For half a century Noor Ali Rashid, as the Royal Photographer, recorded the life and times of the UAE's Sheikhs, amassing some three million images, not just of the ruling families but also of the birth of the nation and its extraordinary growth. His persistence, his passion for his art, his gift for friendship and capacity to engage, brought him unparalleled access to the princely courts and thus to the whole country.
Noor Ali was born into a wealthy merchant family in Gwadar, now part of Pakistan. From the moment a photographer came to his Gujarat boarding school to take photographs of the students, he said he was hooked. Soon afterwards, his brother bought him a camera and he began recording the political tumult of Karachi in the late 1940s for newspapers and magazines. His father regarded photography as an odd job. "For generations we have been businessmen so why are you doing this?" he asked.
In 1958, in the hope of cooling his son's passion, his father sent Noor Ali to Dubai, where he thought the desert and the desultory pace would force his son to focus on the family business. Mr Rashid Senior could not have been more wrong. Not long after young Noor Ali arrived in Dubai, its Ruler, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, died. Noor Ali took his camera to the funeral and the accession of the new Ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed.
The essence of photography, apart from the technical skills, is a mix of ingenuity and opportunism, which Noor Ali had in abundance. Having recorded Queen Elizabeth II's emissary reading her recognition of Sheikh Rashid's accession, Noor Ali developed and enlarged the result and sent prints to the new Ruler, who was delighted. Thus he became the palace's official and family photographer. He soon came to know Sheikh Zayed and assumed a similar role with the Al Nahyan family and then the ruling families of the other Trucial States. His father's neglected business in Bur Dubai soon closed and Sheikh Zayed appointed him Royal Photographer.
Noor Ali was present for and recorded state and official visits - including those of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein, Queen Elizabeth, Indira and Sonia Ghandi, George Bush Senior, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat. He also caught the sandy expanse of Karama in 1970, a single-lane Beach Road with no cars in sight, dhows clustered in Dubai Creek, and, as the city emerged, the dredging of the creek, the opening of Maktoum Bridge, the development of Deira, the Flame Monument and, perhaps his most iconic shot, the Rulers standing outside Union House on December 2, 1971.
But what he also captured were precious moments of the Ruling families at their most relaxed - driving, riding, dancing, greeting - the consistently charismatic Sheikh Zayed; a beaming Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed with a grandson; a striking young Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. With the support of Sheikh Sultan al Qassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, who has an abiding interest in the nation's history and culture, he published a number of books on royal life in the UAE. With Ian Fairservice he produced two royal collections, Abu Dhabi: Life and Times and Dubai: Life and Times; and, singly, The UAE: Visions of Change, all in 1997. More recently, he also published more personal photographic tributes, Sheikh Maktoum: Life and Times (2004), Sheikh Zayed: Life and Times 1918-2004 (2005), Sheikh Mohammed: Life and Times and Sheikh Khalifa: Life and Times (both in 2007), and most recently, in May 2010, Sheikh Sultan: Life and Times.
He devoted his last years to preserving his images for posterity. His penthouse overlooking Sharjah's port was filled with them, so much so that he rented another apartment to store the rest. He was showered with honours, including the title "Photographer of the Millennium" in 2001 and in 2006 Zayed University established the Noor Ali Rashid Student Documentary Photography Award in his honour. n April 2009, an exhibition of his work, Reminiscing Heritage, was held at the Ismaili Centre in Dubai, and inaugurated by the chairman of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, Sheikh Majid Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the third generation of the ruling family to appreciate his art.
A week ago, he attended the Ramadan majlis of the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed. Even the day before his sudden death, he attended a Ramadan reception at the palace of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak and, as he had countless times before, recorded the event with his camera. He is survived by his wife, Zahra Ghuloum, three sons, three daughters; and some three million pictures. Noor Ali Rashid was born in December 1929 and died on 18 August 2010, aged 80.
* The National