Silvered faces

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Thursday 14 Mar 2024

On the occasion of Cairo Design Week, Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian revisits two photographers from the past

Bakr (photo: Nora Koloyan)
Mohamed Bakr (photo: Nora Koloyan)


At the opening of the Photopia exhibition “50 Years of Cinematic Portraits”, the sense of nostalgia was palpable. As I faced Shadia and Abdel-Halim Hafez hiding among the bushes at night, their duette Haga Ghariba (Something Strange) from Maabudet Al-Gamahir (The Enchanting Star, the 1967 silver screen classic to which both song and photograph belong) started playing in my head. The background music inside the hall was the one and only Egyptian Cinderella’s Ya wad ya te’il.

Film stills were never as important as cinematography, yet they can revive the good old days in ways that the films and television dramas they occasioned cannot. Thanks to Photopia Cairo, the Cairo and Alexandria Photo Weeks and now Cairo Design Week have spotlighted Egypt’s iconic photographers, opening up the incredibly rich archives not only of the journalists and studio artists but also the unit still specialists. After the great success of the exhibitions of Cairo photojournalist Farouk Ibrahim and Alexandria photographer Ahmed Badawi, with this exhibition, Photopia celebrated Mohamed Bakr, a living legend whose oeuvre is one of a kind.

Displayed on the walls of Photopia are over 60 film stills by Mohamed Bakr. They include some of Egyptian cinema’s most iconic features: the films of Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy, Ismail Yassin Tarzan (1958), Saghira al hobb (Too Young for Love, 1966), Al-Rusasa la Tazal fi Gaibi (The Bullet Is still in My Pocket, 1974), Doaa Al-Karawan (The Nightingale’s Prayer, 1959), Lusous laken zorafaa (Funny Thieves, 1968), Al-Raqessa wal Siyassi (The Dancer and the Politician, 1972), Afwah w Araneb (Mouths and Rabbits, 1977), and Ice cream in Gleem (1992).

One rare still was of Zeinat Sedki’s in Al-Kumsariyat al Fatenat (The Luscious Ticket Sellers, 1957).

“The idea came up during preparations for El Gouna Film Festival,” Photopia founder Marwa Abu Leila told me, “when the organisers were looking for a pioneer to honour and we thought of Mohamed Bakr, who carried on his father Hussein’s work as well as creating his legacy. Both the festival and the exhibition kept being postponed because of the war on Gaza, but here we are.”

The exhibition has 150 visitors per day. “We were supposed to close on 10 March, but because of the huge demand, the exhibition was extended till 6 April,” Abu Leila said. Younger people are especially keen, and they enjoy meeting Bakr and having him sign prints they bought; they are available in a range of editions and prices. He is present almost every day.

I had the opportunity to chat with Bakr himself while there, finding out all kinds of industry secrets. The first movie he captured, for which he earned a total of LE150, was Samara, starring Mohsen Sarhan and Tahia Carioca, in 1956. “I had been helping my father since 1952. I have around a million photos including my father’s work and this is my first exposure to the public. I hope it won’t be the last. It’s about time Egyptians found out about my father and me. What was taken behind the scenes is as important as the movie itself. For example, how many people can recognise Mohamed Karim, Helmi Rafla, and Togo Mizrahi on set?”

In 1948, as Bakr recalls, the great nationalist industrialist Talaat Harb himself appointed his father manager of Studio Misr. “We had a villa inside the studio that had five rooms with many wardrobes used especially to preserve films, papers and equipment. All Studio Misr productions, movies starring Umm Kulthoum and Naguib Al-Rihani, were photographed by my father.”

At any one time, Bakr would own over 25 cameras. “When we started shooting for colour films, we had to shoot the scenes in black and white too, so I would have assistants holding cameras loaded with different films.” He never had any problems capturing movie stars closely, while he approached President Gamal Abdel-Nasser with rather more fear than President Anwar Al-Sadat.

