Professor talks life of photographer Gertrude Bell

By KATERINA FRYE | April 11, 2019

The Hopkins Near Eastern Studies Department hosted its 41st lecture in the annual Albright lecture series on Tuesday, April 9. 

Named after renowned researcher and Hopkins alum William Foxwell Albright, the series invites accomplished scholars of Mesopotamian history to speak before the department and guests. 

This year’s speaker was Lisa Cooper, Professor of Near Eastern Art & Archaeology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Cooper presented on the life of Gertrude Bell, an early 20th century archaeologist and photographer. 

“She is mostly known for her daring desert travels in the Middle East and the important role she played in Middle Eastern politics, especially in the creation of the Iraqi nation,” Cooper said.

Bell was born into a wealthy English family and was one of few women to graduate from Oxford University in the early 1900s. 

Her life of privilege enabled her to tour the remains of early civilizations in modern Iraq and Syria. While there, she studied the architecture of monuments like palaces and mosques, documenting her experiences with photographs.

“Many of these images are of tremendous value since Bell has captured a landscape that often no longer exists, or which has altered considerably since her time owing to construction like hydroelectric dams,” Cooper said.  

Bell’s photograph of the Mausoleum of Imam al Dur, a monument which no longer exists because it was blown up by the Islamic state in 2014, is one such image. In addition to providing glimpses of a lost history, Cooper noted that Bell also documented the excavations of German and British archaeologists. Bell visited the city of Assur in 1909 and again in 1911 while it was being excavated by a German team led by Walter Andrae. 

“Those photographs at Assur are less focused on ancient remains themselves than on the process in which they being uncovered. They testify to the German’s colossal efforts to uncover large parts of the spectacular city of monumental brick temples, palaces, residential quarters, and ziggurats,” Cooper said. 

Cooper warned the audience to be cognizant of the role of the photographer in crafting the images and argued that it is impossible for any picture to be entirely free of bias. 

“Photographs are always at the service of a particular vision and can never be completely free of the interests and of the prejudices of the person who took them, and the social and political context in which they were taken. Photographs are not merely taken, they are made,” Cooper said.

She prompted the audience to examine Bell’s photographs for meaning beyond the surface. She used Bell’s images of a castle within the city of Akadiar to illustrate her point.

“Her record appears as a comprehensive objective effort to record Akadiar in all of its facets. A closer inspection, however, reveals a certain bias in Bell’s image-taking. There is clearly a predilection for architectural details, particularly for those that help to ascertain the date and identity of the castle,” Cooper said.

Cooper noted Bell’s unique inclusion of the local residents of the areas she captured. 

According to Cooper, other European archaeologists used Arab workers in their photographs to demonstrate the scale and size of their findings, but Bell considered them to be just as important as their history. 

“[The people] are the primary focus of Bell’s camera, and the ancient remains are a mere backdrop. She names these individuals in her accompanying captions. They were not just nameless Arabs, but to her real people whose activities were just as relevant and interesting to her as the ancient spaces in which they moved about,” Cooper said.

Cooper suggested that Bell’s connection with the Arab peoples may have influenced her later political career. 

Bell attended the Paris Peace Conference as the Oriental Secretary to the British Commissioner, where she advised on the future governing of Mesopotamia. 

“Before she had always insisted [Mesopotamia] should be carefully administered and controlled by the British, believing the Arabs to be incapable of self-rule. But she eventually came to believe that Mesopotamia, or Iraq as it was now being called, should become its own nation,” Cooper explained.

Cooper further described how Bell became an advisor to Iraq’s leader, Prince Faisal, and how she helped to run the country’s civil administration and even assisted with drawing up its official boundaries. Bell later became Iraq’s Director of Archaeology, where she determined excavation and ownership rules.

When asked why she researched Bell for her 2016 book, Cooper said Bell had been a popular topic amongst her colleagues at a dig in Southern Iraq.

“Talk around the dinner table was often about Gertrude Bell. Working with the British teams that I did, I came to learn that the British School of Archaeology in Iraq was funded by Gertrude Bell Memorial,” Cooper said. “She bequeathed money to continue this institution in Britain, not just for archaeological studies but also for studies in Iraq.”

Kai Engelbrecht, a visitor from Switzerland, found Cooper’s points on the subjectivity of photography to be a unique perspective. 

“Usually you think, okay, you have a photograph that is very neutral, that it shows how it is. But this special twist on it to see that you can focus on special things and that you can change the meaning of the whole picture, is very interesting,” Engelbrecht said.

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