In 1966, those expatriates — G. Eric Matson and his wife, Edith — gave their entire photographic collection to the Library of Congress. As the curator George S. Hobart notes in an introductory essay, Eric Matson was devoted to the prints; even years after donating them, he spent long hours “cleaning, identifying and organizing his beloved group of photographic negatives.”
The Matsons belonged to a small Christian community, the American Colony, founded in Palestine in 1881. As a commercial venture, the colony sold hand-colored prints to tourists. One of their biggest customers in the 1920s and early 1930s was a wealthy Dutch Christian, Arie Speelman, who selected more than 1,200 images of landscapes, people and structuresfor his “Palestina Evening” slide shows, promoting pilgrimages to the Holy Land. His collection was eventually donated to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, and it provides the pictures for this book. (Speelman’s granddaughter Helen is one of the authors.)
Each image takes up a full page. Most are incredibly sharp, some are painterly, and many are so finely detailed — colored with single-hair brushes, even — that they’re hard to distinguish from actual color photographs. The stone buildings in “Bethlehem Alleyway” and the clothing of the “Bedouin Girl” could almost be digital prints, they’re so precise. Although not intended as sociological studies, the photographs do offer a vivid record of change. But most extraordinary is the way some seem to reveal a land where nothing ever changes. “Spring at Cana” — showing Bedouin women and men at a well, possibly in the same town where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine — might be mistaken for a snapshot directly from biblical times, had cameras been invented yet."