|Behind the lens in Sidon: 50 years and 50,000 images (Daily Star)
|A new book pays tribute to Hashem El Madani's recording of social history
When Hashem El Madani was five years old, his cousins in Palestine sent him a set of portraits to keep as souvenirs.
Madani's father, a moderate sheikh who had settled in Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, wanted to return the favor but these images gave him pause.
Were they haram (a sin)? Madani's father decided no, they were not. They were just like seeing one's reflection in a pond. So he sent Madani and his brother to a photography studio to have their pictures taken. This was in the early 1930s in Sidon, and in all likelihood, the novelty of sitting in a studio, watching a photographer work and grabbing hold of a postcard-size print of oneself sparked Madani's lifelong fascination with portraiture. Seven decades later, Madani is the oldest living studio photographer in Sidon. He has maintained a business there for more than 50 years, building up an archive of some 50,000 images and posing close to 90 percent of the city's inhabitants in front of his camera. He recently turned his entire collection over to the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation (AIF), a nonprofit organization that was established eight years ago to locate, collect and preserve the region's photographic heritage. This past fall, the AIF (which is directed by Zeina Arida) assembled an exhibition of Madani's work for the Photographer's Gallery in London. Last month, the AIF (in collaboration with the Photographer's Gallery and the Beirut graphic design firm Mind the Gap) published a slim but potent volume of Madani's photographs. And given the sheer breadth of Madani's archive, more projects are in the works. "Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices" is a tiny, black, cloth-bound book of just under 130 pages. It is densely packed with a surprising wealth of information - both visual and textual - conveyed through essays, interviews and over 150 reproductions of Madani's pictures. All the images have been reprinted under Madani's supervision from 35 millimeter, 6-by-6 centimeter, 6-by-4.5 centimeter and 4-by-5 inch negatives. Edited by Akram Zaatari and Lisa Le Feuvre, the book opens with a forward that slips Madani's work into the context of rising (art world) interest in studio portraiture and its role in the history and understanding of photography at large. The Paris-based writer and theorist Stephen Wright offers a nuanced essay on the meaning of Madani's images - how pictures taken for commercial purposes can be read for sociopolitical and philosophical content. And Akram Zaatari assembles a lively, often acutely detailed and at times hilariously revealing interview with the photographer, covering the development of his business, the intricacies of his working process and the silent societal observations that have registered in his mind over the past half century. After falling in love with photography at the age of five, Madani finished school and left Lebanon for Palestine to find work. He hooked up with a Jewish photographer in Haifa named Katz, who taught him the tools and tricks of the trade. When Israel declared its statehood in 1948, Madani traveled to Amman and then to Damascus before securing the necessary paperwork to get back home. When he arrived in Sidon, he bought a cheap box camera, picked up some chemicals from a photographer in Beirut and set up shop in his parents' living room. Madani developed his business slowly. He bought equipment on credit, one piece at a time, from a photo shop run by an Armenian in Bab Idriss (the old downtown district of Beirut). As soon as he paid off one purchase, he'd make another. He retired the box camera for a Kodak Retinet; he shelled out for a 35 millimeter enlarger. He started selling 6-by-9 centimeter contact prints for just 25 cents. Business picked up, and in 1953, Madani moved his studio into the first floor of the Shehrazade building in Sidon. He bought himself a large desk, props and a stool for his subjects to sit on, a podium for elevation when necessary. He named his business Studio Shehrazade.
