The Tholozan Photographic Collection – Locating Photographic Archives in the Study of Iranian Social and Cultural History

This panel discusses the current research on the Tholozan Photographic Collection presently stored at the Middle East Centre in Oxford. Having been appointed as personal physician (Hakim Bashi) to Naser-al-Din Shah in 1858, Joseph Désiré Tholozan remained in Persia until his death in Teheran in 1897. Being assured of the unlimited confidence of the Persian King, Tholozan played a significant role not only in the promotion of medical education and progress in Iran, but also in the contemporaneous social and cultural life. Over the course of his long stay in Iran, Tholozan has collected and composed a large number of photographs and photo albums. The analysis of the Tholozan Photographic Collection is incomplete with respect to several important questions about the context in which such photographs were produced, to whom they were addressed, or, correlatively, who requested them, and to what extent such photographs were disseminated. Of special concern is the relation between the photographs from the Tholozan Photographic Collection and those photographs, now preserved in the photographic archive of the Golestān Palace (Ālbomkhāne-ye saltanati) that were ordered and encouraged by Naser-al-Din Shah. Inquiry into such questions is essential to an understanding of the manifold aspects of the Tholozan Photographic Collection, including its significance in the construction of historical narratives. For social and cultural history is inseparably wound up with its narrative forms, including visual representations. In this vein, photo archives, in preserving, collecting and grouping photographs, have from their very invention served as repositories of social memory and containers of national narratives. Yet, in addition to merely providing visual information, photo archives preserve the context, the intentions and the conditions, in which such visual documents were produced and disseminated. Thereby, within their context social and cultural history is continuously constructed, deconstructed, and redefined. Elaborating on the function of photo archives and photo collections as restoring and creating the fragmented elements of history, construes such as actors in the continuous generation of social and cultural knowledge. In filling in the context that is embedded within the Tholozan Photographic Collection, this panel provides the framework that is required prior to a discussion of the theoretical and methodological approaches within which historical photographs can be ‘read’ and conceived as a visual source for the study of cultural and social history.


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This paper elaborates on depictions of rural spaces, which were decisively shaped and disseminated by the arrival of photography in Iran in the second half of the nineteenth century. While panorama shots of villages and rural landscapes turn up few and far between in photographic documentations from the 1870s onwards, they have increasingly evolved into a systematic way of visually mapping Persian dominions towards the end of the Nasiri Era. Such photographic campaigns, conducted by indigenous photographers, were carried out with the objective to create comprehensive knowledge of Persian territories and were thus mainly ordered or encouraged by Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah or the royal administration. The analysis of photographs that feature rural landscapes and panoramas of villages is faced with the pressing question of elaborating a theoretical framework, within which such images are best ‘read’. To define such a framework, this paper addresses three major theoretical considerations: (i) firstly, how photography with its claim to accuracy and objectivity constructed a comprehensive ‘geographical imagination’ that makes rural spaces visually accessible. (ii) Secondly, how the power-exerting gaze of the camera conceptualized and communicated rural space within a socio-political map? (iii) And finally, which role such visual narratives played in the exercise of political power, and in reinforcing the central state authority. Recent discourses on visual topography have increasingly paid attention to the ideological and discursive power of landscape images, including landscape photography. In this regard, it is commonly argued for a definition of landscape as a ‘medium’ in enforcing and shaping a coherent vision of nation in the nineteenth-century, when most nation states had been emerging. More than merely displaying the physical attributes of a geographical space, landscape images are an act of mapping and bounding the terrains, and thereby ‘exercising the political power’. In a similar vein, creating visual knowledge on rural spaces offers a unique and useful perspective on Persian territories, especially on north-eastern border regions, which were of crucial importance for the efficient regulation and governance by the central authority. This paper examines the representations of rural spaces in the second half of the nineteenth-century in Iran by primarily focusing on photographs taken by Mirza Hossein-ʿAli, and ʿAbdullah Qajar, preserved in the “Tholozan Collection” at the Middle East Centre Archive, Oxford.

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There are 1040 photograph albums containing nearly 42500 photographs housed at the Golestan Palace Photo-Archive today. It appears that these albums have reached us today more or less intact, since the days they were compiled during the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century in the inner sanctum of the Qajar royal house. One hundred and sixteen shadow albums (containing nearly 5000 photographs) have been made available for public viewing. Methodological approaches to the use of historical photographs in the form of collections and large visual databanks as source material in the study of social history is the area of interest of the authors. In this quest the Qajar photo-albums act as a case in study. This article does not aim to expound upon the details of the ground breaking events that have marked Iranian history of photography. It focuses on the photo-albums compiled by court photographers that were housed in the Golestan Palace Ālbomkhāne-ye saltanati (The Royal Album House). Individual photographs have been addressed by various scholars at large and the albums have received preliminary attention. They have not yet been examined systematically as a whole or within a socio-historical context. This void has not been due to lack of interest of the photo-historians. It has been in the most part due to the desperate state of the albums and the overall Qajar photography heritage housed in the Golestan Palace, which had received minimal care until recently. Although we can state with confidence that the selection made available to the public is thematically representative of the overall collection, no definite statement about the germinal activities that lead to what became an indigenous style of Iranian photography can be made until scholars receive the chance to examine the total treasure locked behind closed doors. As such the findings of this article, with its examination of 116 albums out of a pool of 1040 must be viewed as a window that has been opened onto a vast heritage. Many of the photographs of the Tholozan collection can also be found in the Golestan archive. The methodology concepts expounded will be applied to that of the Tholozan collection as well.