Firsts, Lasts and In Between: Art in Noor Ali Rashid’s Documentary Practice
A documentary photograph may seem a simple, objective rendering of reality, its success largely attributed to its mechanical, technical capabilities of production. Yet, a photographer’s calculative decisions are what makes it successful; firstly, the decision to be present, followed by methodological considerations such as what and who are the subjects, where to stand, what elements to include and, of equal importance, what to exclude, and how to expose the scene. What makes a good documentary photograph has less to do with the camera’s ability to record an event; rather it lies in the photographer’s artful conveyance of the sentiments experienced at the event. It is this ‘art’ – a subjective form of expression – that Noor Ali Rashid relentlessly pursued throughout his 60-year photographic career.
When Noor Ali Rashid arrived in Dubai in 1958, the local community of professional and amateur photographers was in its infancy. Foreign-born tourists, political agents, and surveyors had photographed the region’s development, yet there were few from what is now the UAE. Resources such as film, paper, and chemicals for processing, developing, and printing were not readily available to Noor Ali Rashid. This complicated matters yet likely fuelled his passion for photography. Others like Noor Rashid learned their skills and cultivated their trade abroad. Several traveled to and from Pakistan and India, both of which had established studio traditions that were informed by established cultures of cinema. The first portrait studio opened in Dubai in the late 1950s, and concurrently snapshot photography began to enter into the daily lives of the general population. By the third quarter of the 20th century, photography occupied a place in the social consciousness of Emirati life. Photography en masse proposed an evolution from the region’s aural and calligraphic traditions as methods of storytelling and historical recording, to the establishment of photo-visual methodologies of transmitting culture. While it may be difficult to quantitatively measure Noor Ali Rashid’s influence in pioneering photographic practice in the UAE, the self-taught photographer was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time. The significance of his legacy deepens with ever-increasing historical reflection.
Largely unencumbered by assignments, Noor Ali Rashid was guided by his own interests and a personal curiosity to photograph his local environment and further afield. Luck and careful planning contributed to the success of his work. His disarming nature, sense of humor, joie de vivre, and fluency in six languages helped facilitate easy access to diverse populations. From his studies of everyday people on the street, to his celebrated images of royalty and celebrities, he photographed the ordinary and extraordinary with equal dedication and sensitivity. In much of Noor Ali Rashid’s work, the subjects in his photographs are glancing at him, arresting their activity for a moment to knowingly take part in the theater of his photographic performance.
The beauty of photographing in the Gulf region is the intensity of the sun. Noor Ali Rashid mastered the use of strong shadows to construct bold shapes and geometric patterns of light and shade, such as in the image of a tanker framed by the Khalid Port Bridge in Sharjah in the 1960s. In other works, shadows of people outside of the image frame cast into compositions, suggesting broader audiences, or preludes to imminent events.
Rarely was an image taken by Noor Ali Rashid to be solely considered as a stand alone object. Rather, he believed the value of his work was in its abundance, though he could not have known the worth of its summation. Consider his photographs of life in the UAE and Oman: this large body of work consists of close-up portraits, images of royalty, aerial views, street photography, momentous achievements, and celebrations. They are his visualization of a complex socioeconomic structure in flux; a pictorial archive of how various activities and characteristics stood in relation to one another, amidst the backdrop of developing infrastructure and architecture. It occupies an important part of Noor Ali Rashid’s long-term documentary storytelling project, built and amassed over a period of time that happened to be full of transformation.
In light of the UAE’s recent sociopolitical beginnings and its subsequent rapid expansion in the second half of the 20th century, it is easy to fixate on its superlative ‘firsts’ and perceived ‘newness’, which documentary photographs such as Noor Ali Rashid’s can speculatively communicate and represent. At the time of his arrival in Dubai, photography itself remained an emblem of modern technology and progress, synchronously capable of capturing, proving, disseminating, and praising the country’s successes and reform. Noor Ali Rashid’s images of the sky, lit up as the electricity was switched on for the first time in Sharjah’s Al Zahra Square in the 1960s and, with an audience of curious onlookers, HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum ceremoniously tested out the first telephone at The Dubai Telephone Company in 1961, describe the emotions of the era. It was a time of excitement, pride, and anticipation.
Yet, Noor Ali Rashid’s photographs made in the first half of his career are not just about these first moments, they are about the last moments. Many of his images capture the end of an era; the dissolution of the Trucial States, eroding community traditions, patterns of commerce that were threatened – largely the result of modern industry, the rapid influx of diverse populations, and considerable boosts of local and foreign capital. His images of the bustling souqs and life on the water are, in a sense, rescuing these banal scenes from obscurity, of which many are now lost. Likewise, the photographs of the letter writer, the tobacco farmer, and the Bedouin soldier wearing a traditional kanjar – all close-up studio portraits, without actually being in the studio, their backgrounds lacking in much detail – sympathetically memorialize the professions that these men represent.
In addition to firsts and lasts, there are images that metaphorically communicate a time of transition. Tradition meets progress in his image of the Al Maktoum Bridge in the 1960s, where a camel caravan passes a modern car. To create the image of the newly built Threepence buildings in the 1960s, Noor Ali Rashid positioned himself to photograph the bold graphic lines of the streets as if they were conjoining in the distance, leading towards the newfound construction, or a metaphorical new frontier. The empty infrastructure to ‘somewhere’ similarly alludes to a bridge between old and new, rural and urban.
Photography was a way for Noor Ali Rashid to interactively and creatively participate in his surroundings, as opposed to simply documenting it. He was an important pioneer in what was then a newfound field of regional visual communication, his style and manner of photographing influencing subsequent practitioners in the UAE’s nascent photographic community. The archive he created, which is partly visible in this compilation of images that draw from the first half of his career, is an unprecedented contribution to the photographic art history from the region. His vision is best described as a series of fixed points of reference for us to consider evolving perceptions of cultural consciousness.
Shamsha Rashid and Sharjah Art Museum, eds. Lasting Impressions: Noor Ali Rashid (2014). Sharjah and Dubai: Sharjah Art Museum & Motivate Publishing.
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