On average, 30 customers strode into Madani's studio a day. During the 1960s and '70s, Studio Shehrazade was flooded with over 100 portrait-seekers a day. Part of what propelled Madani's business was a government decree requiring photographs on passports and ID cards. The Lebanese Army insisted that all candidates for service submit both frontal and profile portraits. But judging from the pictures in this book, Madani's customers had fun with having their pictures taken too. They decked themselves out in cowboy costumes and aped the gestures of film stars. They played with all manner of identity markers. Two maids dolled themselves up as glamour girls. A particularly effeminate man returned again and again to pose like a screen siren. Civilians donned the guise of resistance fighters. Pairs of women and pairs of men assumed opposing gender roles and arranged themselves in intimate embraces and campy kisses. Intriguingly, these couples were always of the same sex. Madani remembers only one instance of a man and woman kissing for the camera. They were not married. "Films inspired people a lot," he explains in the book. "They came to perform kissing in front of a camera ... People were willing to play the kiss between two people of the same sex, but very rarely between a man and a woman." In his interview with Zaatari, Madani insists that his photography practice has always been a profession. He never considered himself an artist. He provided a service and accommodated the desires of his customers. In addition to producing black and white prints, he taught himself retouching and hand-coloring to make his subjects more beautiful. The only quasi personal project he ever embarked on was an attempt to take pictures of every resident in Sidon, simply because it was his home. He remarks with admirable grumpiness that some of his customers never bothered to pick up their prints. Still, Madani felt it necessary to run his business up on the first rather than the ground floor of his building. In Haifa, photographers could operate on street level because the city was cosmopolitan and religiously diverse. In Sidon, however, discretion was key as photography, particularly for women, was still considered shameful. In the book, Madani relates a tragic incident in which a local woman used to come in for portraits, unbeknownst to her husband. When he found out about the photo sessions, the husband crashed into Studio Shehrazade and insisted that Madani destroy the negatives. Not wanting to wreck a full roll of film, Madani scratched out her face as the husband watched. Years later, the woman burned herself to death. The husband returned to the studio, desperate to see if Madani had any photographs of his dead wife to develop. Two images of her, the surfaces deeply gouged, are reprinted in the book. Madani remembers the time when Mir Shakib Arslan, then the defense minister, came in and uttered brusquely, "Make me a good portrait." He also recalls how a supporter of Adel Osseiran, who would later be prime minister, paid a visit to the studio during the election season of 1952, when Osseiran was running as a deputy to the South. The supporter asked Madani to take pictures of all the area's voters who didn't have valid picture ID cards. Another time, representatives from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency came in and asked Madani to take ID pictures for all the students in their schools, both for their records and for the students' refugee cards. During the civil war of 1958, people began showing up at the studio to have their pictures taken with guns. The same convention took root with the rise of the Palestinian resistance in the late 1960s, and again, after the civil war broke out in 1975 and a crew of Iraqi Baathists took over the Shehrazade building. When Gamal Abdel Nasser died, members of the militias loyal to him let their beards grow for 40 days and then came in for a portrait at the end of the mourning period. "It was all show off," Madani recalls in one of the interview's most brilliant little interludes. "They came and acted sad faces. It was fashionable to be sad when Nasser died." In addition to the anecdotes and observations on human behavior, "Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices" is interesting as an attempt to frame what was essentially a commercially driven trade in a broader and more inquisitive context. The book's texts are clear-sighted in detailing what these pictures were and what the motivation for taking them was. They do not leap across the line and consider these images as artworks proper (as has been the case with photographers such as Malick Sadibe and Seydou Keita, who maintained commercial studios in Bamako, Mali and were then feted by the art scenes in New York and London). Stephen Wright is particularly adept at navigating these nuances. "Inserting these images into a narrative, thus giving them a use-value, is an act of reconstruction," he writes. "Though it was not their initial intent, Hashem El Madani's photographs offer one of the most extensive and fascinating laboratories of how, for instance, Christians perform Christianity, or patriots perform patriotism, and perhaps most strikingly, how men perform masculinity and women perform femininity ... Understanding an image is not only to focus on its declared meanings - that is, the explicit intentions underwritten and authorized by its user - but above all to decipher the surplus meaning which it betrays in its role in the symbolic complex of a social class, a particular confession, or simply, to some extent, of an individual."
"Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices" is available now in bookstores throughout Beirut. Akram Zaatari is currently at work on a second publication on Madani's archive. The Arab Image Foundation just made its U.S. premier with "Mapping Sitting," an exhibition put together by Zaatari and Walid Raad that is on view at the Grey Art Gallery in New York through April 2. For more info, see www.fai.org.lb and www.nyu.edu/greyart.
The Daily Star