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Baghdad through Latif al-Ani's Lens

Baghdad through Latif al-Ani's Lens

[View of Rasheed Street with the Mijan Mosque (circa 1350) and the cylindrical white Burj Abboud by architects Abdullah Ihsan Kamil and Rifat Chadirji (1955), 1960s. Photo by Latif el-Ani/Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation.] [View of Rasheed Street with the Mijan Mosque (circa 1350) and the cylindrical white Burj Abboud by architects Abdullah Ihsan Kamil and Rifat Chadirji (1955), 1960s. Photo by Latif el-Ani/Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation.]

Latif al-Ani, born in 1932 in Baghdad, was a member of the photography unit at the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) between 1954 and 1960. His photographs were frequently published in the IPC publication Ahl el-Naft (People of Oil). In 1960 he went on to found the photography department at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and to head the official Iraqi News Agency. He photographed throughout Iraq until the mid-1970s when political considerations curtailed his work. 

This selection of Latif al-Ani's photographs of Baghdad in the 1950s and 60s was chosen from the collection held at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. A much larger collection of his work was lost during looting in Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003.

We asked Jala Makhzoumi and Mona Damluji to comment on these photographs. Below are their insightful ressponses.

Jala Makhzoumi:

Rasheed Street (شارع الرشيد) is the invisible link that ties together several of this selection of Latif al-Ani’s photographs of Baghdad. This was the first “straight” street in the medieval city, part of a campaign to modernize Baghdad during the reign of Madhat Pasha. In the decades that followed, the street was widened, its façade colonnaded with shops on the ground floor and offices and hotels occupying the upper two. Rasheed Street became the commercial, business and financial hub of Baghdad throughout the first half of the twentieth century. What remained of the medieval city, narrow alleyways, courtyard houses, schools and bathhouses lay hidden behind the fashionable street façade, a historic fabric that was allowed to decay because it was deemed “unmodern.”

Latif al-Ani’s photographs capture the historical layers of Rasheed Street, the juxtaposition of contrasting architectural expressions that came to embody changing aesthetic preferences. The oldest structure, the Mirjan Mosque (جامع مرجان) (1356) with its three brick domes and single minaret appears in the foreground of one image facing two modern buildings, Philip Hurst’s Rafidain Bank (بنك الرافدين) (1953) to the right and Dunkel William’s Central Bank (البنك المركزي) to the left. Bank Street, off Rasheed, is captured in another image, a veritable celebration of the International Style that came to influence pioneers of Iraqi modern architecture. In another photo, the historic mosque stands alongside another iconic building, the cylindrical white Burj Abboud (برج عبّود) by architects Abdullah Ihsan Kamil and Rifat Chadirji (1955). The juxtaposition of the historic and the modern captured in al-Ani’s photos reflects the dynamic mood of a city negotiating its past and planning for a prosperous future.

The earliest memory I have of Rasheed Street are of my grandfather’s office, close to the Tigris Palace, a fashionable hotel at the time. I have faint recollections of visits to the Fatto Pharmacy and the McKenzie English Bookshop, the largest in the city, looking through teahouse windows at shining samovars and fine porcelain teapots. I recall the excitement of visits to the suqs, rays of light filtering from the ceiling, the noise and sheen of the copper bazar and outings to the Rasheed Street cinemas. By the late 1960s the street had lost much of its commercial vibrancy, replaced by Sa’doun Street (شارع السعدون). One by one, offices, clinics, shops and cinemas moved out to Sadoun; the straight street was no longer fashionable.

At either end of Rasheed Street, the location where the north and south gates of the medieval city once stood, two important urban nodes developed, respectively the Maidan Bab al Mu’adham (ميدان باب المعظّم), and the Bab al Sharji (باب الشرجي). The northern Maidan evolved into a transportation terminal for municipal buses and an inclusive public space. The southern one came to be planned as a traffic junction/square of unprecedented scale, Sahat al Tahrir (ساحة التحرير), Liberation Square (circa 1960). Two images in this selection are dedicated to Tahrir, one of which shows the Hurriya Monument (نصب الحرّيه) that defines the eastern edge of the square. Architect Rifaat Chadirji designed the monument and Iraq’s foremost artist, Jawad Salim, the bronze sculptures. East of the Hurriya Monument was the Hadiqat al Umma (حديقة الأمّه), previously Hadiqat Malik Ghazi (حديقة الملك غازي), the largest municipal park in the city and equally a facet of a modernizing city. The beautiful sculpture by Khaled al Rahhal, entitled Umuma (الأمومه), Motherhood, adorns the entrance to the park, also photographed by al-Ani.

