The Egypt That Time Forgot

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BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 30, 2017

Living in Kansas City, more than 50 years after emigrating from Cairo, the photographer Jack Jonathan visits a local exhibition of Arabian art. He strikes up a conversation with a reporter covering the show, also from Egypt, and talk turns to one of Jonathan’s own exhibitions—his first—a massive collection of photographs taken from 1947 to 1951, right before he left for the US, capturing the people of Egypt. At the show’s opening even King Farouk, who would abdicate the throne months later, bought some of the new photographer’s work. But the exhibit was never shown again.

The reporter calls at 9pm that night. She’s leaving town the next day, but needs to see Jonathan’s pictures. Jonathan has only 18 of the original 90+ photographs on display in his studio, but he agrees. Inside the studio, looking at the faces on the wall, the reporter begins to cry. “Mr. Jonathan,” she says. “We cannot remember four generations before. This is the best we have to tell us what we were.”

Open now in the Willis A. Smith Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design, Egypt—The Eternal Spirit of Its People brings Jonathan’s exhibit, 65 years later and now digitized and reprinted, to Sarasota. Divided into thematic sections, Jonathan’s photos explore different aspects of Egyptian life at the time, from the prevalence of mosques in Cairo (nearly each ruler or conqueror built a new one, regardless of faith) to the Nile’s constant presence, but keeping the people at the forefront. Even when emphasizing Egypt’s architectural beauty, the image is almost always through the lens of how the people interact with the space.

“Most tourists who come to Egypt either photograph misery or monuments,” says Jonathan, now 96 years old but still working. “I wanted to focus on the people of Egypt. I wanted to show who the people really are, the people who make a life there.” And though one section of the exhibit is dedicated to rural life in mid-20th century Egypt, where people worn by time and hardship live in simple houses with the animals right outside, the tone is more celebration than commiseration. On the opposite wall—"The Faces of Egypt"—smiling faces of every sort beam.

One photograph in particular merits special mention, despite the absence of people in the frame, as a shot that literally can never be taken again. Visiting the pyramids while working for the US embassy in Cairo, Jonathan explores a nearby excavation while the US ambassador climbs the monuments for lack of mountains. The excavation has just uncovered a temple in the shadow of the Sphinx, the carved stone doorways still standing though the rest collapsed. Jonathan takes the shot—the face of the Sphinx glimpsed through two ancient portals—a moment in time now gone, as the temple remains are eventually removed to a museum, but preserved as a piece of Egypt’s legacy through Jonathan.

Currently on display at Ringling College, Egypt—The Eternal Spirit of Its People runs through August 4.

Pictured: Photographs by Jack Jonathan. Image courtesy of Ringling College.

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