Culture

Unexpected beauty of Beirut by night

BEIRUT: Darkness may simply be the absence of light, but there are times when it feels like a tangible presence. A footpath through the woods that looks calm and picturesque by day becomes claustrophobic and threatening in the dark. But in most modern cities darkness is a thing of the past. It is at night that certain quarters seem to come fully to life.

Lebanese photographer George Haddad explores the urban fabric by night in “Beirut, is that you?” currently on display at 392Rmeil393. The series of 13 high-definition cityscapes was taken from the rooftops of buildings, many of which the photographer had to illegally sneak inside.

The high contrast photographs provide a unique perspective on the city both thanks to their lofty vantage points and their incredible detail. Haddad captures the dark streets, dramatic skies and bright lights of the city in sharp focus by using a technique in which five photographs of the same scene, taken with different camera settings, are superimposed atop one another to create a single image.

“The idea of this project came about from a friend who kept [insisting] that I try this type of high definition photography,” Hadded explains. “I normally don’t like using special effects or filters or retouching in my photography ... [but] I decided to give it a go and immediately loved the outcome ... It wasn’t until [I’d completed] five or six images that I realized the photographs were showing me a glimpse of Beirut that most people had never seen, because they are inside the city itself.”

Haddad has sought out viewpoints that provide a multifaceted vision of Beirut. An image shot from a building near Starco captures a vast swathe of Downtown, where wide streets, streaked with the headlights of moving cars, surround smart rectangular buildings, their windows dark. The distinctive minarets and blue domes of the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque stand out against a cluster of shadowy skyscrapers and the lights of houses in the distance create their own constellations on the mountainside.

The bright street lights and dark office blocks of Solidere present a stark contrast to other areas of the city, where the narrow streets are dim but warm light blazes from the windows of residential buildings.

Those who’ve looked down on Beirut from a nearby mountaintop, only to find the city obscured by a cloud of dense brown pollution and dust, may be surprised by the clarity of Haddad’s shots. The depth of detail in his images provides a view of Beirut by night that goes beyond the grasp of the naked eye, before which lights always appear to be flickering through the haze.

“Broadcast Depth” captures the backs of grimy-looking apartment blocks in the foreground and beyond them a view over the city to the curving bowl of the Mediterranean.

From within, the nighttime city may appear as a high-contrast blur made up of the orange glow of streetlamps and the neon glare of advertising hoardings against various shades of gray concrete. In Haddad’s image, there are as many shades of color as one would expect to see by day. The sea is a deep, jewel-like blue and the sky is a roiling mass of clouds, some deep gray, others touched with pink and yellow where they reflect back the glow of the city lights.

In “Keep on Walking” the streets and buildings of Ashrafieh are overshadowed by the glare of the LED advertising screens that dominate the skyline. Above the dim rooftops, a giant man in a suit strides across a hoarding, a luxury watch face the size of a living room suggests new ways to discreetly advertise your wealth and a black-and-white portrait of an improbably perfect woman urges the mere mortals below to visit high-street clothing store Mango.

In his series of 13 photographs, Haddad succeeds in capturing a Beirut that is at once familiar and strange. Each image is an engaging portrait of the secret life of the city in the small hours.

One of the more intimate shots captures apartment blocks in Fassouh as morning approaches. Just two or three lights illuminate the blank banks of windows behind which people sleep, and the sky above is streaked with the first cold light of dawn.

“To me, these images show the city as a direct reflection of Lebanese society,” the artist says. “Beautiful in some sense but crowded, disorganized, claustrophobic and anarchic. They were also a way for me to break the nostalgic view many Lebanese still hold of the city as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’”

Beirut couldn’t look much further from the grandeur of historic Paris when captured through Haddad’s lens, but its blocky concrete tower blocks and narrow streets possess a quirky charm of their own in the midnight hours.

“Beirut, is that you?” is on show at 392Rmeil393 in Gemmayzeh until Nov. 20. For more information, please call 01-567-015.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2014, on page 16.

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