Mabel as photographer

A 'Luzo' camera
A ‘Luzo’ camera, the portable model favoured by Mabel Bent. Reproduced with the kind permission of (c) Todd Gustavson. Photo: private collection

Mabel developed her photographic interests in the 1880s during the couple’s early visits to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and for most of their journeys, Mabel was the intrepid field photographer: very much a pioneer in her way, she was forced to process her glass plates and fragile films in makeshift ‘darkrooms’ in the most difficult of conditions; the pages of her diaries contain countless references to the difficulties she faced as an early travel photographer. She often travelled with large quantities of equipment, including two or three cameras, chemicals, glass plates and film, and a portable darkroom.

We have Mabel’s diary, dated Monday, 5 February 1894, written in the Hadramawt under trying conditions for the photographer: “Saturday I worked very hard at photography and Sunday was very glad of a thorough rest. A message came from Shibahm that the Sultan would not be back till today. This morning I took some more photos and was very successful, but I have had to give up developing now, on account of the water. It dries up the negatives so much. In about a minute they are dry and before they are dry at one end the film begins to skin off, not by frilling but contraction. I am afraid either to print them or to try to flatten them for fear of cracking the film, so I shall leave them curly and packed with care till Aden, when I can get some distilled water and glycerine.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 3, Oxford, 2010, page 180)

Here is Mabel’s photograph taken on Socotra in 1897, a few months before Theodore’s death in May of that year in London.

Breakwater at Fereghet
Theodore Bent and Ernest Bennett (seated left) at the ‘breakwater’ at ‘Feréghe’, Socotra. From Southern Arabia, facing page 383. From a photograph by Mabel Bent. Photo: private collection.

Back home, Theodore used Mabel’s photographs as lantern slides for his lectures and as a medium from which to prepare illustrations for his publications  – but unfortunately only a very limited archive has survived the years. A few glass slides are in a collection held by the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Of the six sets of Bents’ lantern-slides held by the RGS in early 1951, only one set survives:

  • Sudan – 22 lantern slides (mostly taken by Alfred Cholmley; obviously they contained properties that enabled them to survive) (1896).

Five sets that were judged too faded to keep were thrown away:

  • Bahrain – 25 lantern slides (1889) -“This collection was destroyed on 9th February 1951 as it had faded.”
  • Asia Minor – 20 lantern slides (date unknown, possibly late 1880s) -“This collection was destroyed on 9th February 1951 as it had faded.”
  • Zimbabwe Ruins, Rhodesia – 35 lantern slides (1891) -“This collection was destroyed on 9th February 1951 as it had faded.”
  • Hadramawt – 29 lantern slides (1894) – “This collection was destroyed on 2nd February 1951 as it had faded.”
  • Dhofar – 30 lantern slides (1895) – “This collection was destroyed on 25th January 1951 as it had faded.”

Please do contact us at info@tambent.com if you have or are aware of any original photographic material by Mabel!

An Occasional Gallery (check back for more prints from Mabel’s work)

“Abyss of Dirbat, Dhofar”. (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 127).
“Lake in the Wadi Ghersid, Dhofar”. (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 120).
Bala khana at Yezd-i-Khast. From a Persian photograph by Mabel Bent, in J.T. Bent’s article ‘New Year’s Day in a Persian Village’. ‘English Illustrated Magazine’, 1890, Vol. 76 (Jan), 326-31 (private collection).
Bridge and only entrance to Yezd-i-Khast. From a Persian photograph by Mabel Bent, in Bent’s article ‘New Year’s Day in a Persian Village’. ‘English Illustrated Magazine’, 1890, Vol. 76 (Jan), 326-31 (private collection).