Latif Al Ani, Stolen head that was not retrieved, Hatra, c. 1960s. B + W digital print on Hahnemüle Baryta Fine Art paper Image Credit: Ruya Foundation

Streets lined with Chevrolets and Mercedes-Benzes, western tourists posing by ancient ruins, picnicking families… above all, happy, smiling faces.

These are scenes from what some call Iraq’s golden age, the twenty years between the end of colonial rule in 1958 and the beginning of the war with Iran in 1980. A moment of optimism captured in rich black-and-white images by an Iraqi photographer, Latif Al Ani.

Dubbed the founding father of his country’s photography, he has been, to be more accurate, the invisible man of the art form, one who remained forgotten for almost 40 years but now celebrated with the first exhibition of his work in the UK at the Coningsby Gallery, London (Until December 16).

He captured a fleeting period of increased cosmopolitanism and openness in his country, a time of nigh-Utopian contrast to today (according to some) when many of the streets and buildings he photographed have been destroyed in the never-ending years of violence and when casualties have run into the many, many thousands. Today, the smiles are harder to find.

Now 86, his ‘rediscovery’ has been undertaken by Tamara Chalabi, co-founder of the Ruya Foundation which was formed by a group of expat Iraqi art lovers to preserve their country’s culture.

Chalabi came upon Al Ani’s work when she was seeking out contributors for the 2015 Venice Biennial which she co-curated and this year she helped publish the first monograph of the artist’s work which won the Historical Book Award at the photography fair, Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Chalabi says: “Latif was a major player in the visual history of the Arab world. He was the first to experiment with photography from the air and even more importantly he was the first Iraqi to offer a portrait, not of a colonised people, but of ‘his own people’ setting up a mirror between the eye of the photographer and the eye of the people.”

Al Ani, who still lives in Baghdad, was bought a Kodak box camera by his brother when he was a mere 15 in 1947. He became a trainee on the house magazine of Iraq Petroleum Company with the brief to take pictures of the oil industry. Clutching his Rolleiflex 6x6 with its 35mm film he took pictures of agriculture, workers and machines which fitted in with the government’s socialist message of the time. Later he moved to the Ministry of Information (now Culture) because, he says modestly: “I was the only one in Iraq who knew how to develop colour photos.”

Al Ani’s preoccupation was to create beautiful images. There are, of course, scenes fit for the pages of the IPC magazine such as dams, bridges, a housing project in neat rows in Baghdad, but his travels gave him the opportunity to take photographs from the air and create images from what was a radical perspective for the time.

“I saw things in a different way from the air,” he recalls. “Colours were different. I saw contrast more clearly between the ugly and the beautiful. Everything was more exposed. From the air, everything is beautiful but as soon as you land again you see also the misery and the ugliness.”

His photographs of mosques such as Kadhimaya and Mirjan are striking but for the audience of today, the scenes of everyday life with all their charm and vibrancy are even more appealing.

Much of his work was little more than propaganda to evoke collective and national enthusiasm for a post-colonial era but he worked within official parameters to produce images that illustrated the lives of a growing middle class in the sixties and seventies.

“He has such a distinctive eye, “ says Chalabi, who is half-Iraqi. Her father Ahmed Chalabi led the opposition to Saddam Hussein. “His images are elegant and the compositions are brilliantly framed.

“What struck me is the way some people in his pictures look at him and some don’t. There is a girl learning the accordion. It is beautifully composed with the vertical lines of the accordion, the lines of the score, and horizontal of the musical exercise written behind her. There is so much harmony here - much more than merely a young girl learning to play an instrument.”

There is a sense of pictures being taken in a precise moment - a man selling toy windmills to eager children, a boy leaning out of a car window, men talking in a coffee house - yet they are all perfectly poised and framed.

Chalabi smiles at one of her favourites, cows being transported in a van, head sticking out. “Compared with the ways animals are handled today this is so civilised. I find it very elegant and humorous.”

Yet there is also a mood of melancholy for a lost world of fairs and festivals, tidy streets lined with flashy American cars, cafes and smart shops with advertising hoardings for international companies.

“I’m not saying it was better but his work is about that time,” says Chalabi. “There is a scene of a chic woman posing outside the walls of Babylon which was commissioned by Ministry of Tourism in 1970. To do this today, such is the decline in the aesthetics, you would not have the woman and even the wall has been tampered with. It used to be a Unesco site but Saddam Hussein decided to rebuild the missing bits and added his own initials to the bricks.

“It’s a wonderful shot, the women are not covered. Today in a lot of places in the region you might have a covered woman with a pretty face but it would be a totally different aesthetic even if the message is the same.”

