Stills cu­rated from the Arab Im­age Foun­da­tion’s ar­chive, show­ing at the Barcelona Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, re­veal a bit­ter­sweet nar­ra­tive, writes Rob Gar­ratt

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De­spite the dark glasses perched on their faces, it’s clear that Youssef and Fat­meh Safied­dine are star­ing di­rectly at the cam­era – laz­ing cheer­ily in loose-fit­ting sum­mer clothes on the bon­net of a gleam­ing, com­pact city car, the cou­ple’s rel­ish of the lens’s gaze is clear. Af­ter all, such a ve­hi­cle would have been a proud sym­bol of af­flu­ence in the Sene­gal of 1955, from which this yel­lowed photograph dates.

Hang­ing nearby on the same wall is a por­trait of the Trad fam­ily. Stand­ing in front of a boxy vintage sa­loon, the stern fez-tout­ing fa­ther and fur-coated mother in­ter­ro­gate the cam­era with scowls – just their young son, stand­ing be­tween the pair, looks up at the pho­tog­ra­pher with the kind of won­der per­haps only pos­si­ble in 1940s Le­banon.

These are two snap­shots from dozens of pon­der­ously nos­tal­gic im­ages pre­sented in Against Photography, an ex­hi­bi­tion on show at Barcelona Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art (MACBA). In a neigh­bour­ing im­age, three young women sport­ing short skirts and fash­ion­able Six­ties hair bobs lounge play­fully on the bon­net of a flashy mo­tor. The scene is Jeri­cho, Pales­tine, 1953. “Not al­ways on a camel, also on the BMW”, re­marks an in­scrip­tion on the photo’s rear side, pre­sum­ably penned by Hisham Ab­del Hadi, the un­seen pho­tog­ra­pher who was at the time en­gaged to marry one of the el­e­gant trio.

Sub­ti­tled An An­no­tated His­tory of the Arab Im­age Foun­da­tion (AIF) – and run­ning un­til Septem­ber 25 – Against Photography is the work of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s co-founder Akram Zaatari. Draw­ing from the foun­da­tion’s deep im­age ar­chives, these proud mo­tor­ing-themed me­men­tos re­visit one of the Le­banese pho­tog­ra­pher and cu­ra­tor’s ear­li­est AIF projects, the 1999 series The Ve­hi­cle: Pic­tur­ing Mo­ments of Tran­si­tion in a Modern So­ci­ety, a bit­ter­sweet ex­plo­ration of so­cial class and the mid-cen­tury mod­erni­sa­tion of the Mid­dle East.

Through­out this cap­sule, the role of the pri­vate mo­tor is clear – a sym­bol of power, free­dom and glob­al­i­sa­tion, which was soon to be de­nied to much of the Arab world. On an op­po­site wall, the series con­tin­ues with more play­ful snap­shots of young friends and lovers ap­pear­ing to ride speed­boats, planes, tanks, horses and, in­deed, camels.

Closer in­spec­tion ap­pears to re­veal these fan­ci­ful vis­ages the re­sult of the most prim­i­tive pho­to­graphic sleight of hand – the fair­ground photo board. A sense of un­re­alised fan­tasy, of cut-short naiveté per­vades.

Jointly pro­duced by MACBA and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Modern and Con­tem­po­rary Art of Korea, where the ex­hi­bi­tion will move in 2018, Against Photography marks 20 years of AIF, which was founded in Beirut in 1997 by Zaatari and fel­low pho­tog­ra­phers Fouad Elk­oury and Samer Mo­hdad with the goal of pre­serv­ing pho­to­graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Arab world from the Mid­dle East, North Africa and Arab Diaspora. Run­ning across the dis­play space – in­ter­cut­ting the net­work of eight themed ex­hi­bi­tion areas – is a sym­bolic wall-sized time­line. As well as list­ing key events and ex­hi­bi­tions, the long, straight dis­play is punc­tu­ated with rep­re­sen­ta­tional graph­ics de­tail­ing the date and size of ac­qui­si­tions (in late 2008 sym­bolic blocks stretch to the ceil­ing, rep­re­sent­ing a bumper haul of fresh ma­te­rial).

Yet to char­ac­terise Against Photography as a static cel­e­bra­tion of a wor­thy archival project would be a grave mis­take. Per­sis­tently prob­ing the pho­to­graphic medium and its so­cial role, Zaatari only rarely presents im­ages as starkly as those de­scribed above, in­stead ex­ploit­ing chance and change to cre­ate new pieces from soiled, time-rav­aged neg­a­tives, along­side pre­sen­ta­tions of the orig­i­nal film work for which the artist is ar­guably best known. At the fore­front of a gen­er­a­tion of Beirut-based con­cep­tual artists who came to promi­nence af­ter the Le­banese Civil War – and se­lected to rep­re­sent Le­banon at the 2013 Venice Bi­en­nale – here Zaatari’s tal­ents are in blur­ring and bal­anc­ing the de­mands of col­lec­tion, cu­ra­tion and cre­ation.

The frag­ile na­ture of film – and im­plic­itly the pass­ing of time – emerges as a re­cur­ring theme. Most aes­thet­i­cally strik­ing per­haps is Archaeology, in which a spoilt neg­a­tive de­pict­ing a nude fig­ure is blown up on to a large glass plate. Haunt­ingly lit from be­hind, the sur­face is en­crusted with phys­i­cal dirt rep­re­sent­ing the cor­ro­sive dam­age, yet which here re­calls the brush­strokes of cen­sor­ship.

