Arab Image Foundation: A Selection of Images
Curated by Catherine David
Paris-Photo, Paris, France
The selection of a very small number of photograps - some 50 – from a collection of 300,000 is an introduction to the diversity of images produced in different parts of the Arab World from 1870 to 1970.
Individual or group portraits are a major expression of how a society can transform over a period of a century. The portrait is also a vehicle for the subjectivity and scene-setting that is willfully in motion on both sides of the viewfinder. The freedom of movement in the attitudes and poses in the portraits of actresses and cabaret performers from the golden age of the Egyptian cinema (1930-1960) by Van Leo an Alban can also be seen in the images taken in Baghdad by photographers such as Murad Dagestani. Other anonymous or studio portraits, the ones of the writer Albert Cossery or the singer Asmahan, serve as evidence of the cosmopolitan and multicultural nature of the Arab world’s large cities. The shop owner portraits in Sidon by Lebanon’s Hachem El Madani record the life of the city, the changes affecting the places and ways in which people worked.
Finally, a number of images reveal their authors’ fantasies or a certain formal imagination that came in response to popular imagery, the cinema and advertising. Cairo notably produced some experimental photographers, who moved in circles interested in surrealism.
Catherine David, guest curator for Paris Photo 2009
With the support of Dupon, Office du Tourisme du Liban, Mind the Gap
A small selection from what was exhibited
Akram Zaatari and Fouad El Khoury met Hisham Abdel Hadi in Amman on their first research trip to Jordan in December 1997, as they stayed at the Hisham Hotel, which he happened to own.
Abdel Hadi comes from a well-known Palestinian family. He was born in Jerusalem in 1926, and grew up with a special keenness for cars and cameras. This is why many of his photographs feature his cars, or are taken from them during his long journeys. His first camera was a Kodak box. Later, he bought a Zeiss and a Leica, then the small Minox. In the 1970’s he bought the Olympus OM1 and OM2, as well as the Zeiss 8 millimeter camera.
Fouad el Khoury met with a certain Yacoub Qatimi during his first trip to Amman, in 1997. Qatimi owned a few postcard-sized photographs of friends, dating back to his childhood in Palestine, and which he wanted to sell. El Khoury purchased two photographs from him; this is one of them.
Born in Al-Qaryatayn (Syria) in 1900, Jibrail Jabbur was a renowned historian and a Professor of Arabic Literature and Semitic Studies at the American University of Beirut. In the fifties, Jabbur took his friend photographer Manoug to the syrian desert to document aspects of Bedouin life in order to illustrate a book he was writing on the subject. The outcome of those years of research was a book entitled The Bedouins and the Desert, published in 1988 in Arabic, and later in English.
In 1998, Akram Zaatari met Jibrail Jabbur’s granddaughter Norma. She donated her grandfather’s collection of photographs (mainly negatives and a few color slides) to the AIF. She later agreed to give the Foundation a few of his original manuscripts. Since then, Zaatari has taken a specific interest in photographs of women holding jars, which were meant to be used as illustrations in Jabbur’s book The Bedouins and the Desert. For these photographs, Jabbur took his friend photographer Manoug to Syria with him in the fifties. They stayed in Jabbur’s house in Al-Quaryatayn and traveled through the region to photograph Bedouins and desert denizens.
Although one single version was used in Jabbur’s book, the photograph was repeated more than five different times. In some takes, four figures are posing with jars on their heads, whereas in others, a fifth one seems unable to carry the jar properly on her head, holding it over her shoulder. This fifth figure was identified by Norma as being her aunt Hoda, Jabbur’s niece, who used to live in New York, but happened to be with Jabbur on that trip to visit the family. Norma was also able to identify Jana Istfan, first from the right, another member of the family who lived in the village.
Zaatari later retraced Jabbur’s steps in an attempt to identify and meet the other women. Jana confirmed that these pictures were indeed taken by Manoug and not by Jabbur, though the latter was the one who selected the characters and the locations. This search was part of Zaatari’s feature film, This Day (Aujourd’hui, 2003), a production of the Musée Nicéphore Niepce in Chalon-sur-Saône.
