In Photos, Familiar Cities Become Strange
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Friday, August 3, 2012
Seminal photographer Fouad al-Khoury has witnessed through his lens the extraordinary transitions of Beirut in its many forms over the last four decades.
When Lebanese photographer Fouad al-Khoury arrives in an unfamiliar city that he intends to photograph, he first buys a map. From there, he locates the fringes.
“This is how I start exploring a city,” he said. “I look deeply into details and see where the railway passes, where the highways pass – because sometimes on the highways you have weird spaces developing. All these spaces are readable on the map. Then, I just manage to get there.”
Upon completion of this urban survey, Khoury often departs a foreign city knowing it better than its inhabitants, as he observed in The Wisdom of the Photographer. This could go for Dubai, which he captured between 2004 and 2006 in his series “Civilization,” or Berlin, where he meticulously tracked the remnants of the vanished Berlin Wall. But more often than not, Khoury departs from the map and follows more abstract paths. His haunting “Suite Egyptienne” (Egyptian Sequence) traced the nineteenth century Egypt voyage of Gustave Flaubert and Maxime du Camp in the Egypt of the 1980-90s. The flashing bulbs of a Coca-Cola sign in Tahrir Square lend a surreal air to a Cairo captured more than a century after the Flaubert-Camp journey.
But after four decades of taking pictures, Khoury no longer photographs many of the cities that he once diligently explored, including his birth city of Paris and certain areas of Beirut, where he once captured the civil war and its aftermath in black-and-white.
“When I’ve lived in a city for years, no matter how much it changes, if I’ve gone through all the neighborhoods and all the places I think are of interest, then I just stop being interested in it and I usually move to another city,” said Khoury from his hometown of Paris. “This is what happened to me in London, Istanbul, Beirut, and Paris. In Paris, I no longer take pictures.”
As his list of photographable places shrinks, Beirut will find at least one of his works on display currently at Espace Kettaneh Kunigk’s collective photo exhibit, “Through the lens of…”
His composition “Zahrani-Roissy” places images of the Israeli-bombed Zahrani power plant alongside shots of the ghostly tarmac at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. “Exactly why and how I started playing with those two, I don’t know,” said Khoury, but when he saw the images together, he knew it was “perfect.” The composition helps one understand what Khoury means when he likens photography to “creating a dream.”
“Through the lens of…” is a small, loosely curated show with little binding one photo to the next except that all 11 of the featured photographers either trained their eye on Lebanon or are Lebanese. There’s the industrial close-up shots from Nancy Debs Hadad’s series “Toxicity,” as well as Randa Mirza’s 2003 “Pigeon Rocks,” where she shot men and boys leaping from Beirut’s coastal landmark on a basic digital camera. There are no grand statements or themes connecting the photos, which is perhaps unintentionally a testament to the tentative origins of photography as an art form in Lebanon.
Until the 1990s, Khoury observed that it was impossible to call oneself a photographer in Lebanon. At one point, he labeled himself a “photographic engineer.” When he co-founded the Arab Image Foundation in 1997, it was one of many events that gave added weight to photography in the country.
“As of that moment, art and being an artist, a photographer, or any other artistic practitioner became acceptable. But until then, being an artist, being a photographer was simply practicing a hobby,” he said.
Backing up this sentiment is the experience of Mirza who begrudgingly studied advertising until turning to photography. “I didn’t even know that [photography] existed and that you could be an artist. Photographers are so dispersed in Lebanon and the cultural producers aren’t so into photography. They consider it a traditional medium,” she said. She began taking photos without any reference points and only later did she seek to pinpoint where her work fitted in to the broader scheme of things.
Though Mirza was just a child when Khoury – whom she described as a “poet” – was photographing a crumbling downtown Beirut, decades later she would be exploring the “revival” of the same area in her own work. Her 2011 series “Beirutopia” put the glossy images of real estate development advertisements at the fore of her lens, with the reality of a curb or a street breaking the illusion. It was partly an exploration of “how I didn’t connect to the city,” she said.
This disconnect is now shared by Khoury, who remarked that in certain areas of the city, like Solidere’s downtown, “I no longer have any creativity to apply.” This is not a surprise for a photographer who has consistently sought out landscapes of transition, which he described in his book as places where “the urban fabric is not straight-jacketed.”
One of Mirza’s earlier projects, “Abandoned Rooms,” seems to reflect a similar desire to go where “order” hasn’t yet taken hold. The images of bullet-riddled abandoned villas earned Mirza a prize, prompting her to observe, “I made money from a horrible experience.” It is this profiting from indirect portrayal of war through her photographs that has helped her “not feel like a victim, because at least you’re making money.”
Mirza is currently at work on a series of photos that look at the bizarre architecture of the returned Lebanese diaspora across the country. Immense chalets and suburban-style gabled roofs decked with regional orange tiles give way to new ideas about globalization. In the meantime, she is trying her hand at photojournalism – at least one photographic venture that is rarely out of season in Lebanon. Mirza said, “I thought I’d escape my fate, but apparently…”
“Through the lens of...” is at Espace Kettaneh Kunigk in Hamra until September 10, 2012.