Donkey Carts to Cars - Cairo 1975 At The Brunei Gallery

By Lizzy Brooks | 19 May 2008
a photo of arched corrdior leading to a square in Cairo

© Ted Gorton

Donkey Carts to Cars - Cairo 1975 at the Brunei Gallery until June 22 2008

Ted Gorton’s solo show running till June 21 2008, paints a romantic picture of the Egyptian capital at a poignant moment in history. Rich, sepia-toned images depict cityscapes and street portraits. There is a certain tension in the photographs; the city is on the brink of a rapid social and economic change.

In 1975, Egypt’s population numbered 37 million and six million people lived in Cairo. Those numbers have since doubled, and Cairo’s population is estimated at over 12 million. The contrast is striking. Gorton’s images recall a time when the city’s streets hosted more donkey carts than cars, before inexpensive airfare enabled the tourist economy, and when peace with Israel was unimaginable.

a photo of a barbers shop and street scene in Cairo

© Ted Gorton

Gorton studied Arabic poetry at the Egyptian Library in February of 1975. After the library closed, he took his camera and wandered the streets of the old city. Perhaps he carried a poetic sense from the library into the avenues as the images paint a lively portrait that is subtle and inquisitive.

Figures populate the urban landscapes, but Gorton does not actively engage with his human subjects. He is a passerby, and it is through his neutral eye that we view the inhabitants, the streets, the mosques, and the marketplaces.

a photo of street scene in Cairo

© Ted Gorton

1975 was an interesting time in Egyptian politics. A year and a half after the Ramadan/Yom Kippur/October War, the future of the region remained uncertain. While it was just three years before Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime minister, Menachem Begin, would sign a peace treaty at the Camp David Accords, regional relations in 1975 were extremely tense.

Egypt’s success against Israel in 1973 created a feeling of vindication in the Arab world, a social climate that perhaps paved the way for Sadat’s reforms. At the same time, the Egyptian government continued to receive aid from the Soviet Union, and this came mainly in the form of arms. Sadat had yet to implement his Intifah policy, which opened the door to capitalist investment and aligned Egyptian economic interest with American markets.

a photo of street scene in Cairo

© Ted Gorton

The story behind Gorton’s images extends beyond Egyptian borders. After Cairo, Gorton traveled to Lebanon and he was in Beirut at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, a brutal and multifaceted conflict that lasted into the early 1990s. Gorton fled, leaving his film in an apartment building that was later sacked by militants. When he returned in 2005, he found the color film destroyed, but the black and white negatives remained largely intact. The images in the Brunei gallery are those salvageable pieces.

Gorton’s images invoke a historical sense that extends beyond the 20th century. He is fascinated with the juxtaposition of modern life and ancient architecture. He places young faces in carved archways, and contrasts bustling street scenes with a backdrop of the domed turrets of the city’s mosques.

a black and white photo of a seated man leaning downwards wearing a turban

© Ted Gorton

John Hollingworth, the exhibitions officer at Brunei says that the show has been popular with travelers, with “those who enjoy reminiscing of their experiences in Cairo, or those fascinated with seeing images of a vibrant city, and how that city has changed in such a short period of time.” The show serves a documentary function; the Cairo of 1975 exists in images and in memory only.

Gorton works our capacity for nostalgia. The cityscapes offer a window into a bygone time and place. In one image, a young boy stands on the edge of a landscape of ruins. His body faces the camera, but his head is turned back, as if looking into the past. In the sunny quiet of the Brunei first floor photography space, next to a small courtyard with a patio garden, the viewer is tempted to follow him.

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