Muhamad Youssef (1916-1992)
Akram Zaatari heard of Muhamad Youssef through an old retired security officer, whom he met in Cairo in 1999, and who was a photography lover. Zaatari later met the photographer’s daughter, Jihane Muhamad Youssef, who agreed to donate a few of her father’s negatives to the Foundation.
Alban was born in Kouskoundjouk, Turkey in 1883. The translation of his father’s Armenian name, Arnavoudian, means the Albans, hence the nickname given to him by his teacher. Around 1893, his family moved to Alexandria.
Alban was fond of music and learned to play the violin. His first contact with photography occurred while assisting the photographer Belian in Alexandria. A few years later, Alban was able to open his own studio. At the end of World War I in 1920, he decided to leave for Brussels, and commissioned his studio in Alexandria to the photographer Apkar.
His Brussels studio attracted a prestigious clientele such as Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. His success led him to open another studio in Paris. In 1940, due to the economic situation, he decided to leave Europe and return to Egypt. In the meantime, Apkar had become quite well-known, which led Alban to avoid resettling in Alexandria and instead to open a studio in Cairo. In 1944, he met his wife to be, Chaké, and asked her to assist him in retouching prints. His studio attracted Europeans residing in Cairo as well as the Egyptian aristocracy, including King Farouk and his family.
After his passing away in 1961, Chaké carried on running the studio until the early seventies, signing as "Alban, Chaké". She died in 1998. Another disciple of Alban, his niece Sonia, opened a studio in Beirut and obtained Alban’s consent to sign in his name, as "Alban, Sonia."
In 1998, Zaatari met Chris Mikaelian who had purchased Alban’s studio, including his photographic archives and equipment, and had renovated it. He also met Alban’s wife Chaké. It took several years for Mikaelian to allow Zaatari to make a small selection of pictures of Alban’s work, to be donated to the AIF. Alban’s pictures were published by Zaatari in one of AIF’s earliest publications Portraits du Caire (Actes Sud editions, 1999).
Hashem el Madani (1928 - 2018)
In Saida, Madani bought his first camera, which cost him 200 liras (Lebanese pounds). He started working as an itinerant photographer, roaming about the city, offering his services to passers-by and shop owners. During the same period, he started using a room in his parent’s house as a studio. By 1952, Madani had saved enough money to buy new equipment and rent a studio of his own. He found one on the first floor of a new building that housed Cinema Shehrazade, in Riad el-Solh Street. He named his studio “Shehrazade.”
Madani’s work represents a tremendous documentation showing Saida’s society over the past 60 years. In addition to his studio work, Madani’s archives include portraits shot in barbershops, clothing stores, at school events, as well as pictures of buildings, agricultural projects, athletes on the beach, or passers-by crossing the new bridge in Ain el Helweh. Madani’s studio is still open to this day.
The Madani Project was initiated by Akram Zaatari to study the work of a single studio as a corpus that is still preserved in one place, therefore examining the various associations that link a picture to another, and focusing particularly on the photographer’s conventions and aesthetic choices. The study also presents the community of those who were photographed by Madani and therefore highlights people’s attitudes in front the camera, thereby also showing how photography functioned in people’s minds. The pictures of the Madani collection are all part of Zaatari’s project “Objects of Study/ Studio Shehrazade”. The Madani Project started in 1999, and remains, to this day, the longest research project to take place within the Arab Image Foundation.
The Studio Shehrazade collection adds up to almost 150,000 pictures, which amounts today to half of the Foundation’s collection. It mainly consists of 35mm negatives, a few hundred 120 mm negatives and a few thousand small prints. The collection also includes around 20,000 pictures taken by Madani’s brother Hussein.
Daguestani’s collection is one of the most important in Mosul. His daughter donated to the Foundation a small sample of this treasure that still begs to be discovered.