One of the photographers whose work is widely circulated in the jewellery world is Jean Besancenot. His portraits of men and women from Morocco are featured both on the Internet and in books, as they provide detailed insight into how dress and adornment were worn. The Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris has selected a variety of his photographs for their exhibition Juifs du Maroc – Photographies de Jean Besancenot 1934 – 1937. Unfortunately, I have not been able to admire the exhibition itself, but the accompanying publication is a delight.
The main asset of this book, besides the photographs themselves of course, is that it provides personal and historical context to the photographs. This is very valuable, as photographs often circulate in a vacuum and the who, what and why of their background is not always presented. This concise book combines the photographs with original notes from the photographer. These are taken from his 1988 publication Costumes du Maroc as well as from his notes that are kept in the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Additionally, essays from various other authors provide context to the photographer as well as the world he was photographing. A personal account of the daughter of one of the young men portraited relates how she discovered it was her father – throughout the book the names of the persons portraited are given where possible. An essay about costume and dress along with a glossary complete this exploration into Jewish dress in Morocco.
The photographs themselves are subdivided into several regional areas. First, the cities are presented, followed by inhabitants of the Souss region, the Todhra and Dades Valleys, the region around Tafafilet and finally the Draa Valley. Each photograph is presented with an excerpt from his notes, detailing dress and jewellery items or presenting general observations. We learn for example how Jewish women would use the same facial designs as their Amazigh neighbours, because they shared the same local beliefs; the difference being that Jewish women did not tattoo these signs but painted them on with the paint mixture known as harqus (p. 62 and 108).
This book is not a complete overview of dress and adornment of the Jewish population in Morocco, and is not intended as such. Rather, it offers glimpses of this world through the photographs. By reading the captions and short descriptions with the pictures, you’ll learn a great deal about the names of items of dress and adornment and the occasions on which certain items would have been worn. Through the captions, we also get an idea of what the photographer wanted to convey. Many photographs are indeed posed portraits, but unlike the staged studio portraits we also encounter in North Africa: here, the ladies themselves showed the photographer how a certain dress was worn and what jewellery it would be paired with. Occasionally, the photographer himself orchestrated a picture, like the group photo of several ladies from Tahala (p. 51). His reason for this group photo was to show the abundance and similarities of jewellery worn. The context given about the motives of both photographer and photographed allows us to place the result in more context.
What I liked most about this book, apart from the amount of information it provides, is the incidental candid snapshot. As most of the photographs are portraits, the persons in them clearly pose: eyes downcast and posing with the static awkwardness we all feel when asked to stand still for a picture. But a few photos break this mould: a glance upwards in a synagogue courtyard where a few boys are sitting, a woman pouring water from a container, a radiant smile…
This is a book you will want to add to your bookshelf!
Juifs du Maroc. Photographies de Jean Besancenot, 1934-1937. 159 pp, black & white with a few colour plates, in French. Available through the super helpful shop of the Musée d’art et de l’histoire de Judaisme, Paris.
Download the press package (including several photographs) here
The book was purchased from the museum.