Tuesday, June 09, 2009

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ABRAHAM: The Holy Land in Different Hues

Robert Leiter of the Jewish Exponent takes a look at In the Footsteps of Abraham, by Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman, recently published by Overlook: "At the turn of the last century, travel to what was then called the Holy Land began to become a distinct growth industry (as promotional types like to put it these days). This was the period, of course, when Mark Twain was one of many Innocents Abroad, and his descriptions of the terrain and the people he saw there have been quoted ad infinitum ever since. The significant swell in visitors -- and at least one of its consequences -- is what Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman's In the Footsteps of Abraham, a thick, well-produced coffee-table book published by the Overlook Press, takes as its starting point.

To satisfy a need among the upscale individuals flooding the region, photos displaying its natural beauty were taken in great quantity -- the most popular being those locales with a connection to the Bible. The major producer of such images was the Matson Photo Agency, made up of members of the American Colony, a group, we're told, of Christian expatriates. All of the scenes reproduced in the book are hand-tinted versions of a collection of glass lantern slides, which now reside at the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam. According to Joël J. Cahen of the museum, it is one of the "few fully hand-colored sets in existence, and certainly one of the largest." Helen Speelman's grandfather, Arie Speelman, a devout Christian, commissioned the hand coloring of 1,200 photos on glass plates, a labor-intensive undertaking. The elder Speelman then traveled around Holland using his extensive collection plates to give lantern slide lectures about these foreign and still exotic locales.

What is most wonderful about the images reproduced in the book is that, for those who have been to Israel often, the sites captured have both an exactitude -- in terms of attention to detail (even in the broad landscapes) -- while the soft pastel colors that appear to have been so effortlessly superimposed add a dreamy haze to the unmistakable reality. It's just the right touch -- the perfect nostalgic overlay that makes you long to get back to Israel as soon as possible."

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