense, that was under devil’s influence and that you should kick him to chase him. One day, while we were sitting in classroom, we heard our private teacher screaming of pain: that was Marcelle who was bravely chasing the devil!” 

Marcelle Pinatton relates: “My grandmother was someone! She was generous and very religious. Once, she heard the Salvation Army that the poor were in need, and so she gave all her jewels, and every time she had a visit from poor people in Beirut, she would offer them clothes and food. Poor came by boat to my grandmother. My uncle who was Vice-Consul of France in Beirut found once a piece of paper on which it was written: “Go to Madame Bonfils, she feeds you and gives you clothes, but you have to listen to her, she tells about the Good Lord.”

Lydie Bonfils, the first professional woman photographer in the Middle East and her role in the Oriental imagery

There were very few aristocratic ladies of the last century such as Marguerite Cameron and few others who were amateurs or artists but Marie-Lydie Cabanis Bonfils is considered the first women photographer in the Middle East to take studio portraits.

According to Mrs. Pinatton, Lydie Bonfils could not have been travelling and taking pictures of all the sites and people outside. Adrien Bonfils told his children once that the lepers had threatened him: “you give us so much or else we come and touch you”[14]. Adrien got himself out of this situation when he took his gun in order to make them step backwards. That is why Lydie could have never gone there and done that work.

But it is obvious she took several photographs in the Beirut studio, especially for the costumes series featuring women - Oriental women being more inclined to pose if the operator were a woman herself. 

No photograph was signed with a woman’s name. The Dalil Beirut, the Guide of Beirut (1882) notes the existence of a photo studio entitled “Studio Madame Philippe Sabunji”[15], proving that his Danish wife, Rikke, assisted Philippe Sabunji in his photographic production. A postcard, conserved in the Fouad Debbas Collection shows an inscription written in upper case Latin letters: “Photographie Peintre Octavia Kova.”[16] This studio with a woman’s name was established in the Gemmayzeh area in Beirut in 1920. This is evidence that women were involved in the production of photography at that time in Beirut, although they were not acknowledged or credited. This makes the task of tracing women photographers even more difficult. The identification of Lydie Bonfils photographs in this article is subject to interpretation and engages only the present author. In regard to the different catalogues of Maison Bonfils and studying attentively the Bonfils’s signatures, it appears that female portraits are barely signed and their numbering could be attributed to a feminine hand (Fig.4).

  Close up of the identifying number of the photograph. In this case it is 619.
Fig.4: detail of signature of Fig.7

Recent studies of women photography depict women photographers not as mere assistants in the production but as agents of their own work.[17] Lydie Bonfils may be considered as a pioneer in photography, but the Fouad Debbas Collection comprises also a unique portrayal of Lebanon accounted by the Comtesse de Perthuis between 1852-55 and 1860-62. Through her travel journal[18], found by Debbas in a bookstore in Lyon in 1990, Madame de Perthuis, a French aristocrat, offers us an account, sketches and photographs of her journey through Lebanon and its surroundings in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Both women, the Comtesse de Perthuis and Marie-Lydie Bonfils, may be seen as having produced Orientalist accounts that tend to look at the region through an exoticizing lens. Lydie Bonfils’s Bedouin women were surely meant to conform to preconceived Western stereotypes[19]. For a long time, women have been represented as “objects of vision”, as “sights” designed to “flatter” predominantly male spectators[20]

In the European travel literature of the 19th and the 20th centuries, the non-European female world is figured as a sexual and romantic desire in the age of the expansion of industrialization and urbanization[21]. The representation of Orient and of the oriental subject is exotic in Bonfils’s photographs.

Studio set up to resemble a desert. Three people sit a younger boy lying on the sand.
Fig.5: Group of Bedouins from Jericho, albumin print, Maison Bonfils, ca. 1876-85. TFDC_520_034_0644.

Bedouin subjects in a desert-like context never appear dignified; they do not look straight into the viewfinder: they rest against a palm tree décor with papier-mâché stones, reminding of a composition by Delacroix (Fig.5). Those orientalist stereotypes inscribe the Middle-Eastern women as passive. In Bonfils’ lens, the peasant is passive. There is also a certain falsehood in the photographs of types and characters, made in non-authentic studio situations with “models” appearing in several images with different costumes and under totally different identifications (Fig.6 and Fig.7). It is very likely that certain veils of female subjects hide the same sitter[22].

  Portrait of a woman wearing an embroidered cap with jewellery covered with a lace veil. She is adorned with earrings and necklaces.
Fig.6: Young woman from Lebanon, albumin print, attributed to Lydie Bonfils (?), ca. 1876-85. TFDC_520_002_0257.

Portait of the same woman. the veil covers her face from the nose downwards. Only her eyes and the cap can be seen.
Fig.7: Woman from Nablus, albumin print, attributed to Lydie Bonfils (?), ca. 1876-85. TFDC_139_026_0619.

