The Mystery of the Felix Bonfils Glass Plate Negatives

The Felix Bonfils Glass Plate Negatives from the Larry McNeil Collection

Happy Birthday Felix! You turned 180 today (March 8th). I have connected with you through the decades and have learned so much about photography from you via your beautiful negatives. How your negatives got to Alaska from The Holy Land is a complete mystery, perhaps a bit like all the people through the ages who have made journeys to and from there. I cannot help thinking of the auspiciousness of them coming into my possession from half way around the world, this batch of nearly perfect negatives from the late 1800's. Especially with a few tantalizing clues strewn along the way; it is a true mystery.

I'm going to go find the most decadent slice of cake today and raise a toast to you Felix. You'd smile at the idea of your negatives living on when your 180th rolled around. Perhaps a visit to French bakery is in order? Bonjour Monsieur Bonfils, aimeriez-vous quelque gâteau ?

This is an essay, not an abbreviated blog entry, and offers an insight into the history of photography that I think may break a bit of new ground. I am hopeful that colleagues and photographers will be able enjoy the insights into various photographic nuances, as well as questions of how 19th century culture influenced the photographic meaning in his photography.


The Mystery of the Felix Bonfils Glass Plate Negatives

The Negative in the History of Photography

Link to Bonfils Portfolio of Ten Glass Plate Negatives


This is an historical accounting of the Felix Bonfils negatives that also involves pivotal moments the history of photography. There may be some new research on Felix Bonfils unearthed here. It involves pointed questions as to what was going on from a cultural perspective, specifically with the notion of "Ethnographic Photography," in addition to the more objective information, so there are scholarly questions for further reseach mixed into the various presented scenarios. In the end, hopefully it unfolds an element of humanity about Bonfils that is sometimes absent from other research and it becomes even more evident that he was a brilliant photographer, regardless of when he lived.

I would put forth the notion that being able to study these Bonfils negatives offered a rarefied opportunity to gain insight that could not have been obtained any other way. Conservators were able to gather objective, scientifically sound information, which answered key questions, but also led the way to more questions for further research. I think that my status as a Professor of Photography brings a unique element to the research too, because I am able to ask questions that perhaps other photography historians overlooked. Such as, “What do specific photographic techniques such as negative contrast have to do with the visual aesthetics of Bonfils’ photography?” This is discussed near the end of the essay.

The story of the mystery of these Felix Bonfils negatives is also about a key transformational moment in the history of photography with what Bonfils was doing at that time. Who is the mystery person that Felix Bonfils, Ansel Adams and I have in common? Who would have guessed that I'd have ended up with the only original Felix Bonfils negatives in existence today? As far as other scholars and I know, anyway; if you know of any others, please let me know.

Felix Bonfils, Part One

Fist and foremost, I am writing this from the point of view of a fellow photographer who has a sincere appreciation and admiration for Bonfils' high level of expertise and tenacity for sticking with photography and helping it to evolve in a unique era. Bonfils was a photographer when it was slow, meticulous work to make just one negative, let alone thousands of them, including the albumen prints that made his livelihood possible.

Bonfils had to have a fairly sizable darkroom production facility, especially for the thousands of albumen prints that were made by his studio over the years. Making albumen prints was technically easier than making the collodion wet plate negatives, but the sheer volume likely necessitated a staff of lab assistants who were very knowledgeable with the process and could do the production work efficiently. I'm not going to describe the albumen process here, but can direct you to another website that is able to quantify it exceptionally well.

Albumen Conservation Site

I would challenge any professional photographer today to try and make a wet plate collodion negative. It is an exceptionally sophisticated process that involved handling delicate materials in a complex manner. If any one step along the way had the minutest part of the formula wrong, the negative would not work. Not only that, but it would be challenging to make one in a controlled laboratory environment, let alone in the back of a dusty, hot wagon in the middle of a desert.

Getty Link

Bonfils was a Frenchman who moved to the Middle East with his family in the 19th Century to set up a photography studio. He was a very prolific photographer who specialized in exotic views of the Middle East. He made thousands of photographs at places like Egypt, Lebanon and Israel (Palestine or 'The Holy Land'). There was a fascination for capturing photographs of the region, because many of the places still looked remarkably like they did a thousand years in the past. Time seems to have stood still. Immediately following this period, the region started to change, especially at the start of the 20th Century. Bonfils and other photographers of the era knew that they had a unique opportunity to capture the look of the Middle East just before it changed forever.

... The driving force with this major transformation happened with the humble negative...

