Barbara Bair has written an interesting and informative article in the Jerusalem Quarterly on the history of the American Colony Photography Department. Their work is compared and contrasted with other photographic agencies in the Old City of Jerusalem.
An important commercial niche that the American Colony photographers shared with other professional photography businesses in the Near East was the production of images of allegorical “biblical” scenes. Like other photographers needing to remain commercially viable, they took photographs of sacred sites, such as the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But they also went beyond the standard images well-known to tourists to create extensive documentation of mosques, churches, architectural sites, city-scapes and village homes and streets in greater Syria. An American Colony Store catalogue flyer of American Colony Photo Post Cards available in 1934 featured nearly 300 selections, catalogued geographically, with more than 50 of them Jerusalem scenes.
American Colony “typology” studies of unnamed working Jerusalemites included photographs of a water carrier, a porter, and a rabbi (perhaps a model posing as a rabbi), each indicated in the catalogue as signifying specific verses from the Bible. The generic anonymity of these subjects implied a timeless arc from ancient times to the present, and made the humans featured into symbols of their respective cultures and ways of life, much as the architectural typology of holy buildings symbolized entire faiths. American Colony cameramen joined other photographers in staging “tableau” photographs and took opportunity images that were emblematic of New Testament scenarios (shepherds with their flocks, women at the well, women grinding grain, fishermen with their nets, the arched streets of the Via Dolorosa, the river Jordan). They excelled in this particular niche market, producing albums of gorgeous hand-tinted sepia photographs, and pictorial prints of lush romantic Palestinian landscapes that followed both painterly and popular culture artistic traditions. Albums entitled the “23rd Psalm” and “Blue Galilee” were best sellers, and were also available for order as sets of lantern slides.
The full article is here.