Similarly two western tourists visiting the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon look posed and awkward standing by a rabab player.

“Today,” says Chalabi, “They might still look awkward but there would be people in bullet proof jackets near them so they would be awkward in a different way.”

A picture of a family on a picnic is particularly poignant. A beautiful young women, two sons and a family friend, possibly a brother, relax by a road side, an American motor is parked nearby. She is Al Ani’s wife Raja who died 40 years ago, the two boys were killed, one when a bomb was placed under his car.

“Life holds everything – sadness, disasters, happiness,” says Al Ani. “But I always looked for images that would make people happy.”

Yet for all his pain, and the lack of recognition for his work, he is by no means a lonely, lost figure.

“He is smart though he doesn’t speak much, “ says Chalabi. “He is a pleasant man who likes life - a bon vivant. He likes women.”

He took many scenes of women at work - though there are not many in the collection - which he, rather than the Ministry, took to communicate to a populace who might have been unaware of the female contributions. He is keen on scenes of shop fronts and one in particular with high heeled shoes. Chalabi teases him in her interview for not taking images of mens’ boots or umbrellas.

“I liked the composition of those shop fronts. It was artistic,” he replies..

So too, was the picture of a woman in her underwear having a nap on a crumpled bed and a surprising nude at her ‘morning gymnastics.’

But does the work justify the label of ‘founding father’ which has been attached to the publicity for the new London show? After all, he has not taken a photograph since 1977 when he lost his desire to photograph anyone beyond close family and friends .

He admits: “I got scared. I would have been arrested if I stepped out in the public with a camera. It was forced on me

So he became invisible. And forgotten.

Chalabi and she was born into a family of exilesays: “I am not Iraqi-based so I wouldn’t have known about him and since I have been researching his career I’ve come to the conclusion that he is not even known to Iraqis.

“He told me how he came across a news kiosk in 2005 where a paper was giving out free calendars. Half of the pictures were his but no one knew who had taken them. They had been incorporated into a visual language of the country but the people were unconscious of him.”

Understandably perhaps. The country has had more drastic matters to concern itself with revolution, dictatorships and wars. It has not been a civil society without the cultural framework or the time to appreciate the arts.

“Photography is not considered an art form in Iraq,” she says. “There is no art market, no equivalent to Dubai with its galleries. If there are any photographers in Iraq they function in a professional way, not as artists. Latif himself did not necessarily think of himself as an artist like Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example.”

Much of the photographer’s legacy was destroyed in 2003 when the archive of his work was burnt and looted with many hundreds of his negatives lost and, the story has it, sold for 25 dinar each in the flea market.

Luckily, more than 1800 images were salvaged and 50 appear in the book and the show. The authors hope their choice will appeal to an international audience by selecting the strongest images not only from Iraq but Germany and the USA which he visited in the Seventies.

“There is not much interest in people commenting on the west from another culture,” says Chalabi. “We like to talk about orientalists and westerners who discovered the east and portrayed it with their paintings and their lens but the reverse is somehow not allowed.

“It is exciting to include images of East Berlin in the collection. It is fascinating for me that an Iraqi guy is going around East Germany and talking photographs.”

One of the most striking is that of a woman looking in a shop window at underwear. The framing captures her innocent expression in an image which is intimate on many levels - observing her eager quest for a bargain and the object of her desire itself. It is a stolen image which needed a sharp eye to achieve. This is not the work of an official worker doing the bidding of the Ministry of Information but a man concerned about the beauty of the image, not the politics.

In the book, he laments how he can no longer see beauty.

“The images on television screens are simply so shocking that I don’t see it as clearly as I did. Beauty is present in my imagination only.

“I don’t think I can photograph anything today. There is nothing beautiful. Beauty is not just a view it is about dealing with people in the street.”

It is hard not to compare life then and now and treat the work as a counterpoint to the situation today - albeit beautifully framed. Indeed, most of the places the photographer captured in the 1950s and 1960s no longer exist or have been damaged such as the Bazazin market with its candlemakers which was hit, the Great Mosque of Samarrah blown up by so-called Isis and Rashid Street where he bought his first camera which was struck by violence.

“You will recognise the street from the buildings in his picture,” says Chalabi with barely disguised anger. “But today you would be overwhelmed by the filth. It is disgusting, messy. The main contrast between then and now is one of order against one of chaos.”

“The past is being deleted,” says Al Ani. “Ignorant people came to rule who had no culture or understanding of the power they held.

“I did all I could to document and safeguard that time.”

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.

Latif Al Ani’is on at the Coningsby Gallery in Fitrovia, UK, until December 16.