Photography and Art in Qajar and in Modern Times

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


Massumeh Farhad


by Shabnam Rahimi-Golkhandan / Yale University

The presentation concludes about two and a half years of archival research on the early photography of Iran.

Photographs are peculiar things. The early pioneers of the medium dubbed them ‘writing with light’ but praised them as material traces of reality. Material, because they withheld a physical impression of whatever was in front of the lens of the photographer in the form of the light reflected off of its surface, real because they were not interpretations of the real – as were paintings – nor were they testimonies to the real, as were histories; they were unobstructed witnesses. In other words, they allowed for the absence of the interpretative hand of the author to be creative on its own. For almost the first time, the relation of the representation and the represented was unmediated.

The question for this presenter was then how universal are these theorizations? Through a close archival review of early photography of Iran, I came upon a decided departure from these notions in the capacity of photographs to become mediums of story telling, both visually and textually. To make sense of this departure, the presentation aims to locate the medium of photography in the already existing frameworks of art and literature. To locate the local flavor of early photography of Iran, the presentation thus browses objects as diverse as muraqqa’s, travelogues, newspapers and painting in different settings and mediums. A choice of three distinct collections – Ali Khan Vali’s album, Sevruguin collection of glass-plate negatives and a few albums, both family and commercial and both in public (Smithsonian) and private collections– will provide the paper’s archive. The diffusion of mediums that constitute this archive, on the other hand, allows for the strands of this argument – text, collection, painting – to make sense under the unifying rubric of photography. Ultimately, the presentation aims to locate the novelty of the medium of photography within the existing systems of collection making and story telling.

by Hajar Anvar / Université de Montréal

In September 1889, immediately after the return of Nâser al-Din Shah (r.1848-1896) from his second visit to Europe, Mohammad ibn Ali Meshkât ol-Molk presented his book “Aksiyye Hashriyye” to the king. The book, commissioned by the court official Mirza Mohammad Khan, was about photography. This was not the first existing book on photography in Persian: about forty years earlier prince Malek Ghâsem Mirza had translated an instruction manual on the making of photographic prints out of negatives. However, compared to that manual, Meshkât ol-Molk’s book seems to have no intention to present technical aspects of photography. Instead, in a rich rhetoric manner, Meshkât ol-Molk tries to unravel the delicacy of the act of photography in verses from Quran, religious hadiths, and poems. After about forty years of photography practice in the privacy of Naser al-Din Shah’s court and the production of massive albums of the king’s adventures, “Aksiyye Hashriyye” explains photography as a transcendental act of revealing the truth, sufficient to be a testimony in the Day of Resurrection (Yawm al-Qiyâmah). In this paper I will elaborate on the contribution of this book in the shifting of photography from a pure imported Western technique to a complementary instrument of justice, potentially at the service of clergymen and the public. I will argue that this shift might have been part of the process of westernization advocated by Mirza Malkom Khan (1833-1908), an Iranian-Armenian political and social reformer. In his doctrine of modernization of Eastern societies, Malkom Khan refers to religion as the most effective stimulus of public engagement with the Western technologies and ideas. Within such a context, I will reflect on the commissioner, the author, and the public audiences of “Aksiyye Hashriyye” as three focal contributors to the transmission of photography from a private practice of the court to the public realm.

by Raheleh Filsoofi / Florida Atlantic University

Iran’s long history of pottery making goes back ten thousand years, and it is as diverse as the country’s geography and ethnic composition. Clay as a material connects contemporary Iranian society to its ancient roots, and it permeates daily life in terms of the economy, technology and even gender roles. This paper focuses on the lives of three women potters in northern and western Iran, one in the village of Jirdeh (Central Gillan province), another in the village of khomar Mahaleh (East Gillan), and the third outside of the City of Marand (West Azerbaijan province). Each woman represents a particular genre of handmade pottery from functional to sculptural work, and she establishes a unique identity in terms of production, commercial distribution and her personal relationship to the social and geographic environment.
Previous studies of traditional pottery in Iran have focused on the relationship between modern and ancient forms and techniques of production and questions of the survival of traditions of ceramic in the world of metal and plastic objects in the international economy (Marucek 1972, Sorainen 1998). This study, on the other hand, demonstrates that even today clay creates opportunities, particularly for women, to become very significant figures in the economy and the society of the realms they call their own.
A selection of interviews, photographs and video clips taken during the summer of 2012 illustrate how these women work and thrive in their leadership, independence and creative artistry. Key concepts include: (1) Land (place, home), 2) Technique and work process, 3) Gender roles, 4) Tradition and why their works are considered traditional, and 5) Authenticity and what makes their works authentic. The solitude that separates and yet connects these women offers a contrast to the nature of ceramics in the contemporary art world of Tehran and also opens a dialog for gender and feminist issues that are relevant to study of art technology, design and the roles of women in Iranian society today.

by Samine Tabatabaei / McGill University

My paper traces two interrelated subjects of everyday life and contemporary art in Tehran. I explore the limits of the technique and discipline of Art History regarding contemporary art in Tehran in absence of an overview to everyday life outside of the country. The disciplined aspect of everyday life and its repetitiveness inscribes dispositions on subjects that are starting point in this paper. Focusing on the crossover of everyday life and art affords an opportunity to look more closely at the hinge between everyday life and contemporary art practices that are increasingly moving towards shifting the boundaries of art and non-art. This paper’s approach puts forth question of how different aspects of everyday life in Tehran function to re-formulate an apprehension of the sensible within artistic practices. Taking into account the literature about everyday life produced by scholars such as Asef Bayat, I will analyze two artistic practices to demonstrate how they poetically reconsider the perceived boundaries between language and matter, mind and body, and sensation and cognition. I elaborate on the ways in which everyday life articulate and also tensely negotiate the habitual production of artistic practices. This paper will discern how artistic practices re-work ordinary experience of everyday life in symbolic, and linguistic level in order to introduce a new experience that elevate collective apprehension of art.