When Latif Al Ani visited the Sharjah Art Foundation for the opening of his retrospective in March, he stood graciously in front of his photographs as the crowd fanned out around him. The National photographer snapped a picture of him looking almost pleasantly surprised, iPhone in hand.
It is an uncanny echo of one from the mid-1950s, of a much younger Al Ani, hair a bit smoother but moustache still in place, standing in the north of Iraq. He looks off into the distance, and hanging around his neck, where the iPhone is now, is his Rolleiflex camera.
The younger Al Ani could not have predicted the changes to his native Iraq in the 60 years between these images. He was one of the first photographers in Iraq and helped to establish the field during Iraq’s so-called Golden Age.
Chronicling life and society in Iraq
After the revolution of 1958, the country took control of much of its oil revenue and embarked on a series of modernising projects, building infrastructure across the country and inviting major architects such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier to submit designs. Culture prospered as well. The Baghdad Group for Modern Art showed its striking, intense paintings in the capital, working alongside poets and critics who gave voice to the people.
The 1960s was Al Ani’s golden age too. Born in 1932 in Karbala, Al Ani worked as an intern in 1953 at the Iraq Petroleum Company, where he recorded the company’s projects for its two newspapers, Ahl al Naft (People of Oil) and Iraq Petroleum. His time there helped to take his photography from a hobby into an art form.
“I was interested in the social and human life of the Iraqi people,” he says. “That’s what I sought to document.”
His photographs chronicled life and society in Iraq as a site of modernity’s contrasts: old meets new, East meets West. Even his chiaroscuro style, with its contrasts between black and white, seemed to show a society that was joyously reconciling contrasts and creating new ways of living.
He also carved out a role for photography in the new republic. In 1960, he founded the photography department at the Ministry of Education, and later became director of the photography department of the government’s Iraqi News Agency. But by the 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was in power, and the peaceful, prosperous Iraq receded.
Many of the places he photographed no longer exist. Al Ani says people are surprised at the images: “The time and the place have an impact on the reactions at exhibitions.”
'History is important to document'
He stopped taking photographs in 1979, after the Baath party placed restrictions on photography. During the Iran-Iraq War, it was dangerous to be on the street with a camera, and he reportedly turned against his former metier, calling the thought of taking photographs in that context “revulsive”. Since then his work has been showcased in Iraqi magazines, and for the most part has existed in boxes of negatives in Baghdad.
That all changed in 2015, when the Ruya Foundation, an Iraqi cultural foundation, staged an exhibition of his photographs for the Iraqi Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and interest in his work picked up internationally.
Now, his photographs have come to the Sharjah Art Foundation in his largest show since the 1960s: Latif Al Ani: Through the Lens 1953-1979, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation.
With the events that followed that time in Iraq, for many, the resonance of his works has shifted from formal beauty to an importance in witnessing moments in history.
“The second you capture an image it cannot be retaken, so it’s important to document. Regardless of whether it’s good or not, it’s important to keep it for the future generations to see it. It’s a history and history is important to document,” says Al Ani.
These images show scenes of Iraq’s once-relaxed urban life and the changes it was undergoing: men and women strolling through cities, as large, curved cars go past. A man in a protective mask welds metal on a pipeline project, which looms in large, Bauhaus-like circles behind him. An American couple visit the ruins of Ctesiphon as a man in traditional robes strums an instrument in the foreground.
Among the images of modernisation, there are also images of the past and Iraq’s tribal diversity. A silversmith from the Mandaean religious minority polishes a bowl in his small, darkly lit shop. Yazidis, in woollen caps with long braids hanging down, smile for the camera. Other photographs reflect his travels, giving a description to the word “cosmopolitan” that is often associated with this period.
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He published a series about American society in Baghdad and another about the Germans. His exhibitions travelled too: his first show, in 1963, went across the United States, and later to Cairo, Damascus, Amman and Jerusalem.
Today, he says he has “mixed feelings” about the resurgence of interest in his work, underlining, however, that he is appreciative of the exhibitions.
“Photography isn’t just about having a camera. It’s also about having an eye for it, a perspective and the work that you do in the dark room,” he says. “You can imagine that these are images that are taken almost 60 years ago and it still looks good.”
Latif Al Ani: Through the Lens 1953-1979 is at the Sharjah Art Foundation until June 16. See sharjahart.org/sharjah-art-foundation