“The enemy of photography is the convention . . . the salvation of photography comes from the experiment.” Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion.
The first known photographer who arrived in Iran was Jules Richard, a French language tutor. He took daguerreotypes of Mohammad Shah and his son, the crown prince, Naser al-Din Mirza. The latter, took a serious interest in photography after his coronation as Shah in 1848. Within a decade, new photographic techniques were introduced in Iran by the several photographers active in Tehran. Fascinated by photography and its potential, the Shah created the position of a court photographer, and the Gulistan Palace was equipped with a darkroom and photographic studio.
By the 1870s, there were several independent photographers in Tehran, including Antoin Sevruguin, who made photographs at a time:
. . . when orientalist fervor was at its height and Europeans were using photographic images to construct and confirm their notions of the Orient . . . Sevruguin used his camera to construct counter-representations. . . [and] allowed the people in front of his camera to compose themselves according to how they themselves wished to be seen, according to their own myths and realities. (Iranian Studies, 35:1-3, 114.)
Sevruguin’s photographs of landscapes and people were published in international newspapers, magazines and books as early as 1885. Trained as a painter, Sevruguin also tended to manipulate his photographs, personalizing and enhancing their dramatic effects by retouching them.
The first decade of the 20th century saw a remarkable proliferation of photography in Iran thanks to the introduction of more portable and affordable photographic equipment. Twenty-five years later, the Pahlavi dynasty ignited the “Awakening of the Women Movement” (1936–1941), which led to the elimination of the veil for working class Iranian women. Reza Shah used photography as a pivotal tool to illustrate and propel society in its accelerated transition into a truly modern (and secular) era. Women in the Pahlavi era appeared without any religious coverings, and were seen in modern European poses and outfits for the first time. Iran’s arts and culture scene flourished, accompanied by art publications and art criticism.
The history of contemporary photography in Iran is recounted in “Portrait of a Nation, From the harems of the Qajars to the Iran-Iraq War – a history of photography in Iran,” a 2015 article by Sanaz Jamloo. Since the 1970s, Iranian photographers “showed an increasing enthusiasm for experimenting with new and alternative processes such as photomontage, collages with photographic prints, and writing, painting, and drawing on photographs.” (Reorient, March 29, 2015, no page.)
In the convulsive postwar decades, photography was increasingly used as a mechanism for social and political activism, as well as for aesthetic pursuits. As Jamloo continued, “The women previously photographed in harems by their husbands, for example, are now behind their own cameras. With their photographs, Iranian women are telling stories of power and passion, challenging stereotypes, and providing insight into the social and political issues of contemporary Iran.”
Tahereh Fallahzadeh, whose work is now on view at Baxter St (Camera Club of New York) was born in Tehran in 1968, a decade before Shah Pavlavi left Iran for exile. She received a BA in literature from Melli University and a BA of photography from YCAI (Young Cinema Association of Iran), where she was trained in documentary photography. These degrees allowed her to become an accredited teacher, and she worked for more than 25 years as a photography instructor at a fine arts school for female students.
Her son, Hadi Fallahpisheh a US-based artist, suggests that much of his mother’s work is influenced by her early experiments in the darkroom, where she used a variety of techniques from the realm of black and white darkroom practices. At university, Ms. Fallahzadeh had awareness of Iranian photographic traditions dating back to Antoin Sevruguin. Nonetheless, her access to Western artists, their work and art criticism, more generally, had been limited in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Images and translated texts about modern masters of photography was very difficult to come by, but she found it wherever she could. She was greatly influenced by the work of several artists—Brassaï (Gilberte Brassai), André Kertész, Josef Sudek and Otto Umbehr, to name a few.
Ms. Fallahzadeh’s work not only references visual representations of Iranian women, but also the country’s culture and landscape more generally. She connects the near past and unsettled present using photograms that also express the personal myths and realities of her subjects. Like Shirin Neshat, an eminently more famous Iranian visual artist, Ms. Fallahzadeh is a “visual interpreter” of Iranian culture, rather than a photographer of cultural, sociological and political realities. Her work can be viewed both as poetic and allegorical.
In Untitled (1997), one of the earliest photograms in the exhibition, the image of a mustachioed man is super-imposed on the pensive portrait of a scarfed woman. It neatly foretells the title of a 2005 book titled, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, anxieties that still persist. Untitled (2002) features a woman in a chador—a long, often black cloth that envelops the body from head to foot and covers all or part of the face—with her eyes obscured. The photogram is manipulated in such a way that rivulets of chemicals were used on the image’s surface to look like stains of endless tears. Whether it is a man herding sheep on a suburban road or boys riding in the trunk of a classic car, Ms. Fallahzadeh captures a certain timeless quality in post-revolutionary Iran.
Twenty-two unique, small-scale gelatin silver prints—the primary process for printing black-and-white photos since its development in the late 1880s—are presented with mat boards covered in subtly patterned fabrics that Ms. Fallahzadeh sent from Tehran. They lend an additional layer of cultural authenticity to the works, which are installed as clusters on the armatures of Flexible Image Arrangement System, a hanging device that Fia Backström, the Swedish artist, designed for a 2017 exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, Woe men—keep going. The intention of this modular architecture is to free art work from its traditional presentation and dependency on walls. It is an interesting approach, but the intimacy of Ms. Fallahzadeh’s would have been better served by a more traditional installation.
Organized by Phoebe d’Heurle and Hadi Fallahpisheh, this is Ms. Fallahzadeh’s first exhibition in the United States. Previously, she has exhibited in group shows in Tehran’s non-profit spaces. (Contemporary art, a growing gallery scene and an art market have emerged only recently in Tehran. Part of this budding renaissance is attributable to Wim Delvoye, the Belgian artist, who had a large survey show in at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016.) Baxter St is also a non-profit space. Located just north of Canal Street, the gallery is an appendage of the Camera Club of New York. Originally founded as The Camera Club of New York in 1884, it is one of New York’s oldest arts organizations, providing lens-based artists with both working facilities and forums for discussions.
Against the Sun: The Photographs of Tahereh Fallahzadeh and the Exhibition Architecture of Fia Backström At Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York through July 6, 2019.