The Paris-based photographer Martin Becka has delved into the past to capture modern Dubai, showing the metropolis in a whole new light by using equipment and techniques from yesteryear. Helena Frith Powell reports.
In an intriguing mix of the old and the new, an exhibition to be held in Dubai this month will show images of the city using techniques developed more than 100 years before the Sheikh Zayed Road existed. The photographs, taken by the Paris-based photographer Martin Becka with a large-format camera (producing bigger, hand-made waxed paper negatives) during a one-month stay in the city, show Dubai as never seen before. Not only are the images taken and developed using chemicals and methods that were first used 170 years ago when photography was invented, but also the lack of people in the pictures lends them an almost antique quality.
The absence of human shapes is explained by the photographic technique. "With this method, there is an exposure time of between five and 30 minutes," says Becka. "It is impossible to get people to stay still for that long. Also, I liked the fact that it is an empty city, like an antique city." The project was the idea of Elie Domit, who owns the Dubai-based gallery The Empty Quarter, where the exhibition is being held. He met Becka in Paris where they discussed the project. It was made possible through the support, financial and otherwise, of Princess Reem Al Faisal and Safa al Hamed, Domit's partners at the gallery.
Becka describes this method of photography as "just one of a palette available to photographers", but it is certainly one of his favourites. "The images are very special, in part, because so much work goes into it," he said. "Before you take the image, for example, you have to prepare the negative in advance with various chemicals. The camera itself weighs more than 20 kilos. I also find the whole alchemy of the process intriguing; there is almost a magical quality to it. There are so many directions you can take an image, it can be very experimental. Also, this is not something just anyone can do, but anyone can take a digital picture."
Becka was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to Paris in 1968. While in Dubai, he worked for about 18 hours a day, but the exacting nature of the process meant he produced only about four images daily. These were developed in a custom-made darkroom. One of the things that attracted him to the project was a photographic book about Dubai from the 1970s. "I could not believe what the city had become in such a short time. I was really impressed with the city. It is a fantastic place and the contrast was utterly astounding."
Becka will be at the opening of the exhibition. "And I'm looking forward to coming back to see some of the building sites I photographed. I expect they will be finished buildings by now." He does not discount a similar project in Abu Dhabi, once again bringing his own old-world style to the new style cities of the UAE. Dubai, Transmutations will be showing from October 18 to November 17 at The Empty Quarter Fine Art Photography Gallery in Dubai (www.theemptyquarter.com). Admission is free. A book titled Dubai, Transmutations, featuring 40 of the images, will be published to coincide with the exhibition.