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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

50 years’ change in Lebanon caught in landmark images

Fouad Elkhoury’s photographs reflect on war, peace and transitions

‘Chiyah living stairs’ (1995). Courtesy Kaph Books
‘Chiyah living stairs’ (1995). Courtesy Kaph Books

On an expanse of rocky ground, dotted with small patches of scrub, fragments of train track, long since stained brown with rust, run horizontally along the earth before curving suddenly up towards the blue sky. Amid a peaceful landscape, the remains of an old railway line, twisted and torn off at both ends, resemble relics from a forgotten era, as ancient and incongruous as dinosaur bones. A second section of rail stands on its side like a skeletal picket fence, mirroring the framing curves of the mountains on the horizon.

This striking photograph, taken in the Bekaa Valley in 1998, in many ways distils the blend of insight and artistry to be found in Passing Time, a new book featuring 160 photographs by Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury. Taken in Lebanon between 1967 and 2017, they create a multi-faceted portrait of a country changing and evolving over 50 years.

It took eight months to select the images in Passing Time from an archive of more than 50,000 negatives. Elkoury collaborated with Lebanese art historian and photographer Gregory Buchakjian and writer, editor and actor Manal Khader, both of whom provide accompanying essays reflecting on the significance and nature of ­Elkoury’s work.

The result is a comprehensive yet necessarily subjective reflection on Lebanon. In particular, it provides insight into the shifting urban fabric of Beirut and the ways in which it was forever altered by the ­1975-90 civil war and subsequent reconstruction – a process that, for the photographer, was synonymous with destruction.

Born in Paris in 1952, Elkoury is a self-taught photographer who grew up in Lebanon before moving to live in France in the mid-1980s, during the civil war. The photographs selected for this book – the most comprehensive collection of his work to date – mark his time in Lebanon before and during the early years of the war, followed by his return to the country in 1991.

1995, Solidere State. Photo by Fouad Elkhoury.
1995, Solidere State. Photo by Fouad Elkhoury.

Elkoury’s most famous series, Beirut City Centre, dates from this period, when he was commissioned to photograph the ruins of downtown Beirut along with five prominent international photographers, including Robert Frank.

Passing Time reveals the continuity of style and subject matter that extends throughout Elkoury’s career, revealing his fascination with the changing architecture of the city and the traces left by war – a subject that interests him far more deeply than the mechanics of conflict itself.

“Fouad Elkoury is not a war photographer, as he is sometimes categorised,” writes Khader in her introduction. “Elkoury is a photographer of intimacy.” From photographs of his siblings in the mountains of Lebanon in the 1960s, to a stunning black-and-white shot capturing the pulverised remains of the Kitkat nightclub in 1991, its chequered floor covered with rubble and rainwater that reflects the open sky, his images are haunting because of the timeless emotion they convey.

The opening images, which include a shot of his brother diving into clear water, show that, even as a child, Elkoury had an eye for composition and a grasp of the significance of a singular moment. Having qualified as an architect, his later images betray a fascination with buildings. Unlike the images of a photojournalist, who sets out to capture moments of high drama, Elkoury’s is concerned with the traces humans leave on the landscape and the quiet moments that convey a more lasting truth.

“Elkoury is a seeker of emotions, sensations, of one angle or viewpoint countered by another,” write Buchakjian. “Many of his strongest images have one thing in common: they are inhabited by people telling stories.”

One such photograph, taken in 1982, captures a woman in a white dress carrying bags of shopping across the Green Line dividing East and West Beirut. The desolation of the landscape around her – ­littered with fragments of rubble, lampposts pockmarked with bullet holes and trees whose branches have been blown off – is accentuated by the delicacy of her shoes, white stilettos with a fragile ankle strap more suitable for a party than a war zone.

It is moments of vulnerability or individuality such as this that characterise Elkoury’s photographs of the war years. Between 1977 and 1985 he travelled all over the country, capturing women on a peaceful picnic in Baalbek, the war seemingly a million miles away on a sunny summer’s day, or the pristine snowy slopes of mountains surrounding the Bekaa Valley, or the derelict remains of buildings in ­Downtown, their empty windows gaping in facades disfigured by war.

‘Children running in Baskinta, Lebanon’ (1974). Photo by Fouad Elkhoury
‘Children running in Baskinta, Lebanon’ (1974). Photo by Fouad Elkhoury

His images of Downtown mark the beginning of a three-part story. Those taken during the war and in its immediate aftermath reveal the eerie beauty of the buildings as they were after more than a decade of conflict.

In the mid-1990s, the development company Solidere began its reconstruction of Downtown. A massive programme of demolition paved the way for the project, essentially the total destruction and reinvention of the historic heart of the city. A short text by Elkoury – who is known to be shy and for the most part declines to discuss his work – reveals the obsessive passion that drove him to document this destruction in an attempt to save what he could of the past while holding to account “the people who stole Beirut from me”.

Between 1994 and 1997 (when he was prevented from continuing by Solidere’s security guards), Elkoury visited Downtown every day. The speed of the demolition left him racing to keep up. “Whereas I had refused to cover the front during the war years, preferring day-to-day life, paradoxically here, when there was no war on – quite the contrary, these were heady years when each week a new nightclub opened – I had to work at top speed,” he recalls.

The result is a series of photographs that show land flattened by bulldozers, the past almost totally erased. One of the most striking images from this period, entitled Solidere State, captures a block of concrete inscribed with the Arabic word “Beirut”, placed in the foreground. Behind it, a wild dog runs across an empty expanse of land. In the distance, a few buildings remain standing amid a sea of flattened earth.

A final series taken in Downtown, shot with Solidere’s permission in 2009 and 2010, completes the trilogy. These photographs capture reflections in the endless expanses of glass that replaced Beirut’s old stone buildings. Confusing the viewer with two images merged into one, they capture soulless lobbies and empty shops overlaid with reflections of road, sky and a few lonely trees. With Downtown’s original streets and landmarks destroyed, Elkoury mimics Solidere’s approach, replacing names with numbers. The photographs in this series lack his usual evocative titles, instead carrying names such as Taken from Lot 967 or View of Lot 961.

Not all of Elkoury’s photographs are immediately striking as masterpieces of subject matter or composition. But, as Buchakjian notes in his essay, even those that might appear mundane at first glance have a story to tell, many of them documenting landmarks in Lebanon that no longer exist, from cinemas and nightclubs to restaurants and art galleries.

Like Elkoury’s photograph of the old train tracks, which ­conveys so much about Lebanon’s history and the war that left its infrastructure in tatters and its railway line in fragments, never to be repaired, these photographs combine a sense of loss and nostalgia with an ability to spot beauty in unlikely places.

A powerful collection that reflects on memory, history and transition, Passing Time is a moving, thought-provoking and visually stunning exploration of Lebanon over half a century of swift and irreversible change.

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Read more:

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Art brings 'peace' to battle-scarred Lebanon districts

Zena El Khalil on how her exhibition at Lebanon’s first museum will lead to forgiveness, compassion and love

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