Walking around in the Arab shuq you might notice that many of the shops have matted black and white photographs from the turn of the century of Jerusalem and Israel for sale. It’s not clear who the photographers are or when the photos were taken but you can learn a lot about how Jerusalem developed at the end of the Ottoman period and transition to the British mandate from these photos. It’s interesting to compare a photograph taken today at the same place with the similar early photo.
If you are walking through the Muslim quarter toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Al Khanka Street you will find the shop Elia’s Photo with black and white photographs going back to the 1920s in the window. On entering you will meet Kevork Kahvedjian a delightful gentleman who I’ve heard speak English, Hebrew and Arabic (he’s Armenian so most likely he speaks that too) who will be happy to talk with you and show you the photographs. Most of the photos on display were taken by his father Elia (reprinted from the original negatives) but some are even earlier that Mr Kahvedjian has collected. There is also a hardcover book of 131 of his father’s photographs, “Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes” (their website lists it at 230 NIS, on Amazon it’s $200. – it makes a great present or souvenir).
Elijah Meyers founded the American Colony Photo Department in 1898 (though some photos are earlier). Meyers, who emigrated from India, was a Jewish convert to Christianity. 1898 was the year of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Augusta Victoria’s visit, an auspicious start to the photographic enterprise as people were interested in photos of the visit.
Meyers instructed the young Swede Lewis Larsson in photography. Larsson (1881?-1958) was among the original group of Swedish colonists who arrived in Jerusalem in 1896 and became one of the most skillful of the photographers. Not only a keen observer, Larson travelled extensively in the Middle East between 1903 and 1910.
Larson knew what scenes were important to capture visually – he photographed landscapes, scenes of village life, the violent struggles at the end of World War I with the collapse of Ottoman empire. In 1904, Lewis Larsson succeeded Elijah Meyers as head of the Photo Department. Larsson ran the department for the next thirty years, even while he served as Vice Consul and later Swedish Consul for Palestine from 1920 to 1925.
G. Eric Matson (1888-1977) also came to the American Colony from Sweden in 1896 with his family as a young child. He began working in the Photo Department darkroom as a teenager in the early 1900s, although it is uncertain when he actually began taking photographs. Matson married an American, Edith Yantiss who also worked in the darkroom.
Together the Matsons excelled in innovative techniques, such as coloring photographs with oil paint, producing double stereoscopic photographs to create 3-D pictures, taking photographs with infrared film and aerial shots.
In 1934, the original colony disbanded and Matson gained control of the Photo Department with its large collection of photographs. The Matsons continued their photographic work under the American Colony Photo Department name until 1940, when they renamed the business the “Matson Photo Service.” In 1946, in the face of increasing violence in Palestine, the Matsons left Jerusalem for southern California. The staff shipped the bulk of the glass plate negatives to the United States, with the remaining negatives relocated to the basement of the International YMCA for safekeeping (unfortunately when retrieved in 1970 they had sustained water damage). By the early 1950s, with tourism on the decline, the Photo Service’s staff dispersed, forcing the closing of the Jerusalem operation.
Realizing the Collection’s historic value, in 1966 Eric Matson donated the thousands of negatives and 11 albums of contact prints to the Library of Congress who have digitized the images and made them freely available on the Internet at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/matpc/ – a great record of Jerusalem and Palestine during the first 50 years of the 20th century.