Endangered Archives

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EAP644: The Fouad Debbas Collection: assessment and digitisation of a precious private collection. Photographs from Maison Bonfils (1867-1910s), Beirut, Lebanon

The aim of this project is to clean, list, index, catalogue and digitise a collection of 3,000 photographs produced in the Middle East by the Maison Bonfils, from 1867 to the 1910s.

The 3,000 items consist of albumen prints gathered in albums and portfolios, glass plates, stereos, cabinet cards and cartes de visite. They are part of the general Fouad Debbas Collection, which contains more than 40,000 photographs. The objective is to undertake a survey, and increase access to and visibility of this most valuable and endangered collection.

The Fouad Debbas Bonfils collection is the most extensive, varied and richest photographic collection produced in the Levant at the end of the Ottoman period. It is in fact one of the very few photographic collections produced in Beirut from the late Ottoman period which are still preserved.

Established in 1867 in Beirut, the Bonfils house set out the first photographic studio in Beirut and established photography as a business. As such Mr Bonfils, his wife Lydie, (apparently the first woman photographer of the whole area at that time) and children, all succeeded in capturing a region of immense physical beauty (the landscape photos of Beirut and Baalbeck), of varied ethnic composition (various portraits), and of rapid socio-economic change, at a crucial moment of the region’s history. The Bonfils Debbas collection is clearly an invaluable document registering the history of a region at a crucial crossroads in the wake of great historical upheaval which was about to sweep the region and bring about the Modern Middle East as we know it.

The Fouad Debbas Collection contains approximately 3,000 items signed by Bonfils between the 1867 studio creation and the 1910s when Lydie Bonfils worked in the family’s Beirut studio for some time after her son abandoned the trade in the early 1900s. This Bonfils collection gathered 62 albums including the 7 famous “Mansell Albums” (approx.1966 photographs); 24 portfolios with approximately 720 photographs from Bonfils; 90 stereoscopic views; a hundred glass plates; 32 cabinet cards and “cartes de visite”. While Fouad Debbas was passionate about research and identifying, for example, a chronology for stamps and signatures by Bonfils, he was not very concerned with preservation and some of this valuable material is now endangered.

The Fouad Debbas Bonfils collection faces many risks. Disassociation of the collection is an emergency situation, and the Bonfils sample is a very representative case. After Fouad Debbas passed away in 2001, the two remaining brothers took over ownership of the collection. The entire collection is housed in a commercial building, with no institutional guarantees for the future, but an adequate storage room has been dedicated to safely host the Collection, fitting international requirements in terms of preventive conservation.

The lack of a database facilitates neither the manager of the collection nor scholars to find a photograph among the 40,000 items. Although the Fouad Debbas Collection is often asked for loans in international exhibitions, finding the right images is a real challenge, since no proper inventory or database exists. Digital preservation standards and directives concerning manipulation as well as the verification of information contained in captions (title, techniques) should be conducted. The creation of a proper database will facilitate preservation and access to the collection. Where necessary, some documents will be rehoused.

Lebanon, and the region at large, lacks any serious governmental structures and institutions capable of protecting and preserving the region’s cultural heritage. Only Bonfils and other photographers’ witnesses remain, where property developers replace traditional workshops and activities of our region. Moreover, the Damocles sword of a new armed conflict haunting Lebanon and the instability of the region, with the current war in Syria in particular, are so many risks that threaten the Lebanese and Middle Eastern heritage.

In this context, the Fouad Debbas Collection would at least remain “alive”, at least as a digital copy in a Lebanese university and in the British Library. We believe that the efforts of one man to gather the memory of this region should not be lost forever.

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EAP644/1: The Bonfils Collection [c 1867-c 1914]

"Description: The Fouad Debbas Collection is the private collection of one man, Fouad Debbas, who studied engineering and got passionate about gathering images of his past and his region. Debbas (Lebanese) spent 26 years (from 1975 until his sudden death in 2001) collecting all images that concerned the Middle-East, with a special interest for Lebanon. He masterminded his collection, classifying his images by photographs / editors / subjects and produced two important books on postcards representing Beirut and on photography in Lebanon during 1848-1914. His collection is a reference for art historians, historians, urbanists and for all Lebanese eager to understand better its heritage. Photographs produced by Maison Bonfils during its establishment in Beirut in 1867 up to the first decade of the 20th century. Landscapes, Portraits of Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and few images of Turkey, Smyrna or Greece. Photographs on glass (glass plates positives and negatives), loose albumin prints conserved in portfolio, photographic albums, cartes de visite and cabinet cards, stereoscopic views. Images depicting the Middle East of the late 19th century, with an 'orientalist' perspective, sometimes a romantic approach, produced for the European market. Extent and format of original material: SERIES = 138 items from uncomplete series of Bonfils stereoscopic views and lantern magic slides; 3 printed catalogues FILES = 36 photographic albums; 1956 photographs, 27 portfolios; 747 ITEMS = 3 cabinet cards, 49 cartes de visite, 1 Wet collodion glass plate negative."

EAP644/1/66: Portfolio 529 [c 1867-c 1914]

Extent: 8 TIFF images
Level: File
Scope and Content: "Description: Portfolio composed of 8 photographs, only by Bonfils Studio. Image 1: Palestine - Vue générale de Naïn [c 1867-c 1914]. PALESTINE, Samaria. Image 2: Palestine - Tombeau du Patriarche Joseph près de Naplouse [c 1867-c 1914]. PALESTINE, Samaria. Image 3: Jaffa vu de la mer. - View of Jaffa from the Sea. [c 1867-c 1914]. PALESTINE, Jaffa. Image 4: Antinoé . Palmier de Cheik- Abaddeh (Egypte) [c 1867-c 1914]. EGYPT, Antinoe. Image 5: Beyrouth vu du collège américain [c 1867-c 1914]. LEBANON, Beirut. Image 6: Chtaura, ancien relais des diligences entre Beyrouth et Damas [c 1867-c 1914]. LEBANON, Chtaura. Image 7: Clairière dans la forêt des Cèdres - Mont Liban [c 1867-c 1914]. LEBANON, Cedars. Image 8: Temple de Jupiter - Baalbek [c 1867-c 1914]. LEBANON, Baalbeck."
Collector Fouad César Debbas, 1930-2001
Owner Antoine César Debbas,
Owner Robert César Debbas,
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