A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with process per­vades. In the Body of Film, un­de­vel­oped neg­a­tives are en­larged and dis­played on an il­lu­mi­nated sur­face – the ef­fect switches light for dark, and show­ers the im­ages with a clin­i­cal scru­tiny re­veal­ing the mark of fin­ger­prints where re­touch­ing has taken place. In a new series that shares the ex­hi­bi­tion’s name, Against Photography, a set of 12 en­grav­ings were con­structed from 3D scans of dam­aged neg­a­tives wrin­kled by time – un­bur­den­ing photography from the nar­ra­tive or rep­re­sen­ta­tional form to a cel­e­bra­tion of the medium’s im­per­fec­tions.

An ac­ci­dently overt po­lit­i­cal state­ment is found in un­canny co­in­ci­dence with Un-Di­vid­ing

His­tory. Glass cyan­otypes made by two Jerusalem-based pho­tog­ra­phers – Pales­tinian Khalil Raad and Is­raeli Ya’acov Ben-Dov – were stored side by side for more than five decades, caus­ing the im­ages to bleed into one an­other. De­vel­op­ing the mu­ti­lated plates to­day cre­ates or­gan­i­cally over­laid com­pos­ites re­veal­ing two dis­tinct per­spec­tives of a city still di­vided along the same eth­nic lines.

In Faces to Faces, Zaatari de­lib­er­ately uses the same ef­fect, criss-cross­ing por­traits taken in the 1940s by Tripoli-based pho­tog­ra­pher An­tran­ick Anouch­ian. In each case a na­tive civil­ian’s form is shad­owed by a mem­ber of the French mil­i­tary that gov­erned the com­mu­nity, un­til in­de­pen­dence in 1951.

The role photography plays in shap­ing the re­gion’s col­lec­tive mem­ory is fur­ther ex­plored in Zaatari’s doc­u­men­tary video On Photography, Peo­ple & Modern Times. Drawn from three years’ re­search for the AIF, the rec­ol­lec­tions of el­derly sub­jects in Le­banon, Jor­dan and Egypt prompt an ex­am­i­na­tion of photography’s evolv­ing so­cial func­tion – in one in­stance a stu­dio pho­tog­ra­pher re­calls how he was ac­cused of sur­rep­ti­tiously swap­ping cus­tomer’s fa­cial fea­tures, such was the mis­un­der­stood witch­ery of the medium.

Away from the every­day, Zaatari’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the Arab world’s con­trary, con­tra­dic­tory re­la­tion­ship with celebrity and pop cul­ture is made ev­i­dent in his artis­tic re­ac­tions to the work, life and times of Van Leo. Born in 1921, the cel­e­brated Ar­me­nian-Egyp­tian pho­tog­ra­pher is renowned for his se­duc­tive im­ages of ac­tresses and show­girls dur­ing Egyp­tian cin­ema’s golden age, which is said to have ended as film­mak­ing was na­tion­alised in 1966. In the series To Re­touch, Zaatari ma­nip­u­lates and canon­ises Van Leo’s monochrome por­traits of hey­day stars such as Dal­ida and Rushdie Abaza, man­u­ally show­er­ing them with Re­nais­sance-era colour.

The per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal quaintly merge in the video work Her + Him, an idea that was con­ceived when Zaatari flicked through a book of por­traits by Van Leo – and spot­ted his own grand­mother. His in­ter­est was sparked fur­ther when in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed Zaatari’s rel­a­tive was the only sub­ject who ever asked Van Leo to be cap­tured on film naked.

Riff­ing on this co­in­ci­dence, hard-boiled in­ter­views with the late Van Leo – de­scrib­ing the revo­lu­tion in which the monar­chy was over­thrown and cine­mas burnt down – are in­ter­cut with the raunchy, rev­e­la­tory im­ages of Zaatari’s grand­mother, sound-tracked to jaunty mu­sic and the artist’s mo­ti­va­tional mus­ings. Why did the fa­mous pho­tog­ra­pher not just keep the pho­tos, but write his grand­mother’s phone num­ber on the back, he asks, and … did he ever call?

Two rooms are ded­i­cated to the life of a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent breed of por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher, Hashem El Madani, which can

only take on a more pow­er­ful sig­nif­i­cance fol­low­ing the Le­banese tal­ent’s death on Au­gust 9, late into his ninth decade. Ob­jects of Study / Stu­dio Shehrazade – Re­cep­tion Space

is an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tion of the long-term stu­dio where El Madani took many of the 75,000 por­traits he is cred­ited with – in­clud­ing, by his own es­ti­ma­tion, 90 per cent of the peo­ple of his home city of Si­don.

The cam­era turns in on it­self in the video work End­note, the coda to Zaatari’s fea­ture-length film ex­plo­ration of El Madani,

Twenty-Eight Nights and a

Poem. The short clip shows the artist seated side-by-side with his sub­ject, in si­lence, late at night, the pair’s faces splashed with harsh metal­lic flares as Ara­bic pop mu­sic videos blare from a screen off-frame.

That the ex­hi­bi­tion of this starkly hyp­notic, eerily ir­rev­er­ent im­age should out­live its sub­ject – and act as the high­est pro­file “end­note” to his en­tire ca­reer – can be no more than cold, hard co­in­ci­dence. But it only serves to un­der­score the vig­or­ous rel­e­vance of Zaatari’s work spent cel­e­brat­ing and savour­ing the Arab world’s pho­to­graphic her­itage.

Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, Lon­don

‘Ob­jects of Study / Stu­dio Shehrazade – Re­cep­tion Space’: the Le­banese pho­tog­ra­pher Hashem El Madani’s stu­dio

All courtesy the artist

From ‘To Re­touch’, top; a neg­a­tive from Body of Film, cen­tre; from Faces to Faces, left, by An­tran­ick Anouch­ian

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