Bonfils was a European colonialist photographer who brought Western ideals and philosophies to his work. He had preconceived notions of how what is now Israel was defined, and he sought out to fulfill those notions with the visual aesthetics in his photography. It is notable that these Bonfils negatives were made in what is currently one of the most controversial and contentious places on Earth with what is unfolding between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries.

Many of his contemporaries were looking for what defined “The Holy Land,” and it strongly appears that Bonfils went out of his way to make visual representations of places mentioned in the bible. His passion appeared to be more with place than people; the vast majority of his existing photographic archive of the Holy Land consists primarily of ancient villages, ruins, buildings, countrysides, orchards, churches, historical places and people in what appears to be traditional dress doing mundane everyday activities like herding cattle or grinding grain.

The Bonfils studio also made a significant part of their livelihood as a portrait studio in Lebanon, so it was clear that he and his staff (or family) were also very proficient at photographing people. Bonfils was especially gifted with photographing architectural scenes; as a past architectural photographer myself, I can recognize instances where he used camera movements in order to correct perspectives that would have otherwise been skewed with characteristics such as converging lines in buildings from looking slightly up at them. It was obvious that he used perspective controls on his large format camera to correct minor distortions.

The above camera is my contemporary 4x5 field camera. I would bet that Bonfils' larger camera looked similar to this one. The back of the camera that I'm handling is called the rear standard. It is the part of the camera that controls perspective. If you want to minimize distortion, you just angle the rear standard parallel to your subject. It has a hinged bottom so you can adjust it to your subject; this is called a 'tilt' control and is likely what Bonfils used to get such distortion free photographs whenever he photographed buildings and other linear structures to make them look correct.

The only way to prove this would be to revisit the specific locations and use the same sized lens to negative ratio and duplicate the scene with a large format bellows camera. This would be an exciting way to evaluate his skills as a professional photographer; I am certain that the results would be enlightening and would clearly indicate his high level of expertise with his camera controls.

Photgraphica Site

The above camera appears to be a field camera as opposed to a studio version. The studio cameras were nearly twice this size and generally sturdier, in order to minimize camera shake. Field cameras needed to be as lightweight as possible because photographers still had a lot of gear to carry in order to make their photographs.

It was clear that as a professional photographer, commerce drove his decisions about his subject matter and his family relied on his photographic expertise in order to make a living. This is likely why Bonfils was so prolific; in order have a sustainable livelihood, he likely had to have a diverse and broad archive of photographs to market.

He used various camera formats, including the size from this collection of negatives. Stereoscopes were a cultural phenomenon of this era and sold well, as did the smaller postcards. Other items included the sale of entire albums of large albumen prints. These are still common at places such as eBay, where one often sees albums taken apart and sold as individual prints.

The Bonfils legacy also involves key elements in the history of photography, from his unusually large collection of photographs made primarily in the late 1800's to how he is recognized as one of the significant photographers who worked in the Middle East in the late 1800’s. Bonfils did his photography at a time when it was rapidly changing from being extremely difficult to make a negative to a time when photography became dramatically easier, and opened up to amateur use. The driving force with this major transformation happened with the humble negative. It was the negative that revolutionized and changed photography so that it became more universal and democratic; a social equality with the use of photography came forth, and along the way, the snapshot was born. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Anchorage Auction, Part Two

Fast-forward to the early 1980's in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was at an auction where a retired or deceased photographer was getting his estate auctioned off (I don't remember whom it was, and if anyone knows, please let me know; he may have been associated with a photo store in Anchorage).

There was a multitude of boxes of photographic paraphernalia, most of it old, dusty and utterly useless. I was disappointed because it appeared that the family was not auctioning off any of the good stuff. There was not a cool Nikon or any other good camera gear to be found anywhere. "Dang," I muttered to myself as I briskly went through box after box, hoping that I'd find something worth bidding on. After seeing enough junk, I dusted myself off and looked through one last shabby looking box. At the bottom, I found a box of glass plate negatives and a couple boxes of old 4x5 negatives.

The auctioneer jolted my attention to the podium with a loud announcement. "Five more minutes," he bellowed through his microphone. I held one of the large negatives up to the fluorescent lights and was immediately taken by their ethereal beauty. Excellent negatives seem to glow when made to perfection, as these obviously were. All I could muster was "Wow," saying it out loud to nobody in particular. After quickly scanning a number of them they were put carefully back the way they were found.

