Family pictures

A collection of priceless images taken by the photographer Eve Arnold at the 1971 Maktoum royal wedding is on show in Dubai.

As a festive crowd gathered in the warm Dubai evening at DIFC's outdoor Gate Village on Sunday night, a troupe of khandoura-clad men and a young boy performed a traditional Al Ayallah dance to a beating drum. It was a grand occasion: a groundbreaking exhibition of the photographer Eve Arnold's forgotten works in Dubai and the official opening of the UAE's first photography gallery, The Empty Quarter, under the creative direction of the curator Elie Domit and the gallery's partner Princess Reem Mohammed Al Faisal, granddaughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who is herself a highly accomplished photographer.

Arnold's images and film footage of the 1971 royal Maktoum wedding of Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid, then Crown Prince, to Sheikha Alia have remained packed away in a dusty box in America for the last 40 years, but are historically priceless. The Magnum photojournalist, renowned for her shots of Marilyn Monroe on the set of her final film, The Misfits, in 1960, has an ability to make her subjects comfortable, so the shots are wonderfully candid.

Apparently equally comfortable in both the men's and the women's sections of the event, Arnold shot frames that were full of the joy, compassion and ceremony that enrich any wedding. The often grainy film images of Bedouin dancing, women preparing the wedding food, henna-decorated hands, celebratory camel racing and even a young Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the current Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, are spontaneous and dynamic in a way that is much rarer in the age of digital photography. Where the subjects blur and angle rockily, the chaotic atmosphere is vividly recorded. In one photograph, rich with life, the chauffeur of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum dances exuberantly with a gold-plated gun, a blazer over his thobe, while elsewhere, beneath their veils and abayas, the women's colourful patterned dresses show strongly against the sandy backgrounds.

Like the photographs, the lively mood of the gallery launch felt like something of a family celebration, with Sheikh Saeed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the son of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, attending with an entourage of dignitaries and Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Jumaa Al Maktoum providing the show's official patronage. There were even, in addition to the Zuma sushi canapés, muffins baked by one of the Emirati guests; it was possibly the most popular attraction at the event.

Of course, the glamorous setting of Dubai's newest, chicest shopping area and the city lights of Sheikh Zayed Road as a backdrop makes these wedding images all the more resonant. They offer a glimpse of a world before cranes and skyscrapers and designer boutiques. Beyond the wedding itself, Arnold took pictures of Bedouin children writing on a school blackboard and women selling vegetables in the souq among everyday scenes from a pre-boom era. These images, of events and places well within living memory, feel exotic and distant, yet the immediacy of Arnold's camera eye and the intelligence of her framing brings them cantering into the present in a way that brilliantly reminds the viewer of this country's short history and long traditions.

"From a romantic perspective, even a historical one, Eve was quite fascinated by Dubai," said Domit at the launch. "For her it was like 1,001 Nights, and in her travelogue she wrote about it. You see in the photographs, she seems to have her heart and soul involved. There are very few photographers who can actually capture these things. Normally kids are drawn to a foreigner, to the strangeness, and act differently, but in the pictures of the schools it's almost as if there's no camera."

Perhaps even more impressive than the 40 pictures - each of which is a signed C-print taken straight from Arnold's slides - is the 55-minute film that she shot at the same time, showing the preparations for the wedding. This was Arnold's only outing as a filmmaker, and it took some doing. "To be able to come and actually shoot a film in 16mm, when there were no female crews at the time, is amazing," says Domit. "It seems she had to get men as crew, but at this time because they were foreign men they were allowed to roam around while she made the film, even in the women's areas."

There's no doubt that this is something of a coup for the gallery. Arnold, now 98 and in poor health, is one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century, the first female photographer to visit Afghanistan and, in 1951, the first female photographer to join Magnum, the great co-operative photography agency founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson (whose work is currently on show in Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace).

Domit's extensive search for these images, on a hunch inspired by a single frame seen in an art dealer's collection, took him to Yale University, to which Arnold had donated her archives. The quest seemed hopeless until a list of items turned up a picture of the Trucial States, which later in 1971 would become the UAE, and he knew he had found the treasure - a huge cache of images, only a fraction of which are on show and for sale. The remaining images will eventually be turned into a book - small-scale limited-edition art publishing being one of the projected functions of The Empty Quarter.

"When I discovered this gem, it was a surprise to me that no one else had looked into it," said Domit. "We felt, why not bring this back into Dubai where it should be? We talked to Eve and she remembered coming here and liked the idea, and from there I tried to get at least a first batch - but each picture is a one-off, because she is not well, and imagine 40 images she had to sign; it was very difficult."

As Domit was talking, he received a phone call asking about payment procedures for the night. An hour into the event and pictures were already being sold. That speaks for itself. Behind The Veil: Photographs by Dame Eve Arnold is at The Empty Quarter, Gate Village, DIFC, Dubai. until March 29.