The Arab Image Foundation (AIF) works at the intersection of photography, art, research and preservation. The organisation is an independent structure based in Beirut that highlights photography from the region while providing an open, trans-disciplinary space and a laboratory for new ideas around this artistic practice. The AIF has been collecting, studying and activating photography from the Middle East and North Africa for the last 20 years, and many of the 500,000 items in its collection have a long, complex and fascinating history. This is the first in a series of special features presenting photographs from the AIF’s exceptional collection.
What is a photograph and how is it important? In 1839, photography was introduced to the world as an invention and a new experience, something precious and relatively rare, but since then it has evolved to become an enduring feature of our daily lives, most notably with the emergence of smartphones and digital photography. In light of the endless possibilities offered by photography, questions about this artistic medium, which at first sight seem quite simple, now have a multitude of responses.
We live in an era in which digital media invades our daily lives, capturing our attention and profoundly influencing our behaviour and ways of seeing. Although photographs have become universally
producible and shareable, the history of this medium of representation remains extremely relevant to our existence. The AIF endeavours to explore and understand the photographs in its custody not simply in terms of their visual content, but also in terms of what they communicate as three-dimensional objects.
Photographs are more than two-dimensional images and bearers of visual clues to a possible lived reality. They are also bodies, objects that give us a detailed insight into the evolution of photographic processes. Photo-objects are material witnesses to the historical, geographic and socio-economic contexts in and through which images exist. They provide a technical, cultural and artistic history of the medium
The AIF views its photographs as stratified bodies. Comparable to the change over time of our own morphologies and of the epidermal structure of the skin, these physically heterogeneous photographic bodies show that images continue to live, while presenting layers of memory inscribed into their skin. In their superposition, these strata make up the body and memory of the photograph to form an object that extends across time and space. The images featured here come from 12 different AIF collections, and through their display formats and plastic qualities, they reveal to the viewer, first, the malleability and reproducibility of the medium.
Also, each image bears witness to a photographer’s aesthetic, whether it’s a decision to retouch and refine features with a pencil, apply a red mask to lighten a face or enlarge, colour and frame a positive print. In their smaller, cut-out formats, photographs become practical and lightweight, passing with ease from hand to hand, to eventually end up in a photo album.
The final layers of a photograph attest to the fragility of an object that is sensitive to both light and the vagaries of time. As the image fades, the chemicals continue to react to moisture and light, interacting with the photographic referents. In this manner, they create new images that are removed from the photographed reality, revealing the temporal and plastic aspects of the material.
Ultimately, the sensitive object never stops recording the marks and scars that comprise its memory and write its story. The photograph lives on, in other hands or seen through other eyes. Even if an image is forgotten, it may one day be rediscovered and perceived in an entirely new light. Between image, body and object, photographs hold immense value, as fragile witnesses to our personal and collective histories.