He studied the moving image to hone his art. “I would watch international movies at Metro and Rivoli cinemas, to update my photographic knowledge of how to do action stills. I got special cameras for that.” For that reason, directors would make him part of their crews, to the point that he often had too much work to do. When he worked on Salah Abu Seif’s 1977 El-Saqqa maat (The Water Carrier Is Dead), it was because the great director insisted.

One of his most challenging tasks was Shadi Abdel-Salam’s 1969 classic The Mummy. “It took 15 or 16 weeks to prepare for the shoots and we had to renew the contract over and over. Shadi and I spent a long time in the darkroom working on the concept; he wanted the photographed faces to look very close to ancient Egyptians. ‘I want them chocolate-coloured,’ he would say, and I challenged myself to make his wish come true, but it was no easy task.”  

Equally unforgettable was his work on filmmaker Hassan Al-Imam’s 1972 Khalli balak min Zouzou (Watch Out for Zouzou), starring Soad Hosni and Hussein Fahmi, which he says was a remarkably cosy experience thanks to the director’s spirit. Bakr worked on over 1000 movies, the last being Hassan and Morcos, starring Adel Imam and Omar Sharif, in 2008.

Mohamed Hussein Bakr was born in 1937. He started photographing movies with director Hassan Al-Seifi, supervised by Wahid Farid. In 1975 he created his team. He owns his father’s archive going back to 1933 when Hussein Bakr photographed Al-Warda Al-Beida (The White Flower) starring Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.


At the other end of town, the Reader’s Corner bookshop is holding an exhibition of work by the Armenian photographer Aram Alban (1883-1961), once photographer to the Queen of Belgium, inside the newly restored historic Tamara Haus on Gawad Hosny Street. Working from his studio at 17 Qasr Al-Nil Street, Alban made many a legendary picture. I was familiar with one photo of a blonde baby which used to be the main attraction in the studio window that I passed frequently as a young woman.

Much of Alban’s studio was on display, in fact: his camera bag, his desk, notebook and pen. According to Chris Mikaelian, one of the owners of Reader’s Corner who worked at the studio for a little while helping the photographer’s wife, Shaké, after Alban’s death: “When we were introduced to the Cairo Design Week’s concept of reviving Downtown Cairo’s past inside Tamara Haus, we thought of redesigning Studio Alban together with our shop, side by side.” Both are iconic Downtown landmarks from the 1940s, though the studio closed in 1987.

Among the Alban photos on display is the official portrait of Egypt’s first president Mohamed Naguib, and portraits of Queen Farida and actresses Lubna Abdel-Aziz and Zubeida Tharwat. “We’re not sure if his self-portrait was made by his wife or by him,” said Mikaelian. In one corner, with a table light, the Armenian cartoonist Alexander Saroukhan’s drawings of Alban can be seen together with an anonymous sculpture of him. “All the furniture on display is genuine Studio Alban possessions, and the photographs are original prints of his.”

Shaké, who passed away in 1999, had joined the studio as a retoucher before becoming Alban’s wife. “The couple used to live in an apartment on the fourth floor, just above the studio,” Mikaelian says. Alban had developed a fascination with cameras in his teens. According to Mikaelian, “he was trained by the Alexandria-based Armenian photographer Belian, helping in his studio. After some time Belian gave him a camera in lieu of raising his salary.” Alban opened his studio in Alexandria in 1910.

His approach to portrait photography was unique. The moment the subject sat on the tall stool — also on display — they became a kind of performer, a dynamic model. This attracted more and better clients from the fields of art and politics. For his popularity and with the profit of his first studio Alban opened studios in Brussels then in Paris. He left his Alexandria studio in the hands of one of his assistants, Apkar. “Then, after World War II when Europe was flooded by photographers, mainly Jews, he returned to Egypt and opened his Cairo studio, letting Apkar continue as he was.

Aram Alban, who is buried in Cairo, was born in Constantinople and raised between it and Alexandria. His work is collected by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada. Alban was a pioneer who inspired renowned Egyptian-Armenian photographers such as Van Leo and Armand. His imprint is evident all over the photography of the Middle East.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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