Pool of Bethesda (Bassin Bethsaida), Jerusalem, 1852

6 3/4 × 8 1/2 in
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Mysterious Jerusalem

This is an historic print, from among the very first photographic images made in Jerusalem. From the New York Times, "Ernst Benecke's Lost Treasure", March 6, 1994:
"IN 30 YEARS OF collecting I have never seen anything like it," says Werner Bokelberg. To the respected German photography collector, "it" means the 143 prints by the notoriously obscure Ernest Benecke that lately came into his hands. Dated 1852 and consisting in part of portraits taken in Egypt and Nubia, they are among the earliest surviving photographs of non-Western civilization. What's more, the impartial, at-ease manner of the pictures now qualifies Benecke as perhaps the first ethnographic photographer.

"He was different from other traveling photographers of that time," says Bokelberg. "With the others you see monuments of ancient Egypt, views of Syria, Nubia, the Holy Land. But never people. Never, ever. And the style is very modern. These photographs look as if they could be done for Benetton today."

The discovery of the prints, inside an unbound portfolio, was made by two antiques dealers at a country auction in southern Germany in 1992. According to Bokelberg, who heard the story from the dealers, the photographs had belonged to a noble Bavarian family. Someone found them while cleaning the attic and, not knowing what they were, dismissively put them up for sale. "The dealers bought them and didn't tell anyone," says Bokelberg. "They hoped there would be more from this attic." Last November, after nothing more had appeared, they sold the pictures to Bokelberg, who quickly grasped their importance; other scholars who have seen them agree. Their estimated value: $1 million.

Until 1993, next to nothing was known about Benecke -- not even his first name. Sixteen prints in private collections had been credited to an "E. Benecke." His high collectibility depended largely on the cult of scarcity.

Not much more can be said for certain about his life, even after this lucky strike. His standing, however, seems guaranteed. Benecke was an amateur artist who eagerly exploited the graphic qualities of a new medium, then little more than a decade old. His prints, made using the earliest process for transferring positive images from negatives, are full of the soft, expressive blurs and blocked shadows that mark the work of the most accomplished French and English photographers of his time.

The pictures are the monthly record, from January to August, of a gentleman's grand tour -- beginning in Upper Egypt, Nubia and Cairo; continuing to Syria, Jerusalem and Lebanon, and concluding with the Parthenon, in Athens, and the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence. But unlike so many of his peers, Benecke was less interested in ancient ruins and landscapes -- the usual selling points of the trip -- than in the native inhabitants he met along the way. The social range of the portraits is extraordinary, from children and housewives to musicians, slave merchants, royalty and members of a harem. He photographed people as he found them. A simple white sheet across a wall to separate the figure from the background was the extent of his preparation.