After seeing the large glass negatives, I went over some of the smaller 4x5 plastic negatives. Ansel Adams was clearly recognizable as he stood in a forest talking to a group of what looked like workshop attendees. There were a few negatives that looked like they were made at an Ansel Adams workshop. I only had minutes before the start, so I sped up a bit. The remainder of the negatives appeared to be Alaska scenes from the early 1960's, including the 1964 earthquake and aerial views of Juneau, my hometown. I quickly put everything back as found, and hurried to get a seat.

The auctioneer was selling boxes at a fast pace and things were going cheaply, from five to twenty dollars apiece as I recall. When the box of negatives came up, the auctioneer was clearly weary of selling box after box of what were obviously photographic remnants of long-dead equipment; mostly parts of outdated gear no longer useful to anyone. He asked what anyone would offer for the box and I yelled out "Twenty dollars!" "Do I hear any other offers? Going once, twice... SOLD." And just like that, I was the owner of some very sophisticated and cool negatives.

New Research with Bonfils Negatives, Part Three

In 1998 I was a student at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, nearly finished with my Master of Fine Arts program in Photography. Our then current Curator of Prints and Photographs at the UNM Museum, Kathleen S. Howe, Ph.D. was a scholar of Middle Eastern photographers from the 19th Century, so I asked her if I could take a Graduate Tutorial with her. Dr. Howe responded by requesting that I write a formal proposal regarding the research, and she was just as intrigued as I was about the Bonfils negatives. She had recently published a text titled Revealing the Holy Land, The Photographic Exploration of Palestine, published by the University of California Press.

This was a fitting Bonfils research plan, because it gave me the opportunity to interact with a scholar whom was very knowledgeable with the nuances of photography in the Middle East in the 19th Century. Dr. Howe was invaluable with pointing me the right direction with my research into the Bonfils negatives. The first thing she wanted me to do was meet with a museum conservator whose expertise was in 19th Century negatives.

The conservator's experience allowed her to make some startling discoveries with the negatives. While delicately examining the negatives on a light table with a powerful magnifying glass, she was able to easily identify the wet plate collodion negatives that were hand-coated by the photographer, in addition to the first commercially available negatives that were coated at a factory. This transition between the two marked the time when photographers could do what we other photographers have taken for granted for decades: to simply buy film.

The conservator mentioned that the collodion wet plate negatives were higher quality than the manufactured negatives. This made sense, because the first manufactured film plates were still being perfected and photographers gave the manufacturers critical feedback about what they could do to improve the manufacturing process to make better film. The new manufactured glass plates were nearly instantly popular with photographers though, because for the first time it released photographers from being required to carry a portable darkroom and hundreds of pounds of supplies with them.

I can imagine Bonfils going from having to use a large wagon full of photographic supplies and a fairly sophisticated darkroom pulled by horses, to just a couple medium sized bags and a tripod. This would have been a life-changing event for photographers, even more radical than going from film to digital media.

... These negatives are historic because they represent a groundbreaking technical transition in photography...

Bonfils must have felt a tremendous sense of freedom with the new glass plate silver gelatin negatives, and it also must have affected the look of his photographs, because for the first time, photographers could be way more spontaneous than before. They didn't have to go through the laborious and very time-consuming process of making wet plate collodion negatives just prior to making their photographs. Hand making the wet plates must have been incredibly difficult, especially in a hot, dry and dusty desert environment.

It is an historical fact that the sensitivity of the manufactured silver gelatin glass negatives became up to ten times more sensitive to light than the former wet collodion negatives, and photographers were able to do things like use faster shutter speeds and a deeper depth of field with their aperture settings (make the aperture opening smaller for a sharper image). It also likely meant that they would be able to capture detail in sky areas, whereas with collodion negatives, skies were rendered as a dull, dense area because they were overly sensitive to the blue part of the spectrum, which equated to plain white skies when making prints from those negatives.

The blank white skies were a major reason why photographers started manipulating their negatives as a common practice. Their clients preferred a more realistic photographic view, which ironically meant that photographers would have to place the clouds there artificially, via negative manipulations. One of these Bonfils negatives shows where the photographer carefully painted out the sky so as to make a dense area of the negative. It was a work-in progress and was never finished, but we can surmise that he was preparing the negative to leave an unexposed area on the print, in which a sky may be printed in later. This is only speculation, but seems the most likely reason for the careful masking job.

Many museums and especially galleries have no interest in negatives, even from well-known photographers. I would put forth the argument that collectors should be interested in original negatives, especially since these negatives represent one of the few instances where an actual signature in ink is present in any Bonfils photographic materials. The thousands of prints in collections around the world lack authentic signatures. The signatures in their prints are not written in ink, they're reproduced via the photographic process and lack the authenticity that these negatives represent.

