The Uncanny Art Of Studio Photography’s Heyday

Jacob Mikanowski in The Awl:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 13 13.32Before Facebook, there was the photo studio: a room, a camera, and a photographer. Once upon a time, studio portraiture was an essential part of the visual vernacular. Like most vernaculars, studio photography was at once ubiquitous and invisible. Along with mug shots, crime scene photographs, aerial surveys and family snapshots, it belonged to the teeming undergrowth of photography, the network of practices and forms that sometimes predate and often anticipate its emergence as a recognized art form. In the hands of its greatest practitioners, it's without question an art in its own right. But great portraits can also be the result of bureaucratic procedure, automatic gesture, or blind luck.

Studio photography is always at risk of seeming banal, and indeed, most of the photographs produced in portraiture's heyday seem today either rote or bland. But a few of these photographers made work that remains indelible, and one of these was Hashem El Madani. For fifty years, beginning in 1949, Madani worked as a photographer in Sidon, a city in southern Lebanon. He began as an apprentice for a Jewish photographer in Haifa. After the events of 1948, he moved to Lebanon. At first he took pictures of his friends and family members. A few years later, he opened his own studio, called the Studio Scheherazade, above a cinema of the same name. With time, he became Sidon’s leading photographer. By his own estimate he photographed ninety percent of the people in town, amassing an archive of some five hundred thousand images.

Madani was a craftsman, providing a vital service for the people of his adopted city, taking photographs for ID cards, passports, weddings and christenings. But he was also an artist of rare power. His portraits preserve their subjects’ individuality. Unlike the work of artists like Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus, these photos don’t attempt to unmask or expose their subjects. Madani’s work is intimate without being intrusive. His photographs are often masterful, but they can also be rote or workmanlike, and their full impact only becomes clear when they are viewed in aggregate.

More here.