Czech-born photographer Martin Becka has turned his 1860s camera on Dubai
Why did you decide to make Dubai the focus of this project? In 2007, during Paris Photo, I was introduced to Elie Domit from The Empty Quarter in Dubai. For several years I have been pursuing a series on urban landscapes. During this encounter, the idea of capturing a few instances of Dubai’s metamorphosis seemed a very exciting project.
Can you explain the technique you used to create these images? The process uses waxed paper negatives, invented in 1851 by Gustave Le Gray. These negatives can be preserved for a week – prior to this technique, all negatives had to be developed minutes after exposure. The paper is sensitised a few hours before taking the picture, and dried before loading it into the camera chamber. The camera is then mounted, and the exposure made. Dubai’s climate is too hot for these processes, so the negatives have to be developed, fixed and washed the same evening. Working in such dimensions, and for up to 18 hours a day, we can only make four to five negatives per day. The positives were then taken in Paris upon my return, on salted paper lightly washed with albumin, which gives the slight gold effect. A glass plate is laid over the whole thing and exposed to light. The image is then washed and dried.
Gustave Le Gray abandoned his family after running into debt, then wandered Southern Europe with Alexander Dumas. Were there elements of his biography that drew you to his work? He was the first to claim photography as an art form, and his process of the waxed-paper negatives revolutionised photography. Most processes of those times required sensitising and developing the film in a few minutes. His invention allowed the film to be preserved for a few days at a time under a moderate climate, which allowed photographic excursions without the need to travel with a full photography lab. He was the photographer for Napoleon III, and enjoyed fame and fortune before going bankrupt and having to leave France. Photographer Felix Nadar described him as a generous man, always giving away photographs to visitors. His wanderings with Dumas add something romantic to his character.
Aside from his inventions, is there anything you admire about Le Gray? His constant worrying about beauty, and his will to achieve perfection. He never ceased improving his technique as he strived to attain the perfect photograph. Photography is both an art and a technique, and Le Gray knew that well. To make a perfect synthesis of the two is admirable.
He also worked in the Middle East towards the end of his life. Have you seen any of these works, and did these filter into your photos of Dubai’s more historic areas, such as Bastakiya? I know of some of the images that Le Gray took in Egypt, which were exhibited in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2002. This part of his work remains mysterious and there are many images we do not know about. If there are any of my images that reflect Le Gray’s work in Egypt, it is more the images of construction. Paradoxically, the shots of the Dubai Metro look like the columns of Egyptian temples (above). The images suggest something apocalyptic – an abandoned city (at times recalling the sepia tones of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) dominated by harsh lines. It’s almost as if the desert is closing back in on the city. For many, empty streets and the absence of any movement, devoid of people, can send signals of trouble. It can be disturbing. This effect happens because of the length of time the film is exposed. Sometimes I reach an exposure time of 30 minutes, and this makes it impossible to record any people or movement.
What sort of atmosphere do they hold for you? In my photographs, the cities are transformed into an imaginary, almost archeological state. I remove all permanent agitations – the fury of noise pollution. I instil calm into the scenes and leave more room for poetry – the poetry of avenues, as it were. The construction takes on the appearance and beauty of the monuments of antiquity. For me it is very far removed from the nightmarish, apocalyptic world depicted in Metropolis. Transmutations is at The Empty Quarter until November 27.