Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Algerian photos: Lazhar Mansouri

One of the brilliant things about sharing stuff on your blog or Facebook or twitter or whatever is that the odd person will share things in return. For example:

I posted on twitter this photo I took, from inside the CD booklet that comes with the recent release from Sublime Frequencies, 1970s Algerian Folk & Pop. I posted about it here.

I just love this photo. First, it shows an Algerian teenage girl in a short skirt. Second, the girl has her arm around the boy, rather than the reverse. Finally, the pose looks so...natural.

Thanks to someone who noticed my twitter post of this photo, I have learned the name of the photographer: Lazhar Mansouri. Mansouri was a photographer who lived in the town of Aïn Beïda, in the Aurés mountains of eastern Algeria. He shot pictures of local townspeople in the studio he set up in the rear of a barbershop, between 1950 and 1980. (The population of Aïn Beïda in 1954 was 18,900; by 1977, 42,600.) 

Curator James Cavello culled a reported 10,000 negatives left by Mansouri and selected 120 of them to print. A collection of 50 (or 55?) photos toured the US in 2007, and it was reviewed in Art in America, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, among other venues. (And the collection has continued to tour elsewhere.) You can read more about Mansouri, see some photos, and read the reviews here. More photos, and a somewhat more interesting set, are here. Below are a couple samples.

Amazing, eh? I wish, however, that the photos were captioned. I have lots of questions, such as, are prostitutes among the subjects?

If you want to dig further, there is a book, which you could borrow on Interlibrary Loan (assuming you are at a university): Lazhar Mansouri: photographe algérien, by Lazhar Mansouri and Gina Abatti (Mazzotta, 2003).


Hammer said...

Hello Ted,

I worked as a professional photog for 15 years and know the ins-and-outs of this trade better than I do the back of my palm. There were times when I worked pro bono for a small studio in Amman, Jordan just to be allowed to see (and later, if lucky) use the stupendously great negative store that say, belonged to the father of the current owner of the studio. And the stash there was nothing less than a treasure trove.

Most of those negatives came in 6x11 inches format and usually these were taken by non-professional photographers who learned the trade by mere happenstance, just like in the case of Laxhar Mansouri; who's what some do refer to as a "populist photographer" in the trade, meaningly, he takes only photographs for commercial purposes like weddings, family portraits, formal paperwork photos, new-babies photos, sex workers' pictures (prostitutes use these to show street customer to make 'sure of the merchandise' as it's called here. I did myself take a bunch of these), etc..

I quit the whole thing because it became very expensive to keep and sold all of my equipment for 1/8th of their original price. Right now in Jordan, where I live, the same photos are laying somewhere in the choking black sooth of dust in a studio in dowtown Amman, or the popular Palestinian-majority district of Wihdat and yes, an exhibition can be made so easily of these negatives, but alas, no-one here is interested in these matters.

Note: there was a funny thing that I still recall about these negatives. The photographer or his assistant used to add 'heavy' retouches on the negative's unshiny side using a pencil and when I reprinted the negatives, I removed that layer with a special rubber to reveal some really ugly results to my amazement! So much that I started to take double prints of Before and After of each negative. It was fun.

Ted Swedenburg said...

Thanks, Hammer, you are always so generous with your comments. I hope someone goes hunting for negatives in Amman!

akram said...

would love to know more about the Amman studio. I worked a bit on researching Amman Studios for the Arab Image Foundation int he late 90s. I'd be happy to go again if this is something that is worth research and if this is something that the photographer is happy to do as well.

Ted Swedenburg said...

You'd have to ask Hammer directly where those negatives might be.

Hammer said...

@ Ted:

You're welcome. Your wonderful blog keeps getting more informing and it's you the one who should be thanked all the time for doing that, and more.


Well, Akram, it's so simple and never an inhibiting process to go, search, find, then fix some price for handling over these negatives, or simply it'd be some photographers giving them away for free if they're convinced in a right way about the reasons why they should do that to you. You need to understand (as you probably do), that Ammanites have a very sensitive nerve about exposing other people's private lives, but, I didn't face a lot of trouble convincing any of these studio owners of my good intent back at that time being a very good negotiator; something that comes with me, as they say, within my genes because when I want something, I do know how to get that something.

Studios in Amman (and, of course, other major towns in Jordan, like Zarqa, Irbid, Ajloun, Fuheis, Madaba, etc.), have a huge archive-worthy reservoir that is slowly being getting rid of: I am sure that since the advent of the horrible digital technology in and around the late 90's in Jordan, pro-photogs have gotten rid of thousands of these pristine negatives, threw them away, or sold them in flea-market pits where I did manage to find some. Still, and due to personal photography becoming a very popular habit for Jordanian society, many of these negatives can still be found in large numbers; especially the ones that come from the mid-60's up to the late-70's when photography became cheap and affordable to mostly all people. So, I am sure there are a ton of these waiting to be snatched after being 'snapped' years ago.

What do you think? 'Snap 'n' Snatch' does sound very snazzy, right? Jokes aside, I guess I can advise you on where and how to get these if you're interested. I am currently working as an interpreter, a translator, and I do write in some of Jordan's art magazines about music (Q0de.com), plus the occasional LP reissue collaboration (Right now, I am working on a still-to-remain-unannounced LP by a Parisian label on Lebanese music from 1959-1984), and between doing these, I surely can find the enough time to dedicate my efforts if you are serious about this matter, by all possible means.

E me at hythammer@gmail.com IYI.