The Maison Bonfils in the Middle East (1867-1918) : visual technologies, empire, and spectacle

  • Carine Chelhot Lemyre

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis explores the works of the prominent nineteenth-century photography studio the Maison Bonfils, which was founded in 1867 by the French photographer Félix Bonfils and his wife Marie-Lydie Cabanis in Beirut, Lebanon. Félix Bonfils and his photographic atelier have merited mention in history of photography surveys and exhibition catalogues. However, there has been no dedicated scholarship that has solely analysed the Maison Bonfils’ works to date. This thesis is therefore the first assessment of the Maison Bonfils’ diverse photographic archive and its signal importance for a transnational history of photography. Drawing upon theories on Orientalism and postcolonialism, the chapters’ case studies investigate the relationship between each photographic visual technology that was employed to produce a photographic “format” (i.e., albumen prints, albums, magic lantern slides, and stereographs) and themes related to the categorization of individuals, archeology, religious landmarks, the French involvement in tourism in Egypt and the establishment of modern infrastructure in Ottoman Syria. In doing so, it places the work of the Maison Bonfils within the history of nineteenth-century photography and elaborates on its role in the shaping of knowledge of the Middle East from a European perspective.

While this thesis focuses solely on the works of the Maison Bonfils, its purpose is not to provide a catalogue raisonné of the studio’s corpus, but to analyze specific works in conjunction with the visual technology employed, the photographic format produced, and their relationship with Orientalism and beyond. I argue that each photographic format contributed to a particular dissemination and reception of an altered representation of the Middle East, one that is unique to its technology, its way of displaying images, and issuing information.

Theoretically speaking, while I resort to and employ the Orientalist paradigm in my analysis of the visual material produced by the Maison Bonfils, not all photographs by the studio should be labelled as such. In fact, some illustrations are emblematic of a much more subtle and complicated form of visual practice that responded to local circumstances and markets from the perspective of a Beirut-based studio and international enterprise. Attributing an Orientalist label to all of Bonfils’ photographs would overshadow and hinder a perspective on the complex climate in which they were produced, circulated, and received at the time. While I argue that Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism are still valid to this day, some of this thesis’ chapters seek to expand on the complexities of Orientalism evoked in the photographs, as well as give credit to the agency of multiple actors in the Ottoman Middle East and North Africa. Presenting the region as multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multi-vocal considers the region’s individuals who may not have been given enough recognition in past scholarship.
Date of Award29 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorLuke Gartlan (Supervisor) & Natalie Adamson (Supervisor)


  • Photography
  • History of photography
  • Nineteenth century
  • Middle East studies
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Orientalism

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 4 September 2028

Cite this