Photographic exhibition, Groningen University Library- Special collections, ‘Arab Orthodox Christians, Nationalism and the ‘Holy Land’

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Frank Scholten in context
During the turbulence of the period after the First World War, Dutch photographer Frank Scholten (1881-1942) travelled to Palestine with the aim of producing an ‘illustrated Bible’. He travelled first through Italy and Greece in 1920, arriving in Palestine in 1921 where he would stay for two years. While the bulk of his photo collection is images of Palestine, his camera lens gives us a snapshot into modernity in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly amongst Christian communities.

The period Scholten captured was on the eve of a time of tumultuous change for Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Scholten’s documentation gives us a brief glimpse of Athens and Crete in 1920, just before he arrived in Palestine, the ‘Holy Land’. He shows us a view of the world where the role and place of Christian communities began to morph quickly, both with the population exchanges between Greece and the new Turkish State, but also as Palestine was entering the era of the British Mandate (1922-1948), before the creation of the State of Israel.

Scholten gives us a rare view of a very particular world that would set in motion the events which shape the region today. The Christian relationship to Islam shifted dramatically in this period. On the one hand increasing animosities between Greece and Turkey with Population Exchanges and on the other the subsuming of religious identities as both Muslim and Christian Arabs forged new secular identities with the birth of Arab Nationalism.

Scholten’s documentary approach to photography gives us scenes of an everyday modernity in Palestine with a particular attention to religion and ethnography. His lens shows us the complicated mosaic of communities in the Eastern Mediterranean at the moment when the impacts of the war cemented the competing nationalisms still current today. The Scholten collection shows the connections between Arab Orthodox communities, Greeks living in Palestine at the time and brief glimpse of Greece before the notorious population exchanges, and beyond with various Jewish communities and the Muslim population. We get a sense of the lost interconnectedness of communities across the Eastern Mediterranean before the disruptions that modern nationalism forged.

Scholten’s sole exhibition during his life time was called Palestine in Transition. While motivations for photo project were religious, Scholten was well aware of the changing life of Palestine. He found bustling cities that were changing rapidly, motivating much of his documentary approach to the region. Despite the religious focus of his project, the collection tells us much about modernity in Palestine, particularly processes of urbanisation, population movements and class and communal dynamics in the years that the British Mandate over Palestine was being formalised.

The entire Frank Scholten collection, consisting of 12,000 negatives and 14,000 prints, represents a work in progress towards a 16-volume set of books on the ‘Holy Land’, only two volumes of which were published. As such, the original photographic prints are small and some of the negatives show signs of editing with white marks. There are also several photographic albums. Except for a two-volume book of his photographs, published in short runs first in French, then German, English and only one of the two volumes in his native Dutch, Scholten’s sole exhibition Palestine in Transition was held at the Brook Street Art Gallery in London, February 25th to 19th, 1924 (unfortunately no catalogue exists from this exhibition).

The landscapes of the ‘Holy Land’ have long been of interest to Western photographers and histories of photography in Palestine have been entwined in very particularised modes of imaging. The first photograph of Jerusalem was taken in 1839 by Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet, making Jerusalem one of the first cities outside of Europe to photographed.

The holy sites and biblical histories of Palestine became a source of fascination for European photographers, both ‘scientific’ and commercial. Photographers like Auguste Salzmann attempted to employ a ‘scientific’ methodology using photography in his attempt to prove C. de Saulcy’s theory that the physical remains of Jerusalem dated from the time of Solomon, rather than the Roman period. Commercial photographers like Félix Bonfils produced a vast quantity of images in the region often as photobooks and souvenir postcards to feed the growing Western appetite for the ‘Holy Land’.

Apart from being prolific, Frank Scholten’s work is incredibly diverse covering subjects as broad as events, both religious and secular, architectural explorations from villages that no longer exist to major cities like Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem and the fledgling township Tel Aviv, which was but a decade old when he arrived. He photographed historical and archaeological sites alongside modern building projects as well as various Jewish and German colonies. And, of course, he photographed people. Perhaps one of the hallmarks of Scholten’s collected works is the thoroughness with which he imaged Palestine. His images of people cut across religious and confessional lines, ethnic backgrounds, class and urban-rural divides. He imaged people at work as well as in their leisure time, but most of all, he imaged people in the context of their daily life, rather than divorced from the landscape.

Scholten’s approach was pluralistic. He read theological texts that ranged from Protestant to Catholic, he read socialist material, Zionist histories, he referenced texts in Dutch, French, German, Italian, and approximately half of what he read was also in English. He read different translations of the Bible cross referencing them against one another, showing a level of scholarly textual analysis.



  • Photographs
  • Palestine
  • Scholten