While studying in Oregon in the mid-1990s, Emirati photographer Nasser Al Hameli was spending a lot of his time in the darkroom. But he wasn't achieving the exact effect he wanted.
"I was developing 35mm film," he tells me, as we peruse the depth and detail of the platinum style of printing that he's now dedicated his craft to. "But a painter will create levels using shade; if he has a tree you won't find its surface really black but rather he makes a smooth tonal range within his paintings. That's why this platinum process became so special for me, because it allows for a three-dimensional and almost painterly effect."
Platinum process is one of the oldest forms of developing photographs, first patented in 1873. Unlike silver printing, the platinum in the solution that is used to develop the photograph is absorbed slightly by the paper, creating an ultra-detailed image with longevity. Al Hameli uses a variant of this style that incorporates another liquid metal, palladium, and this gives his images their slightly warmer tone.
Al Hameli has converted the upstairs of part of his house in Abu Dhabi into a sanctum dedicated to the form. We find large-format cameras in the style of the early 20th century and fitted with shiny new fabric bellows. His darkroom has an almost meditative quality about it. Everything is in its right place, and Al Hameli's notes about new chemical mixtures are written in marker pen straight onto the tiled walls.
"I wanted to find a craft that I could work on at home and would keep me busy," says the photographer, who taught himself the difficult process of this antiquated style entirely from books, magazines and the internet.
The work is a celebration of the handmade - everything from the paper he uses, handmade by French artisans ("12 dollars apiece," he tells me), through to the solutions that he personally mixes in the developing process. "Every image has a secret of mixture, and a secret of heating. It's hard to get those details out of the experts."
Indeed, Al Hameli's work has attracted the interest of some of the key contemporary masters of the form. An evocative image of a shadow-laden barber's chair, set in a wooden shack-like interior, takes pride of place in his studio. It's signed by the Cleveland photographer Herb Ascherman, "To my Bedouin brother", who toured Al Hameli's set-up on his way through the UAE for a photography trip to India.
Examining the image, the artist explains why he likes the depths that can be achieved with the form. "This is what we call zone three," says Al Hameli. "It's a textured black."
Al Hameli's own images make full use of platinum printing's tonal diversity; scenes of half-built buildings around Abu Dhabi are rendered with a fierce exactitude of detail. The textures that he refers to play brilliantly across the intricate scenes of cranes, scaffolding and the desert floor. "People can say to their children, 'Look I have a photograph from when it was still being built'. The print has a longer life than the paper it's printed on. It could last for 300 years no problem, making this 100 per cent archival."
But his recent set of still-life assemblages are particularly striking. The image shown here, which he developed specially for The National, is a collection of objects found along the seafront in Salalah, Oman. These barnacle-laden buoys are cratered with detail, and the intricacy in the frayed ends of the ropes are cleanly sculpted.
Al Hameli has found it tough to exhibit his work here, but did include a panoramic shot in the recent The Sultans of Silver group exhibition at The Empty Quarter gallery in Dubai International Finance Centre. He remains committed to his craft, however: "Digital has overcome film because it's easier - you shoot 300 or 400 frames and come back and just pick a few. But with these cameras because it costs a lot each time you click the shutter, you have to be precise."
To see more of his work, go to www.nasseralhameli.com.