Jordan River, 1919, from the American Colony Photography Department collection.(Library of Congress)

Led to believe that the Holy Land was nothing short of magical, Mark Twain found its virtues overrated, even exaggerated. Jerusalem, he complained in The Innocents Abroad, his 1870 account of visiting the land of the Bible, was not only small and crowded but also the “knobbiest town in the world … roofed, from centre to circumference, with inverted saucers.” The much-vaunted Sea of Galilee, in turn, offered little to commend: “no more to be compared to Tahoe than a meridian of longitude is to a rainbow.” And everywhere, he said, there was way too much dust, way too much history, and far too many unattractive people.

Where steel engravings of the Holy Land had long excited his imagination, Twain’s encounters with the ancient landscape left him at loose ends, unable to reconcile the mythic with the real. “But in the engravings,” he wrote woefully, “there was no desolation; no dirt; no rags; no flies; no ugly features; no sore eyes … no stench of camel.” Given his druthers, the celebrated American writer much preferred the imagined Holy Land to its real-life, fly-specked, odiferous counterpart.

Perhaps Twain might have changed his tune had he had occasion to view the photographic treasure trove of thousands of images, at once reverential and knowing, that was produced by the American Colony Photo Department between the late 19th century and the 1940s, and that now reposes in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. For decades, this commercial photography studio, headquartered in East Jerusalem, fastened its sights on a wondrous mix of the topographical and the typical, on ancient ruins and on the latest political maneuverings. Little escaped its scrutiny.

When not dutifully photographing scenes of camels solemnly trekking across the crest of a landscape that was nothing short of biblical, or hand-coloring images of the Jordan River that were so inviting one yearned to be baptized in its waters, the photographers of the American Colony came up with pictures of the landscape, and its varied inhabitants, that show a visual acuity and formal sophistication so pronounced, so spot-on, that they take one’s breath away.

Its body of work includes scenes of mountains with shapes rendered as pure geometry; doe-eyed Palestinian mothers and their babies; nubile Zionist women in shorts; the lonely outpost of a newly constructed house; confident colonial administrators bearing up under the weight of so many medals on their chest; elderly Yemenite Jews who are burdened by the weight of history—and everywhere the play of light and shadow on the land.

Bringing to bear the most modern of technologies—the camera—on the most ancient of landscapes, the American Colony Photo Department came as close as anyone possibly could to balancing the imagined silhouette of the Holy Land against its actual content.

The landscape also looms large in the stunning body of work created over the past 20 years by Sharon Ya’ari, one of Israel’s leading contemporary photographers, whose layered, nuanced, and achingly beautiful images are poised between promise and thwarted expectation, between history and sociology. More rueful than dutiful, more ironic than reverential, Ya’ari’s photographs zero in on, and take the measure of, the current state of affairs in Israel. But they do so in an entirely unexpected manner.

Although Ya’ari’s oeuvre is clearly influenced by the past—how could it be otherwise in a country where nearly every other dunam, or quarter-acre, is given over to the commemoration of a battle or an historical episode or a memorial?—he hadn’t had the opportunity to immerse himself fully in the historic archives of the American Colony Photo Department until he came to Washington this fall.

Over the past few weeks, while in residence at George Washington University as its very first Schusterman Foundation Visiting Artist from Israel, Ya’ari spent a lot of time in the company of his photographic predecessors. What held his interest were not just the physical appeal and technical prowess of their work. Equally captivating were the ways in which the American Colony photographs provided Ya’ari with a sharply etched visual history of the country in which he grew up, introducing him to places and events and perspectives he knew only from books or conversation.

It’s too early to tell how Ya’ari’s encounter with the American Colony photographs will influence his work, if at all. In the accompanying slideshow Ya’ari reads and interprets the body of work of the American Colony Photo Department in light of his own. Five images, selected by Ya’ari from the Library of Congress archive to reflect his perspective on the collection, were taken by the members of the American Colony Photo Department over a 50-year period between 1898 and 1938. These images placed a premium on the romance and pathos of the Holy Land. The remaining slides were chosen by Ya’ari from among his own recent photographs of the Israeli landscape—chosen because they gently subvert the notion of its timelessness, highlighting instead its dynamic relationship to change.

Biblical Land
Israeli photographer Sharon Ya’ari interprets the Holy Land images of the American Colony Photo Department