A twentieth-century photographer known for his images of rural India and life in the princely states, Abid Miyah Lal Miyah Syed, commonly known as AL Syed, captured dramatically lit black-and-white images of pre- and post-Independence India. Active from the early 1920s, Syed was additionally interested in desert landscapes and portraiture, and also created stills for a number of Bollywood films, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960).
Syed was born in Varnavada, Gujarat. His father, Lal Miyah Syed, worked as a physician to the Nawab of Palanpur, Zobdat al-Molk Shir Mohammad Khan. AL Syed’s older brother, Khanji Mian Lal Mian Syed (KL Syed), worked as the Nawab’s official photographer and is renowned for his image of the last Nawab of Palanpur, Taley Mohammed Khan Bahadur, made in 1930. Syed began assisting his brother from 1919, but his earliest known photograph is a 1923 image of the sunset at Chowpatty Beach in Bombay (now Mumbai), made on a school trip. The photograph won him the first prize in a contest held by the Illustrated Weekly of India, where his work continued to be featured for most of his career. From 1925 until 1940, Syed published a monthly column in the Gujarati magazine Kumar, featuring his photographs along with corresponding written pieces.
He continued working for the Palanpur royal court alongside his brother, expanding the scope of his work to cater to other Indian kingdoms across present-day Gujarat and Rajasthan, such as Baroda, Saurashtra, Bikaner, Kotah, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bundi, Dungarpur and Narisinghgarh, as well as much further north in Kashmir. He also became popular with the various royal families and established a personal connection with them, including the Nawab of Palanpur, the Maharana of Udaipur and Gayatri Devi of Jaipur.
Syed accompanied the Nawab of Palanpur to Bombay in 1946 and continued living in the city until 1975. During and after this period, he travelled extensively to fulfill commissions from royal families while also making photographs independently. These images, made while travelling through rural India and developed in photographic studios across the country, make up the bulk of Syed’s surviving work and are the reason he is best remembered as a Pictorialist photographer. These images place him as one of the earliest practitioners in India to consciously create images with a commitment to this stylistic approach, often capturing his subjects from a lower angle and creating high contrasts between light and shadow, adding to the sombre tone of his black-and-white images.
His photographs have been exhibited across the world. He gained recognition internationally with a 1934 photograph titled “Traveller of the East,” published as part of Odhams Press’ compilation of the World’s Best Photographs. The photograph was displayed in over forty exhibitions, including a solo show in New Delhi held as part of the sixth Convention of the Federation of Indian Photography. His photograph “Difficult Ascent” won the 1977 Asia Pacific Cultural Center for the UNESCO (ACCU) Photo Contest, Tokyo. In 1980, he inaugurated an exhibition held by the Illustrated Weekly of India in honour of the magazine’s centennial. In 1983, he was granted an Honorary Fellowship by the India International Photographic Council in recognition of his long career in photography. AL Syed was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1971 but continued to practise photography until his death in 1991.
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