Antique Ruins at the Library of Congress (1)

(Translation of Ruines antiques à la Bibliothèque du Congrès (1), by Harry Pugh).

The Library of Congress is the national library of the United States. Inaugurated in 1800, it is the largest in the world (164.5 million referenced documents at the end of 2016); and, it launched the World Digital Library Project (World Digital Library). The library not only has genuine literary treasures (books printed prior to 1501 and rare editions); but also, a beautiful photographic collection.

In the online catalogue of the library of Congress, a first search on February 1, 2017, resulted in 1400 references of documents depicting archaeology (photos, prints, drawings), including 1371 images. These are almost exclusively photographs, mostly prior to 1899, and the available online collections highlight Egypt and the ancient ruins of the Mediterranean basin.

The three most important collections, made up of proof sheets on albumen paper, are attributed to the Bonfils House, Félix Teynard and Francis Frith. Below are a few shots from the Bonfils House. The other two photographers will be the subject of independent entries.

The Bonfils House

Active in the Middle East between 1867 and 1938, the Bonfils House was created by Félix Bonfils (1831-1885), french photographer from the Gard, in collaboration with his wife, who also produced photographs. The workshop was based in Lebanon (Beirut) and created portraits, local scenes, and photographs of landscapes and monuments taken for the most part in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Greece (one can see a virtual exhibition on Félix Bonfils on the site of the Library of Architecture and Heritage).

The media Library of Architecture and Heritage (MAP) has more than 500 documents from the Bonfils House, among which there are, of course, those from the library of Congress. We note that the Library has generously opted for high quality online reproductions. The user has the ability to download the document in a size and format of their choice.

The documents and photographs from the Bonfils House give witness to their mastery of photographic technique and the art of composition. Take for example the three photographs presented below.

1435 View of the Cheops Pyramide during the flood – Bonfils (between 1867 and 1899)

This photograph gives an artistic and aesthetic point of view of a particularly famous monument of Egyptian antiquity, one of the seven wonders of the world, the great Pyramid of Giza (aka Pyramid of Cheops). The symmetry created by the reflection in the stagnant water from the flooding of the Nile completely determines the framing and the construction of the image. Due to the mirror effect, the pyramid becomes an octahedron. The vertices form a vertical axis, off-centered in the picture; but, perpendicular to the horizontal symmetry axis that divides the photograph into two equal strips. This is, therefore, a geometric wonder, created in order to photograph another wonder. The photo reveals the quality of the photographer’s point of view through his photograph of a relic and its environment.

136 Ruins from the Amenhotep temple, Statues of Ramses on foot in Karnak — Photographed by Bonfils (between 1867 and 1899)

In this second example, around one of the religious buildings of Karnak in Egypt, the pursuit for symmetry is again blatant. It is a structured look frequently captured in the photographic archives of the 19th century. Here it is based on the large-scale symmetry of the two statues around the door and on the central location occupied by the palm tree. The latter, specifically highlighted, makes the photograph unusual and gives it a generally humorous character. The frame formed by the door around the Palm produces the effect of a photograph in the photograph. Finally, the instability and the fragility of the ruins at the end of the 19th century, is so clearly brought out in the photo that it causes a disruption of the symmetry sought by the photographer: blocks leaning left, others are collapsed in front of the entrance.


457 Balbek. Pillars from the Temple of the Sun – Bonfils (between 1867 and 1899)

Baalbek – Heliopolis is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Located in the Center-East of Lebanon, it is a spectacular ancient city which comprised three gigantic temples dedicated to Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. Photographs from Bonfils give us a beautiful documentation of the condition of the ruins at the end of the 19th century. The chosen example shows a colonnade of the temple of Jupiter (called here by Bonfils “Temple of the Sun”), still standing today. Commissioned by Emperor Augustus, this building was only completed in the 3rd c AC. and, if we reconstruct its dimensions, it was probably the largest of all the Roman world. It is around this aspect that one can single out a characteristic of almost all the photographs of the Bonfils House: human presence in the ruins. It is important here to understand the purpose of the photography and the enormity of the ancient work. In the foreground on the right, an individual poses on the base of a column at the position of a missing pillar. It is obvious that the photographer seeks to give a scale to the monument he has under his eyes and to highlight the dimensions of the ruins (height of the columns: 22 m, diameter of the base: 2.20 m).

We note an identical presence on the previous photographes. In the first, two men also give the pyramid scale and, their feet on the line of symmetry, reminds us of the magnitude of the of the enterprise that was undertaken.




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