Stills curated from the Arab Image Foundation’s archive reveal a bittersweet narrative

The fragile nature of film – and implicitly the passing of time – emerges as a recurring theme

‘Objects of Study / Studio Shehrazade – Reception Space’: the Lebanese photographer Hashem El Madani’s studio. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
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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.

Faces to Face, by Antranick Anouchian. Courtesy Antranick Anouchian
Faces to Face, by Antranick Anouchian. Courtesy Antranick Anouchian

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.

‘To Retouch by Antranick Anouchian. Courtesy Antranick Anouchian / Arab Image Foundation
‘To Retouch by Antranick Anouchian. Courtesy Antranick Anouchian / Arab Image Foundation

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.

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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.