Following the 1958 revolution, Tahrir Square came to be seen as a symbol of the Iraqi people’s struggle for liberty and self-rule; the theme of Jawad Salim’s bronze statues of the Hurriya Monument. The post-revolution euphoria infected all, intellectuals and artists, teachers and lawyers. Tahrir Square came to personify the dream come true, a place of celebrations, but also for mob killings and, two decades later, public hangings. Traffic junction/squares like Tahrir became a favored planning tool in Baghdad and in other Arab cities because of their impressive scale, monumentality and their potential as signifiers of post-colonial nation building. This is evident in the names given to these urban landscapes, for example, Damascus’ Sahat al Umawiyeen (ساحة الأمويين), Beirut’s Sahat al Shohada (ساحة الشهداء), Amman’s Sahat Faisal (ساحة فيصل) and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which precedes Baghdad’s Tahrir. As nationalist government gave way to dictatorship, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square lost much of its earlier socio-political significance. Recently, Tahrir Square is once more in the news from Baghdad. Mass demonstrations protesting rampant state corruption, demanding the most basic rights of living in the city have taken to this iconic square. Whether these latest demonstrations herald a revival of the optimism and spirit of solidarity captured by al-Ani’s photographs is yet to be seen.

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Mona Damluji:

 “I prefer the daily life…the beautiful life without violence.”

-- Latif al-Ani

Through Latif al-Ani’s camera lens, we witness a modern city on the rise. It is difficult not to read these serene black and white photographs of the mid-twentieth century Iraqi capital against the surfeit of present-day images of Baghdad. Unlike the works of contemporary photojournalists, which narrow in on a city besieged by barriers and bombings, al-Ani’s photos feature modernist buildings and broad avenues that characterized urban change during Iraq’s oil driven development boom of the 1950s and 60s.

The selection featured here transports us to Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the 1958 July Revolution, which ousted the British-installed royal family and ushered in a new era of development under the socialist and later Ba’athist-led Republic of Iraq. During the subsequent two years (1959-60), al-Ani documented the country using the Roleiflex camera supplied to him by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). The protégé of the British photographer Jack Percival, al-Ani defined his early career through his work as a public relations photographer for the British-controlled oil company. His photographs were featured regularly on the monthly covers and pages of IPC’s twin English and Arabic magazines, Iraq Petroleum and Ahl Al-Naft (“People of Oil”), which circulated in tens of thousands of households throughout Iraq, the MENA region, and Europe.

While on assignment for the IPC Photographic Unit between 1954-60, al-Ani was trained to shoot photographs from the air. Initially, the company used small airplanes and helicopters primarily for transporting its executives and personnel between Baghdad and the oil fields. Then with the establishment of its public relations office in the 1950s, a second key purpose was identified and the oil company’s signature aerial photograph – exemplified here by al-Ani’s 1959 photo of the Rafidain Bank building foregrounding the Tigris and sprawling neighborhoods beyond – was born.

The British-controlled oil company in Iraq endured increasing public scrutiny and criticism in the aftermath of Iran’s nationalization of their oil industry; and so, the IPC considered its public relations arm a critical piece of company operations in Iraq. Once the Iraq Development Board was established in 1952 to channel seventy percent of state oil revenues into modernization projects, IPC embraced every opportunity to publicize images of Baghdad as a spectacular modern city built by those same revenues.

Thus the IPC played a powerful role in shaping what would be a dominant aesthetic approach to documenting modern Iraq. The company provided its staff photographers and filmmakers unmitigated access to a bird’s (or more precisely an oil company’s) eye view. IPC’s British and Arab photographers used the aerial vantage point to capture the impressive scale and vast extent of new infrastructural, urban, and architectural projects underway in Baghdad and beyond. As a result, whether shot from the air or an elevated vantage point, al-Ani’s photos reproduce a top-down perspective, echoing the hegemonic oversight that the company and government exercised over Iraq’s land, labor and built environments; or, in other words, this photographic practice made it feasible for the average reader to see like a state or corporation.

Looking at the images from his years with the IPC Photographic Unit (here, 1959-60), we can see how al-Ani’s frame replicates the approach of a planner’s gaze. The effect is striking, particularly in his image of the Mamoun District housing project designed by the modernist planner Constantinos Doxiadis. Here, our perspective hovers above the ground. We are removed from the street level and survey the geometric rows of white cube construction from a distance. As a result, we observe the built environment through the visitor’s gaze yet remain detached from the human geographies entangled with this modernist architecture. The exception here is a peek at hanging laundry included the corner of the frame, which acts as a sly hint at the photographer’s interest in capturing social dimensions of modernization.

Indeed, as is evident in his photographs from the 1960s, al-Ani made a significant shift in his approach and composition. His photos from this period come back to earth, and his camera plays inventively with different angles: low-to-the-ground (“Feast Day” and “Accordion Player”) over-the-shoulder (“Shopping in Baghdad”) and eye-to-eye (“Prayer at the Mosque”). Our gaze moves dramatically, no longer suspended above but rather walking through the city. Al-Ani’s career move in the summer of 1960, when he left the Petroleum Company to found the Photography Department in the Ministry of Culture, explains this change. He continued his work as a magazine photographer for the government until he retired from the ministry in 1977. This collection of al-Ani’s photographs memorializes an important era of oil modernization and urban transformation in Iraq. Yet these images only bring us into the city as far as the oil company and state would want us to see; and so, the darker side of development remains hidden from view.

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