Use of the newer manufactured negatives likely translated to dramatically less retouching requirements, which also likely made the processes from exposure, to negative and print processing faster and dramatically less laborious. For the first time, this also opened the door to the amateur photography market, because they could simply buy the negative plates instead of being required to use a highly technical process to make sensitized collodion negative plates. This was just a few years before silver gelatin roll film was released, which also revolutionized photography as being easily accessible to amateurs.

It also appeared that Bonfils started to learn how to compensate for the manufactured negatives' shortcomings and started making higher quality negatives from them. It wasn't clear how he did this; a closer study of the negatives is likely required to answer some of these questions. Perhaps a scientist could measure the residual silver halide (rendered from silver nitrate) in the various plates to answer this. It is common knowledge that the more silver halide contained in either film or sensitized paper, the richer the tonal values that one is able to capture.

The above also made me curious as to how photographers from the late 1800’s made such precise exposures with their negatives. For an example, even today with precise digital light meters with an exposure latitude of less than one third of an aperture setting, it is still difficult to get a proper density with a negative if the scene has what is called low contrast lighting. This is because even with a proper negative exposure, one still has to compensate with negative development in order to boost the contrast in order to get an acceptable tonal range for the negative. In layman's terms, it simply means that in order to get a good negative, exposure and development represents a two-step process for making a good negative.

It means that Bonfils had a precise formula for the inherent shortcomings with capturing various types of lighting situations, which in turn means that he was more versatile than the average photographer and did not have to rely only on the brightness of the sun in order to make great negatives. Bonfils had the unique ability to make photographs at different times of the day when the lighting was more challenging to capture, an ability that only the best photographers of the day could perform.

What I found to be phenomenal was that the negative of the two women grinding grain (negative number eight) was contrasty when it was photographed in low light. The negative should have been overly grey, but had a full range of tones with a proper contrast in order to make a high quality albumen print. This one negative told me that Bonfils was indeed a photographic master with both his technique and visual aesthetic.

In addition to his commissioned portraits, he also made what could be characterized as "Ethnographic Portraiture." The people appeared to be in their indigenous garments on location where they lived, although both inferences could be incorrect. Bonfils could have posed them in costumes of his choice in a location that has nothing to do with where they usually interact, we don't know these details. These two women are lost in time with no names or identification as to what their real cultural identity was or what the place they are photographed in has to do with them. Are they Palestinian farmers processing their grain in the same manner of their ancestors? It very well could be an authentic scene with real people practicing their livelihoods as they have for thousands of years.

Other scholars have written references that argued in favor of the authenticity of his ethnographic portraits. The main argument against it would likely come from anthropologists trained in ethnography, because formal practices must be followed in order for the research to be accepted as genuine.

Many of the Bonfils original albumen photographs are readily available at various auction houses, galleries and even eBay. I have been purchasing various Bonfils prints on eBay for almost ten years. I have been searching for prints that match my negatives, but have not been successful yet, although there are many that are very similar. Here is an example of what eBay has for sale on a regular basis. The similarities are the grinding implements, women doing the work and clothing. They are different women and the background scene is different, but the layout of their task looks nearly identical.

Vision Gallery, Neil Folberg link to page of vintage 19th century photographs.

Another example of an ethnographic portrait is from negative number one. It is a scene of a woman and a baby riding a donkey (mule?), being led by a man through what appears to be a rural orchard, going away from the village in the background. Is this supposed to be a visual narrative of the Christian story of Mary and baby Jesus being led by Joseph? If it is, than it offers an argument that it is less an ethnographical portrait and more a theatrical scene made solely for commercial purposes. It could also be a genuine photograph of people as Bonfils found them, carefully posed to look like a small slice of life unfolding in Palestine. Can anyone offer any clues as to the ethnicity of the people? Their clothing looks very specific and perhaps is unique to the area. I would be very interested in hearing from other scholars who may have information about the people, culture and place within the negative.

My earlier research culminated in a short paper written for the project and a set of experiments with making prints from the Bonfils negatives. I fully acknowledged that my own research was from the point of view of a very experienced photographer and not a conservator, and the paper was slanted as such.

The sheer brilliance of the above Bonfils negative inspired me to try making prints from them. Prior to proceeding, it appeared to me that the negative emulsion on most of the negatives appeared to be very durable and worth the attempt. If these negatives belonged to a museum, I’m sure this would never have been allowed, due to their age. Bonfils himself carried the day though, and I prepared my UNM graduate darkroom for making prints from his negatives.

