THE LIGHT OF ANCIENT ATHENS
A Photographic Journey by Félix Bonfils, 18681875
When the French photographer Félix Bonfils first journeyed to Greece in 1868, the art of photography was not yet 30 years old. After studying photography in his native France, Bonfils established a studio in Beirut in 1867. There he served the growing commercial market for photographs of the Holy Land, Egypt, Greece, and other places attracting travelers (both on-site and armchair) in ever-increasing numbers. Bonfils photographed using the wet-collodion process. From his glass-plate negatives, exposed in the bright sunlight of Beirut, La Maison Bonfils produced thousands of large- or small-format sepia-tone albumen prints and stereoscopic views for sale or publication. His two trips to Athens between 1868 and 1875 resulted in the remarkable series of 42 photographs that are the focus of this exhibition and constitute most of the views that Bonfils made of the city.
The Athens series is part of a trove of more than 800 Bonfils photographs, which were printed from the original negatives, probably in the 1880s, then purchased by Rudolf Ernst Brünnow (18581917), who served as Professor of Semitic Philology at Princeton from 1910 until his death. The Library acquired the Bonfils photographs in 1921 as part of the Brünnow Papers,which were recorded as the gift of R. E. Brünnow. These materials are in now the Manuscripts Division of the Rare Books and Special Collections Department.
Viewed objectively, the Bonfils photographs provide valuable information about the condition of the ancient monuments and the urban landscape of Athens around 1870. In addition, they illustrate the most important stations on a travelers itinerary and the preferred points of view from which the monuments and city were to be seen. Taken together, the photographs construct an idealized city, more ancient than modern. For the nineteenth-century viewer such photographs evoked the Golden Age of classical Athens, which was depicted in accordance with established aesthetic principles shared by artists and photographers. The modern viewer is left alone in the light of ancient Athens and encouraged to discover an idyllic place, fixed in time and devoid of Athenians, where Hellas can tell her own story. Today we can appreciate such photographs both as beautiful compositions and as revealing documents of nineteenth-century cultural history.
PHOTOGRAPHS OF ATHENS
In another Princeton collection, there is a separate large-format Bonfils
photograph of Athens, showing the Hill of the Nymphs and the Observatory.