Somewhat Less than Reality

Salma Samar Damluji
A Yemen Reality
Reading: Garnet Publishing Ltd, 1991, 355 pp. ISBN 1 873 938 00 4.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 34(1994):37-38

Having traveled the breadth and depth of Yemen’s scenic landscape, I have come to expect that most photographs of Yemen need no professional touch to communicate to the viewer what a grand land this part of Arabia is. Even my own photographs sometimes surprise me with a breathtaking element, but I lay no claim to being anything other than an amateur enthusiast behind the lens. No doubt I have been spoiled by several excellent photographic volumes on Yemen, especially those of Pascal and Marie Maréchaux, so I must admit I was initially excited when I received a review copy of a new photographic volume entitled

Salma Samar Damluji is an architect who worked with the famous Hasan Fathy in Cairo during the 1970s and early 1980s. She first visited Aden and Hadramawt in 1981 as a consultant for ECWA regarding plans to preserve the historic towns of Shibam and Tarim. The author now teaches at the Royal College of Arts and the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. According to the liner notes, this book is the first to be published on her recently completed architectural research project in southern Yemen. Unfortunately, little information is presented specifically about the author's research, which included study of current master builders in the south. The introduction to the present volume (pp. 1-8) is basically an expanded discussion of her itinerary. The photographic journey runs through thirteen chapters, geographically defined for Aden, al-Dali, Yafi', Abyan, Shabwa, WadiHajr, Wadi Daw'an, Wadi Hadramawt, Shibam, Tarim, al-Mukalla,al-Shihr, and al-Mahra. A glossary gives simple definitions for over150 terms, but there are a number of transliteration errors. There is some inconsistency about the author's understanding of terms. Hadramawt is more accurate than Hadramut. Also, the Yemeni plaster known as qudadin the north is given for Habban as qatat (a misreading or a dialectical observation?) but quddah for al-Dali'. One can only hope that future volumes will concentrate on the results of the fieldwork.

The current volume contains over 650 color photographs. One would think that this would represent a gold mine for Yemenophiles and a must-buy for anyone captivated by the beauty of this part of Arabia. In that the publisher is charging $130 for this admittedly large book, those of us with less than unlimited budgets must take a second look.

Unfortunately, with this volume the problem begins with the first look. The photographs are for the most part poorly taken and even as poorly developed. The graininess is so bad on many of the photographs that one wonders if the author was using a Polaroid. Or is it that the publisher was using printing presses from the depression era?

In that a lot of time and effort went into putting this book together, I have no qualms about giving a detailed critical assessment. My critique is overwhelmingly negative. This is not only a poorly done book on a subject that is hard to do poorly, but it is so overpriced (given the lack of quality) as to be absurd. The specific problems with the photographic quality can be summarized by the following examples, according to the type of problem or lack:

1. Poor cropping: #27 crops out part of aman's body. The printer's cropping mark still shows on#81!

2. Indistinct faces: #2 is a prime example of two men whose faces are a dark-brownish blur, giving the impression the photograph is actually out-of-focus. Compare the people in #11; they almost look like cut-outs. The sheikh in #73 is poorly reproduced. The women in #159 are unrecognizable. Would the young girl in #453 recognize herself as having a face? What would the man say in #617?

3. Greyish tint: #4 looks like the kind of colorization found in the 1950s. If National Geographic can do so well, why can't this publisher?

4. Poor contrast: #7 shows men in dark shadows. #19 almost looks like a black-and-white production. Too dark: #60, 108, and many more. The flash was poorly set for the interior in #103. The fields in #114 are washed out. #164 looks like it was taken by infrared photography at night; why is this poor print published? The shadows blacken the noses excessively in #193. Were a photography student to hand in #200, would that student expect a decent grade? I have been to Bi'r 'Ali and the colors do not look like #288. The colors are washed out badly in #332. The flash was aimed improperly in #338. I realize that #348 is at sunset, but this is not well communicated here. The lighting is not only poor in#358, a mosque interior, but it is far too small in the layout. #382simply is too poor to be produced in the collage on p. 216. The lighting is off in the scenic shot of #416. Note the inconsistency in the color of the sky in photos #417 and #418; this is symptomatic of the lack of quality control for the book as a whole. #421 is simply too dark; this looks like a tourist shot. The two photographs of people on p. 243 show an incredible lack of appropriate contrast. How can these amateurish portraits be published? The photographs on pp. 248-49 are far too dark! Try and make sense of the figures in#440? The women in #573 are lost in shadow. #577 is far too dark; this looks like a postcard in its thousandth printing. The photograph #621 is bad in almost every respect. If you can make out the design in #631, you must have very good eyes.

5. Graininess: One of the worst examples is #206; this is not even newspaper quality. #232 looks far more like a painting than a photograph. Is there a sandstorm enveloping the photographer in #367? The beauty of Shibam is sandblasted away in #429.

6. Sloppy developing: There appears to be a chemical stain on #287. A hair has made its mark either on the negative or print in #416. The sequence of #243-#245 appear to have been poorly developed, given the reddish tint. There is something radically wrong with #541.

7. Out-of-focus: The worst examples are#323 and #340, but #474 is almost as bad.

To be fair, I find a number of photographs with redeeming qualities: #13: The washed-out quality of the sky works here with the whitewashed facade of the mosque. #43 is interestingly framed, a man surrounded by metal barrels. #51 is a nice vignette, but would have been more striking if larger. #117 has an excellent angle; if only it were enlarged. The portrait of two boys in #223 is exceptional, although poorly reproduced here. #454is a lovely design. #471 would make an intriguing painting.

In one sense it is good to have any photographic documentation of Yemeni architecture, although this volume goes beyond that limited goal with a variety of portrait and scenery shots. But the poor quality of the photographs and their inferior reproduction are not compensated by an outstanding and informative text. The author/photographer no doubt has documented worthwhile information on architectural practices in southern Yemen, but these are not presented here except in piecemeal comments. This is, in my opinion, not a volume worth having on the bookshelf or coffee table. Given the price, I could not even justify having a university library order it. It can, of course, be ordered. This can be done from Paul & Co., c/o PCS Data Processing, Inc., 360West 31 Street, New York, NY 10001. A mere $130 (plus postage) will allow you to compare notes with mine listed above. If you do buy a copy, send along your comments and I will gladly publish them in this bulletin.

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