Thirty years ago, when Dubai was an undeveloped speck on the world's map, with sand, not high-rises, dominating most of the land, the Austrian photographer-director Georg Riha got an invitation to climb aboard a helicopter - the only helicopter in the UAE at that time - for an aerial tour of downtown Dubai. Riha flew over the city, all the while snapping away with his 70mm Hassleblad hand-held camera from the open door of the helicopter. These images have rarely been seen since that day in 1978, but now they are being shown at the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi.
"It was a very unique chance," says Riha at the show opening. "I decided, 'OK, I have rare jewels in my archive'." This was his impetus for reprinting five limited-edition photos of Dubai he took while whirling around the town in 1978. Looking at the photos of Dubai's dhow and dinghy-filled harbour and the sandy, unfinished lanes of the main road - now Sheikh Zayed Road - it is possible to mistake the place in the pictures for a lesser-inhabited part of Oman. Though there are plenty of photos of Dubai from this period, Riha's prints present the city from above in vivid colour; they are equal parts historical record and art.
"These are the only pictures of that time in colour and of this quality that exist - that is the reason we are presenting them," says Riha. "It was a document of the time and it is very interesting to look back at the past from a distance." Although the images were shown to the public last year at the Dubai Cultural Foundation, the Ghaf Gallery's show offers art lovers and cultural historians the chance to purchase a little bit of Dubai history for themselves. Riha says he also hopes that regional museums will also take an interest and buy his photos to document a singular moment in Dubai's development.
Dubai is not the only one that has changed, though. Since that helicopter ride in 1978, Riha has become an award-winning documentary filmmaker best known for his film about Austria's highest mountain. He also invented the CamCat, a remote-controlled camera rigged to a network of overhead cables that are able to take sweeping 360 degree overhead images. Riha, who says he was always fascinated by eagles and falcons because of their majestic view from above, invented the CamCat around 15 years ago while looking for a method to get close-up overhead shots that would mirror a bird's-eye view without using a helicopter. Riha says that he was obligated to invent the CamCat system, which is based on the same technology as cable cars, because the industry didn't have anything comparable at the time.
The CamCat has been used for everything from telecasts of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics to Janet Jackson concert videos. Highly successful in his technical and cinematographic work, Riha met with the Ghaf Gallery co-owner Mohamed Kanoo in Vienna this past spring and discussed showing these early-career photographs. The Abu Dhabi-based artist Amina Rizk, who also shows at the Ghaf Gallery, left impressed. "The quality of the photographs is wonderful. Some of them look like paintings," she says. "The quality of the colours, the print, so portrays Dubai 30 years ago; in 30 years, it is two different worlds."
Kanoo decided to hold Riha's show because he likes the level of detail and sharpness in Riha's pictures. "You can stand in front of each one of these and spend a good amount of time looking at the details, all the houses, the umbrellas, the little deck chairs and the car parts," says Kanoo. "A lot of [these] things are purely historical at this point." The photos are technically masterful - clear, clean and highly detailed - if somewhat simple in their aim. Their importance comes less from their artistic composition than from the fact that they capture a moment in Dubai's lifetime that is gone forever. Riha has no problem with his work being viewed as historical. In fact, he says this is the reason he loves to work in photography and film.
"The main target is the view from above [with] the precise and high standards with the magic hue," says Riha. "It is less storytelling, more the feeling of the atmosphere and to go close in a situation in a special place to catch something [from] your life." The pictures do capture that one moment in time and for those who lived it, looking back is bittersweet. "When you look back at Dubai and you see this really unspoilt natural beauty, and then you look now and you see the tremendous explosion of architecture, and architecture in itself is beautiful, there's an argument for 'Yes, we must move on'. But there will always be people who look back and say, 'Did we really need to?'," says Kanoo. "So it is with a sense of trepidation [that] one moves forward, but one has to."
In some of the photographs, there are three comparatively tallish buildings placed alone, in the middle of the sand to the left side of Sheikh Zayed Road. They are still there today, though difficult to recognise. These three towers from 1978 look dwarfish and dingy compared to the iconic buildings and landscape of today's Dubai. Riha says he would love to come back to Dubai and photograph the same shots and those same buildings now. He is hoping to arrange a project to locate the exact positions he shot from in 1978 in order to compare the prints hanging on the Ghaf Gallery's walls with shots of the same places in today's Dubai.
Kanoo says he, too, would love to see photos that compare 1978's to 2008's Dubai, and hopes to lure Riha back to Abu Dhabi to record its transformation as well. "I wish he would do pictures here of Reem Island and of Abu Dhabi itself before all the skyscrapers come and dominate," he says. "You know, a kinder, gentler Abu Dhabi." There are a number of other more recent photo series on display at the Ghaf Gallery alongside the five of Dubai from 1978. They all display Riha's love of detail and his incredible technical precision, as well as his preference for juxtaposing polar (in some cases literally) opposite elements - desert and glaciers, wood and metal - directly next to each other. There are also some overheads and close-ups of architectural landmarks in Vienna, where the artist and his studio are based.
Riha says he picks his subjects based on feeling and historical gravitas. "I am interested about points where you feel there are a lot of stories and a lot of magic," he says. "I want to come close to document and to let the people try to have the same feeling I have when I am creating this." There is some of the magic Riha speaks of in these photos, but they also feel emotionally cold and remote. Riha's preference for shooting from above means that there are no faces or bodies to connect the viewers to the places that obviously hold some meaning for him. However, this overhead distance from his subjects does add an appealing element of abstraction to the photos and some visitors will like Riha's ability to create accessible and direct images.
There are photos of the sand dunes meeting the sky that are perfectly centred and completely empty of human presence. These images seem better suited to computer screensavers and postcards because of their bland beauty. They neither push any artistic or intellectual boundaries, nor do they read as historical documentation like the Dubai photos do. The photos of old Dubai feel fresher and less staged than the other works, and you can almost feel the hot air and sand dust in your face, whirred up by the UAE's only helicopter, when you look at them. This makes them by far the most interesting ones on display in the gallery and Riha too seemed most excited by the Dubai photos, hardly focusing on anything else on the walls.
Perhaps this is another factor that will motivate Riha to come back to the UAE once more. Until last year, he hadn't visited the Emirates since the 1978 photos were taken. When he arrived in 2007, he says, he felt slightly in awe of the changes the country has made. "I am very impressed by the power of the people here to say, 'It is hot, it is dry, it is very hard to live,' but [also] to say, 'OK, we want to make a paradise'," says Riha. "It's a very impressive situation."