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The founding father of Iraqi photography gets his first London show

Stolen head that was not retrieved, Hatra c.1960s by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation

Showing a cosmopolitan Golden Age in Iraq from the 1950s-1980, Latif Ali Ani's work fell into obscurity for years but is now enjoying a well-deserved rediscovery

“I lived there, I grew up there, and I loved it very much,” Latif Al Ani has said of his home, Baghdad. “All of it has been devastated, and most of it has vanished.”

Known as the founding father of Iraqi photography, Al Ani captured the country in its cosmopolitan Golden Age from the late 1950s to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Employed by the Iraqi Petroleum Company in the 1950s, he went on to found the photography department in the Iraqi government’s Ministry of Information and Guidance in 1960, and to become the head of photography at the Iraqi News Agency in the 1970s. 

Making many photographic tours of Iraq during his image-making career, Al Ani documented the social, industrial and agricultural life of the country. He was the first photographer to shoot aerial views of Iraq and, he says, was “the only one in Iraq who knew how to develop colour photos” when he joined the government.

In the 1960s and 70s he enjoyed international success, working across the Middle East, Europe and the United States, having solo exhibitions across the Middle East, as well as participating in group shows internationally. He stopped taking photographs after the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, however, and much of his archive was destroyed during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; throughout his career, he says, he felt compelled to record a life which he feared would soon be torn away.

“The fear that I had is what we are living today,” Al Ani told Tamara Chalabi in an interview included in Hatje Cantz’s monograph Latif Al Ani. “It started with the revolution of 1958. This past is being deleted; it has been deleted.

“I felt there would be no stability. Men were eaten up and newcomers came. Pandora’s box was opened and ignorant people came to rule, who had no culture or understanding of the power they held. Fear was a major motive to document everything as it was. I did all that I could to document, to safeguard that time.”

US couple in Ctesiphon, 1965 by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation

More recently Al Ani’s work has been rediscovered, with images from his remaining archive included in the Iraq Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and Hatje Cantz publishing his first monograph in 2017, which went on to win the Historical Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles. Now The Coningsby Gallery is bringing his work to London for the first time, in an exhibition organised by Chalabi – who is chair and co-founder of The Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, the NGO responsible for the Iraqi Pavilion at Venice since 2013.

“I am delighted to be able to restore attention to Latif Al Ani,” Chalabi says, “and the dedicated work he produced for so many years before falling into obscurity.”

The Ruya Foundation presents Latif Al Ani at The Coningsby Gallery from 04 December-16 December www.coningsbygallery.com The monograph Latif Al Ani is published by Hatje Cantz, priced €45 www.hatjecantz.de

Lady in the Eastern Desert, 1961 by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation

Al Aqida, High School, Baghdad, 1961 by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation

Al Malak, Baghdad, 1964 by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation

Building the Darbandikhan Dam 1962 by Latif Al Ani © The artist and the Arab Image Foundation, Courtesy the Ruya Foundation