Earlier Research with the Bonfils Negatives in the Darkroom/ Part Three Continued

My UNM graduate darkroom was comfortable, spacious and well equipped for this Bonfils journey of darkroom discovery. It had both a high-end enlarger for printing contemporary silver halide materials, and I also brought in my own specialized equipment and supplies for printing 19th century processes. This included items such as an oversized contact printing frame for large format negatives, an ultraviolet exposure unit for the hand-coated palladium or platinum emulsions, a large array of chemicals for the print emulsion, and other miscellaneous supplies.

I attempted to make prints from the negatives as a part of my research, first with silver halide prints from regular darkroom paper. I quickly discovered that the negatives had more contrast than what could be termed a normal negative with an average tonal range. I had to use contrast control filters to minimize the contrast for the prints. This told me that the negatives were optimized with both exposure and development for a print process that required more contrast than normal.

After that I tried making palladium prints, and they rendered prints with a very good tonal range, way better than the modern manufactured paper. There was detail in the highlight, mid-tone and shadow areas of the print, all hallmarks of an acceptable photograph made from a well made negative. The challenge with any photographic printing process is to pull as much information out of the negative as possible. I used an ultraviolet exposure unit and chemicals purchased from Richard Bostick, an expert in alternative photographic processes. About five years earlier, I took a platinum and palladium print making workshop from David Michael Kennedy where I learned the nuances of using these materials. Kennedy is a contemporary master of both palladium and platinum printing, and a great photographer.

In order to learn additional specific information about the Bonfils negatives, it was my opinion that someone should actually apply a 19th Century photographic process to the negatives. I suspected that the negatives were optimized for making albumen prints that rendered a proper tonal range. The vast majority of the existing prints made by the Bonfils studio are indeed albumen prints contact printed from negatives the precise size of these negatives.

The Mystery Photographer: Where did he get the Bonfils negatives? / Part Four

The mystery of how these 19th Century negatives came to be in possession of the deceased Alaskan photographer remains an unanswered question. How long did he have them and where did he get them? Some clues are the professional negatives that accompanied these ones. The black & white 4x5 negatives were clearly for various assignments, from the Juneau aerials to the 1964 earthquake scenes of destruction.

There were beautiful 4x5 black & white negatives made at the Ansel Adams workshop that appeared to be from either the 1950's or '60's at Yosemite; this told me that the mystery photographer left Alaska (at least for brief spans) and was interacting with not only Ansel Adams, but also a group of other photographers. Did this mystery photographer meet Ansel Adams when Adams made his first trip to Alaska in 1947?

... the Bonfils Negatives assert the essence of what defines great photography...

Did our mystery photographer meet someone from the Middle East along the way? Or did he find the negatives on his travels in some obscure store, or perhaps at a flea market at places such as Carmel or San Francisco? Maybe he even bought the negatives from a garage sale in Anchorage from someone who previously lived in Palestine. Anchorage was a crossroads for people working in Saudi Arabia because of the budding oil industry. Oilfield workers and engineers were common in the Kenai Peninsula just down the road from Anchorage in the early 1960's.

Conclusion, Part Five

I still think that it is very ironic that I ended up with these beautiful negatives. They have been inspiring to have for these nearly 30 years, and I have learned much about photography from them. It is interesting that these negatives are from the precise time when film was first made available for purchase, immediately following the time when photographers had to make their own negative materials.

These negatives are historic because they represent a groundbreaking technical transition in photography, and we can physically see that transition happening right before our eyes with these negatives. This still amazes me. Contrast that with today, when film is becoming obsolete in the age of digital photography. It is the other end of the above technical transition that marks the near-end of the use of negatives (as opposed to the beginning).

If I had my choice, I'd retrace the places that were photographed in these negatives and offer a contemporary view of them, photographing the same places as they look today. This would be an excellent project, just in case any of you know of any organizations willing to fund such a heroic endeavor.

In my opinion, the Bonfils negatives assert the essence of what defines great photography; namely making photographs full of life and meaning, coupled with a technical virtuosity that also honors what photography is all about. Here's to you Felix. I love your negatives.

Felix Bonfils Links:

Harvard Semitic Museum

Courtauld Institute of Art

Library of Congress Bonfils Collection

Legacy of Light; Rockett Essay

J. Paul Getty Museum "In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in Nineteenth Century Photography"

Story Copyright Larry McNeil, All Rights Reserved, 201o

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