Orientalist photographs by Lydie Bonfils were produced for commercial purposes in order to satisfy the expectations of a European clientele. As the leading merchants of Oriental imagery in Europe, Bonfils’s images functioned within the same perceptual logic as the lithographs with perfectly arranged compositions in terms of perspective and of construction: no extraneous elements were left out in the background.[23] The Bonfils assembled signs of an exotic and mysterious place. They developed a photographic genre in which scenes are artificial and poses fake. This family business aimed at producing high quality prints, this is why they insert themselves into a canonical historical lineage of photography, through the figures of Niepce, Daguerre and Talbot stamped at the back of their cabinet cards[24]

 This project is now online.

Yasmine Chemali

Manager of The Fouad Debbas Collection

Beirut, Lebanon.


[1] The first daguerreotype of Beirut, dated 1839, is attributed to Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) and was published in “Excursions Daguerriennes”.  Fouad Debbas, Beirut, our memory, an illustrated tour in the old city from 1880 to 1930, Folios, 1986, p.9. See also: Fouad Debbas, “Travellers in Lebanon”, Archeology and History in Lebanon, Twelfth Issue, autumn 2000, pp.50-68.

[3] Séance du 1er décembre 1871, Bulletin de la Société Française de Photographie, XVII, 1871, p.282.

[4] Catalogue des vues photographiques de l’Orient, photographiées et éditées par Bonfils Félix, Alais (Gard), Imprimerie et Lithographie A. Brugueirolle et Compagnie, 1876.

[5] A new catalogue is then published between 1883, year of Bruxelles International Exhibition whose medallion figures on the cover page, and 1885, death of Félix Bonfils. The following illustrations of the present article are attributed prior this 1883-85 catalogue.

[6] Catalogue des vues photographiques de l’Orient, F. Bonfils & Cie, à Beyrouth (Syrie) & Alais (Gard), no date (between 1883 and 1885 according to Fouad Debbas). See also: Carney E.S. Gavin, The image of the East, Photographs by Bonfils, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1982, p.16.

[7] Roger Bonfils, Des pionniers de la photographie, Souvenirs de famille, December 1979, personal archives of Fouad Debbas, The Fouad Debbas Collection, Beirut, Lebanon.

[8] idem

[10] Robert A. Sobieszek and Carney E.S. Gavin, Remembrances of the Near East: the photographs of Bonfils, 1867-1907. May 23 - September 1, 1980 International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House.

[11] Abbé A. Raboisson, En Orient, Paris, Librairie Catholique de l’Oeuvre de Saint-Paul, 1886, t.2, p.315

[12] In December 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered in war besides Germany; French people living in Lebanon became enemies of the regime. Lydie Bonfils and her family left Beirut for Cairo where Adrien stayed for five years as a restaurant and hotel manager before he could return back to Brummana and eventually leave Lebanon for Nice in France. His mother, Lydie Bonfils passed away in 1918 in Cairo where she is buried.

[13] The interviews were made by the Harvard Semitic Museum team who was doing some research on the Bonfils family and by Fouad Debbas as well. The interviews were recorded by Elizabeth Carella who was at that time Chief Photographer at the Harvard Semitic Museum and, along with Father Carney E.S. Gavin. Mrs. Marcelle Pinatton was interviewed on April 21, 1979 at her home in Paris, and Mr Roger Bonfils in December 1979 in Royat, France. Fouad Debbas has kept traces of those accounts and interviews in its personal documentation and collection.

[14] April 1979, Interview of the HSM team, ibid.

[15] Fouad Debbas, Des photographes à Beyrouth, 1840-1918, Marval, Paris, 2001, p.48.

[16] A postcard representing her photographic studio in 1920 can be seen in Debbas, op.cit., 1986, p.190.

[17] Yasmine Nachabe, Marie al-Khazen’s photographs of the 1920s and 1930s, a thesis submitted to McGill University, November 2011, p.70.

[18] Voyages en Orient 1853-1855 and 1860-1862, Journal de la Comtesse de Perthuis, manuscrit inédit découvert par Fouad Debbas, Dar An-Nahar, Beirut, 2007.

[19] Yasmine Nachabe, Refracted Gazes: A Woman Photographer during Mandate Lebanon, Essay, Altre Modernità/Other Modernities, Università degli Studi du Milano, N.8 – 11, 2012, p.3.

[20] Berger J. 1973, Ways of Seeing, Viking Press, New York, p.74 in Nachabe, 2012, ibid.

[21] This aspect is particularly revealed in Gustave Flaubert’s texts in which the Orient is not only eroticized but also feminized. REF. Nachabe, 2012, op,cit., p.6

[22] See in The Fouad Debbas Collection: TFDC_520_029_0648.

[23] Nachabe, 2011, op.cit., p.62.

[24] See in The Fouad Debbas Collection:  TFDC_300_003.


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