Paola Crociani, Portraits of Yemen

Cairo: Hoopoe Books, 1996. 111 pp. ISBN 977-5325-65-X

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 39 (1997):38-39

Yemen is so picturesque that it is not surprising that photographers are captivated by its scenes and expressive faces. Paola Crociani, now a Cairo resident, is an Italian photographer who has traveled widely in the Middle East, including Yemen She previously exhibited photographs at a conference in the restored caravanserai of Samsarat al-Nahhas in the old suq of Sanaa. Among the credits, it is worth noting, is Dr. Noha Sadek, the Resident Director of AIYS in Yemen. The book has about a hundred black-and-white photographs, all portraits of Yemenis from all parts of the country. Each picture is clearly labeled as to the location, a feature not always present in photo books. The book is available in Egypt and Yemen for about $25. I sort of doubt it would have much of a market in the U.S.

I have often heard it said that it is difficult to take a bad picture in Yemen, but I have learned to take that with a grain of salt over the past several years. Perhaps we are so enamored of the subject that we let our critical eyes soft focus the issue of quality. I have seen lots of poor quality photographs,some in major exhibitions. By poor quality I mean over-exposure,faces blackened by shadows and less than adequate framing. While there are indeed some lovely shots in Crociani's volume, I find quite a few that come across in my eyes as poorly done.

Let's start with the positive (pun intended). The most fascinating picture to my mind is that of the cover (and p. 22), a young girl with crossed (and henna criss-crossed) arms. Here the shadows add charm; the girl's face takes on some of the quality of the rough house facade. The camera angle is superb with the girl's eyes gazing slightly above the reader's eye level. (I think I bought the book primarily because of this one picture.) Another interesting use of shadows on the eyes is on p. 8, a photo of a son of a dagger maker. Here the tassles of the boy's headdress shadow across the boy's face. The girl from Sanaa (p.20) is very nice, the girl's unkempt hair backed by a man walking by and out of focus. The young man in the Ta'izz spice shop (p. 29) is well framed &emdash; a piece of rich detail not lost in the shadows. The Sanaa silversmith (p. 45) captures a quizzical look &emdash; a very effective use of shadows. The winner of the largest qatwad is clearly the mada'a maker on p. 52. Anothermada'a maker on p. 57 has a timely sense of movement. The Bedouin from Shabwa (p. 103) has the look of spontaneity, not always present in some of the forced smiles in other photos in the album. There are, quite clearly, some well thought-out photographs in this volume

But as in real life, the proof is in the negative An unfortunate tendency I find in many of the portraits is a failure to battle and modify the negative effect of shadows. From an artistic point of view, I realize that shadows can add to the picture in a non-literal sense. I am certainly not suggesting that all photographs be rigidly true to life (whatever that might mean).But a problem often arises in the failure to compensate for those shadows which obliterate and mar an image. A prime example is the old man in 'Amran (p. 26), who sports little more than a shiny whitish nose There is no face here &emdash; certainly no eyes &emdash; and an appeal to artistic license is as appealing as a poorly taken tourist portrait. Similarly, there are several times where the white-washed faces really detract from the portrait (e.g., pp. 11,27, 75, 79, 84). I cannot help but think that the photographee would want to tear the picture up in each of these cases. The framing at times is rather disjointed, probably intentional, but I wonder to what purpose. Consider the dagger maker on p. 65, where his knee is cut in half and we see part of the shoulder of someone else. We see two cases of splitting a face in half for the fishermen on pp. 32-33.This strikes me as odd, trying to salvage a frame rather than making a statement photographically. The photograph of a man on p. 74 is very light, as though it was very poor contrast on the negative and salvaged (not very well) in the darkroom. How a picture this poor can up in such a collection mystifies me. This would be a much stronger collection if about a third of the photographs were simply left out. It looks as though the photographer was going for quantity

Art is, of course, a matter of opinions. The faces here and the expressions recorded are more often than not compelling But unlike the more technically sophisticated photography of Pascal and Maria Maréchaux, I find the overall quality of the portraits mixed. Some are quite nice; others are border-line rejects. That is a shame, because it really should be much harder to take bad pictures of Yemenis.

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