Tales from the histories of photos

BEIRUT: The final work visitors find while visiting Sfeir-Semler gallery these days, a 2017 piece called “Archaeology,” is based on a ruined photographic negative. Taken early in the 20th century by Antranick Anouchian (1908-1991), the lost photo captured an athletic male figure, posing one foot atop a ball.

What’s visible of the figure is nude. By the time Akram Zaatari found it in the collection of Tripoli-based collector Mohsen Yammine, though, water damage had ruined the glass plate. To make “Archaeology,” the artist enlarged the image many times, so that the plate’s greatly obscured figure is nearly life-sized.

Yammine deposited his collection with the Arab Image Foundation in 1998 and Zaatari recalls the excitement of uncovering the 10x14 centimeter glass negative.

“I’d been interested in nudity in photography in this part of the world,” Zaatari told The Daily Star.

“It’s the same year I interviewed [Armenian-Egyptian photographer] Van Leo about this woman who came to his studio and asked him to photograph her nude [the subject of Zaatari’s video ‘Her + Him Van Leo.’]

“You don’t know if he’s fully nude or not. The negative aged and reacted to humidity around it in such a way that it developed a funguslike texture that was beautiful in itself, which had nothing to do with the image recorded on the negative.

“I said, ‘I’m definitely gonna take this image with me’ and Fouad Elkoury or Samir Mohdad, whoever was there with me, said, ‘Yeah but the image is hardly visible.’ When I tried to include it in a book later, one discussion was always dominant. ‘Are you attracted to the photo because it’s a good photograph when contextualized within the history of photography, or are you attracted to the beautiful effect, to what happened to the photograph?’

“We never used this picture at the Arab Image Foundation, actually. It was rarely published ... never exhibited,” he added.

“I’ve called it ‘Archaeology’ because I’m transforming it into an object that’s commenting on the initial discovery, mixing excitement with disappointment. ... It’s enlarged to reflect the excitement of the archaeologist.”

Immateriality is the thing these days. Streaming services are replacing film reels and cinemas. Digital imaging has usurped traditional photo development. Some social media platforms designed to share “photos” delete communications soon after they’re received.

Future generations of consumers may be surprised to learn that “photography” was once an industrial process involving chemicals and paper.

“The Third Window,” Zaatari’s solo at Sfeir-Semler, doesn’t betray much nostalgia or sentimentality, yet it is profoundly invested in the historical materiality of photography.

After describing how he found the negative at the basis of “Archaeology,” he shared a more involved story of how the work was made.

The negative was cut into eight pieces, which were individually enlarged, rejoined on Photoshop and printed on glass. First the glass had to be treated with organic (pig or duck) gelatin that’s melted and carefully poured on to prevent bubbles forming. A hacked Epson printer was used to move the image to the gelatin-coated glass plate, which was sealed by a layer of resin.

This mingling of digital technology and artisanal workmanship was used in creating other works in “The Third Window.”

While based on damaged film negatives “Against Photography,” 2017, is the least “figurative” piece in this show. Its 48 discrete, landscape-shaped rectangles were made using a 3D scanner ordinarily used to record reliefs at archaeological sites.

It’s the digital answer to a plasticine mold, he mused. “The mold is reprinted on an aluminum plate the sort you’d use at your print-making facility marrying premodern and high-tech, digital industries.”

Several of the works in “The Third Window” were staged last year during “Against Photography,” Zaatari’s solo at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). The Sfeir-Semler show doesn’t restage the MACBA exhibition as much as pose a caveat to it.

“The original exhibition emerged from [curators] Bartomeu Mari and Hiuwai Chu’s interest in an historical exhibition about [the AIF]. ... Sometime in 2016 they decided this history should be told by an artist ... and they gave me this task.

“I started to research in the AIF archive from scratch and decided to use mutilated and destroyed objects that maybe still haven’t been processed at the foundation because ... they’re too unconventional to be reduced to an image and put on the website. They’re hanging in suspension, waiting, not even numbered in some cases. ... So I decided to enlarge them, to make them occupy history.

“The MACBA exhibition has a clear narrative, with events falling on a timeline. In 1999 Walid Raad and Yto Barada joined AIF, for instance, and in 2001 Fouad Elkoury traveled on a research trip to Egypt. [The MACBA] exhibition was trying to make a conceptual exhibition work within the requirements of curators who wanted an historical exhibition.” For “The Third Window,” “I decided to focus on my favorite pieces [from which] you really learn from phenomena that happened to photographs.

“In the first gallery, for instance, is ‘History,’ eight photos from former works, in which you see portraits that are altered or damaged by time. ... The oldest is from 1993, a self-portrait that I made by destroying the negative in order for it to be seen as violently mutilated.

“The Third Window” is interested in the history of photos as objects liberating the works from the need to relate human history. It relieves photos of their figurative obligations.

One piece in The Third Window captures scenes from archaeology, as the term is conventionally understood. “An Extraordinary Event,” 2017, comprises a series of eight archival photos from an Ottoman excavation. Each centers on a Phoenician sarcophagus that had been uncovered in Sidon. In each, the subject of the photo has been altered, appearing to glow.

The piece gestures to “Father and Son,” a long-term project of Zaatari’s based on an archaeological dig the functionary Osman Hamdi Bey led in the now-Lebanese coastal city.

“The son is Eshmun Azar II, a Phoenician king from 300 B.C.,” he said. “A private digger named Derigillo unearthed his tomb ... in 1855 and sold it to Duc de Luynes, a French notable who donated it to the Louvre, where it was installed.

“The sarcophagus ... proved that Phoenicians were not tribal nomads but a people who left a recorded history saying who they were, what they believed and situating them in a network of power in the region.

“The Ottoman Empire later became conscious of the importance of archaeology and sovereignty. Thanks to Osman Hamdi Bey, who excavated Saida’s necropolis, the sultan decreed it forbidden to traffic in archaeology. Without this law, the necropolis would have been excavated by someone else and would likely have ended up in France as well.”

Because of this Ottoman decree, Eshmun Azar I, who was excavated later, ended up in Istanbul.

“‘Father and Son’ tells the story of archaeological practices, of the Ottomans becoming conscious of how archaeology related to sovereignty. The project aims to reproduce both sarcophagi and convince the French and the Turks to feature them in the same space as the original.

“So the father’s sarcophagus would always be shown with that of the son, and that of the son would always be shown alongside that of the father. One would be genuine, the other an identical copy.

“We’re lucky, because when the Ottoman excavation was carried out there was photography, so we have records of it. We’re also lucky because Osman Hamdi Bey produced a manuscript about Saida and the whole excavation process. It’s really detailed. He tells us how, after excavating this particular sarcophagus, he thought it necessary to take pictures of it, so he brought [his] camera. ... It even documents the desire to take pictures.

“Hamdi Bey tells stories about how people are so busy digging in their own homes, hoping to find treasure. He talks about the importance of the preservation of archaeology, and about the lack of education among the working class because they are damaging archaeology without knowing that they’re doing so.

“Hamdi Bey never studied archaeology himself. He was an artist, a painter who loved archaeology and sculpture and ... was well-placed in court to have influence over the sultan. He commissioned the Ottoman beaux arts academy, the archaeology museum and these excavations.

“I like that, the fact that he’s an artist trying to find his way into archaeology. You find that in his blunders as well.”

Akram Zaatari’s The Third Window is up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery though Jan 4. For more information, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 06, 2018, on page 12.




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