Chalil Raad, [Unidentified Woman], ca. 1900 (2012.34.27)
Recently we received as a donation a fabulous album of early twentieth-century vernacular photography: it is a randomly assembled collection of Jewish-related portraits, mostly from Lower East Side Jewish portrait studios, by photographers whose work is scarcely known. One image in the group seemed particularly unusual. It is a typical cabinet card from around 1900 depicting a very elderly woman in traditional though rather handsome black dress with jacket and scarves over her head and neck. But what is most striking is the studio name stamped beneath the image: “C. Raad, Jerusalem.” Well, Raad is an Arab name and the word means “lightning” in Arabic. Perhaps for this reason the name rang a bell in my mind, so I contacted my friend Rona Sela, one of the world experts in Palestinian vernacular photography. She immediately identified the photographer as Chalil Raad (1869-1957), one of the most significant Arab photographers of the early twentieth century. Several books have been published on Raad, but only in Arabic and Hebrew. In fact, Rona had organized a show of Raad’s work a few years ago, and she quickly walked me through it. Raad turns out to have been the first Arab to run a portrait studio in Jerusalem; he opened his studio there, just outside the Jaffa Gate, in 1895. He was appointed photographer to the Kindom of Prussia, which allowed his to travel extensively over the next six decades, and he produced a comprehensive record of local responses to colonial conditions in Palestine. But his early studio work is extremely rare, and now ICP has one of the few known examples. Our collector probably had no idea that this photo was a portrait of an Arab woman–whom Rona thinks is probably Chalil Raad’s mother!–that somehow found its way into his collection of portraits of Jews. Amazing, no?
Maya Benton, Adjunct Curator