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Museum Director Kathleen Howe Curates New Photography Exhibition at the Getty Villa

"The Pool of Hezekiah" photograph by Felix Bonfils, 1870s

"The Pool of Hezekiah," Felix Bonfils (French, 1831-1885), 1870s. Albumen silver print, 11-7/16 x 15-3/8 in. The Getty Research Institute, 2008.R.3.39

"Jews at the Wailing Wall" photograph by Felix Bonfils, 1870s

"Jews at the Wailing Wall," Felix Bonfils (French, 1831-1885), 1870s. Albumen silver print, 8-3/4 x 11 in. The Getty Research Institute, 2008.R.362B

"The Damascus Gate" photography by Maison Bonfils

"The Damascus Gate," Maison Bonfils, 1868-1896. Albumen silver print, 11-7/16 x 45-1/8 in. The Getty Research Institute, 2008.R.3.T75

A new Getty Villa photography exhibit curated by Professor of Art History and Pomona College Museum of Art Director Kathleen Howe seeks to reveal the Middle East—particularly the eastern margins of the Mediterranean—through the lens of travelers in the 1800s.

In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th-Century Photography will run from March 2 through September 12, 2011, at the Getty Villa. The exhibition, which will feature more than 100 photographs, will be split into two installments due to the sensitivity of the artwork on display.

“The exhibition is comprised of fragile photographic materials from the first 75 years after photography’s introduction,” says Howe. Materials include rare, early daguerreotypes, salted-paper prints and albumen silver prints, all created between the 1840s and the 1900s by some of the leading photographers of the time like Felice Beato, Maxime Du Camp, Auguste Salzmann, James Graham, Louis Vignes, Frank Mason Good and Frederic Goupil-Fesquet.

“Midway through the exhibition almost every object will be removed and replaced with a very similar object,” says Howe. “This wouldn’t be possible anywhere else but at the Getty because of the extraordinary depth of the Getty collections at both the Museum and Research Institute.

“That of course makes twice as much work for the Getty staff—matting and framing and preparing literally two exhibitions with all that implies. And it’s a challenge for a curator who must not only select the most compelling photographs that tell the story of the exhibition, but must also make sure that there are equally compelling photographs of the same subject that can be rotated into the exhibition at the halfway mark.”

The exhibition is divided into five sections: Jerusalem, Early Views, Peoples of the Bible, Travels in Bible Lands and Expeditions Beyond the Dead Sea. The photographs were originally created for study by scholars, as works of art or as souvenirs for sale, and were designed to foster viewers’ religious identification with the region by featuring subjects like Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Garden of Gethsemane.

The photographers had the interesting challenge of creating images with a new technology that would live up to the Holy Land of people’s imaginations, to prove that the landscape and places important to them from Bible study or religious observance were real.

“There were no big ruins as in Egypt, no soaring mountains as in the American West, but the humble reality of small villages, ancient footpaths winding along steep hillsides, had tremendous emotional weight for people,” says Howe. “Ultimately, reality triumphed special effects.”

Highlights of the exhibition include photographs by Francis Firth (1822-1898), who photographed the Holy Lands during three trips in the late 1850s; daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philbert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) from a three-year tour of the Near East; and stereoscopic tours of the region using two large stereo viewers that digitally replicate the three-dimensional immersive experiences.

Howe has long researched photography in the 19th century as a tool for exploration, primarily in the Middle East and Far East and in the then burgeoning sciences of archaeology, anthropology and geography. She curated First Seen: Photographs of the World’s Peoples for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; it also showed at the Dahesh Museum in New York City and at the University of New Mexico. Another related exhibit that Howe co-curated with Karen Sinsheimer, Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine, also showed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1997 and traveled to venues in the United States and Australia.

Howe also has a history of involvement with the Getty. She participated in the Getty Leadership Institute’s Museum Leadership Institute in 2009. In 2006, the Getty Villa reopened after a long period of renovation with a special exhibition titled Photography and Antiquity, and Howe was asked to give a public lecture in conjunction with the show because of her work in Egypt.

That began a conversation with Getty Villa Curator Claire Lyons about producing a sequel to the 2006 show to focus on Palestine, which was not included in the original show. “During the intervening time, the Getty Research Institute acquired a collection of Orientalist photography with terrific examples of photographs from 19th-century Palestine,” says Howe, who was able to spend her spring 2010 sabbatical researching the new exhibition.

Howe will be offering a public lecture at the Getty Villa on “Traveling Through the Bible Lands: The Dream and the Reality” on March 26 and will be moderating a panel discussion relating to the exhibition on June 15. Visit the Getty website for up-to-date information on events.

The Getty Villa is an educational center and museum dedicated to the study of the arts of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria. Located at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades, the Villa is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th-Century Photography opens March 2 and will be on view through September 12, 2011.