Portraits I; A Portfolio of Iranian Literati
They are all here, our best-known wielders of the pen, which is supposed to be mightier than the sword! Famous writers, well-known poets, best-selling translators, and even behind-the-scene editors, who seldom consent to assemble under one roof are now found here side by side on neutral territory, thanks to Maryam Zandi’s admirable zeal and perseverance. And what a serious lot they are, these ladies and gentlemen of Persian letters, this cream of the crop! Everyone has put on a solemn face; no one is saying ‘cheese!’; most have been caught in the act of deep concentration; some are still gazing at distant horizons long lost behind layers of dust and smoke. Where are those smiles of satisfaction which should brighten up the portraits of these masters of prose and poetry as they stand on the pinnacle of fame if not fortune? Don’t we all consent to pose in front of the photographic lens so that we may be immortalized for posterity?
Since that memorable day when the newly invented photographic camera was first used in Iran (it was on Thursday the 5th of December 1844, modern research has established, when an adventurous Frenchman by the name of Jules Richard who was to spend the rest of his days in Iran as ‘Musio Rishard Khan’ trained the lens of a daguerreotype camera on the 13-year-old Crown Prince, Nasered-Din Mirza ) to this day almost 150 years later when the mere push of a button causes a state-of-the art camera to take your picture quite automatically and effortlessly, yes, all through these 150 years, anyone who has consented to pose for the photographic lens has been mindful also of leaving an image behind for the future generations. One’s current image can always be admired in the mirror.
Our Qajar fore fathers took the business of posing for photographs much more seriously than we do today, young as the art was in the 1860s and 70s. It was a novelty, and its only rival was the portrait artist’s services, which were by no means cheap. After a decade or two, the photographic camera emerged from the exclusivity of the Royal Palace to establish itself in commercial ateliers on top of some shop or other on the main streets of Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz, Isfahan and in other major cities, manned by enterprising Iranians or more often by emigre Armenians or Georgians, who offered their services t the citizenry for a modest fee.
The citizenry responded favorably to the offer, and it soon became fashionable to summon the
local photographer whenever there was an occasion worth recording on a glass plate: a wedding, a feast celebrating a young boy’s circumcision, a big reunion or even a gathering in memory of a loved one just deceased. These were group photographs that were recorded on the largest plate the photographer could muster; smaller plates were reserved for portraits or for less formal groups of two or three male friends, who were sometimes accompanied by underage children. There were also lady photographers who would take the camera inside the women’s quarters for all-female photographs.
Taking a picture was in itself quite a routine: to begin with, ample daylight was needed in the photographer’s atelier or in the host’s house or garden (artificial lighting was hardly available), then a black or dark grey cloth was required to be hung on a wall as a backdrop, and a spacious place where everyone could take their proper places strictly in accordance with their stations in life. The patriarch would sit on a chair in the middle; the family elders would sit on either side; sons and son-in-laws would stands in a row behind the seated members of the party, and the children, almost always boys, would seat cross-legged on the floor, or on the ground, in front. As for the servants and gardeners and bailiffs
and what have you, they would fit themselves into any nook or cranny they could find in the background behind the inner circle. Everyone had to don their finest clothes, groom their beards and mustachios and look their best for the occasion. Meanwhile, the master photographer would move his big camera on its wooden tripod back and forth until the most suitable spot for it was found; then he would put his head under the black cloth to compose the picture and focus the upside-down image that he observed on ground-glass at the back of the camera. When he had made sure that no one was cut off and every one
was more or less in focus, he would reemerge with a call of ‘Ready, everybody!’ and proceed to place the sensitized glass plate in its light-proof case behind the camera and to put the lens cap back on, and
then to withdraw the black metallic curtain in front of the emulsion. Now everything was ready for the exposure to be made, and ‘Freeze, everybody!’, the maestro would shout, as he removed the cap from
the lens with one hand, which would then embark upon a rhythmic dance above the camera while the seconds slowly ticked away. After the required time had elapsed, the hand would descend to replace the cap and stop the exposure. It was quite common for Qajar subjects to freeze for between 30 to 60 seconds, if not more, for each single photograph.
Several talented young Iranians who were sent to 19th century Europe to learn the photographic techniques returned to become court photographers and hence well-known and much-respected individuals. Some others who found themselves in Russia or British-ruled India at the time also acquired photographic skills and were able to establish their own ateliers in the Qajar capital or in provincial centers when they moved to Iran. The albums and glass plates that they have left behind (the biggest single collection of Qajar photographs is in storage in the Golestan Palace Museum in Tehran) attest to their skills, and preserve for us images of a bygone era. These pictures deserve to find a permanent niche for
themselves in a photography museum, and some of them have already found a home in permanent collections abroad.
Much attention was paid to the subject’s facial features as the photographer prepared the camera;
it was only after he had focused the lens on the subject’s eyeballs that he would turn his attention to the other parts of the face and body. The techniques of portraiture were just as important in photography as they were in painting, and some photographers of the period who considered themselves especially skillful in taking portraits advertised themselves as Chehregosha (portraitist) or Chehrenema (ditto), and these became in due course their own and their family’s surnames.
Among the host of Qajar photographers two names stand out: Abdallah Khan Qajar and Antoine Sevriugin a.k.a. Antuwan Khan. The former was a Qajar prince of sorts himself, and to learn the photographic techniques he traveled initially to France, and from there to Austria where his studies lasted several years. He mastered not only all types of photography, but all the photographic reproduction techniques as well, as they were practiced in the late 19th century Europe. On his return to Iran he found half his newly acquired knowledge useless because the government never managed to purchase the
equipment that he required for photomechanical reproduction of images. But his atelier at the Darol-Fonun Polytechnic became a very active photographic center, and thousands of his prints, and some of his glass plates, survive to this day. How is Abdallah Khan to be evaluated as a photographer? His output is technically very sound; his photos are almost always in sharp focus and well composed, and the prints have withstood the passage of time well, meaning that they were properly printed and fixed and adequately washed and that good photographic material and chemicals were used. They are very valuable as visual documents, but artistically they do not earn full marks. The fire and spark which causes one to depart from the beaten track is somehow missing from his work.
Antoine Sevriugin’s photographs, on the other hand, are much more artistic. A student of photography at once realizes that he is dealing here with a photographer for whom the overall composition of the picture, the balance of light and shade, and the way the viewer’s eyes are led from one center of interest to another are much more important than the general sharpness of the image. Sevriugin immigrated to Iran from Russia (he had most probably learned the photographic trade in Tbilisi, where a number of
other Russian and Armenian photographers who moved Iran had also received their training),and he moved to Tehran after a short stay in Tabriz; in the Iranian capital he set up shop on Ala’ od-Dowleh Avenue (Ferdowsi Avenue today), where he practiced photography for many years, down to the 1920s and 30s.Many of his prints and glass plates have been preserved, and some have even found their way
to important photographic collections in Western Europe and in the United States. There is no doubt that the best Qajar portraits are the work of Antoine Sevriugin, and they are not always those of Qajar princes and dignitaries. He was fond of recording images of various social types, among whom the wandering dervishes are a prominent genre. Antoine’s son became a painter in the traditional Iranian style, signing his miniature paintings ‘Darviche Sevriuguine’. He prepared illustrations for new editions of Ferdowsi’s
Shahnameh and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, which were published in Tehran in the 1930s.
The Pahlavi era witnessed further growth of the photographer’s trade. Artificial lighting replaced daylight in the better photographic studios, and with the growth of bureaucracy a huge demand for passport photos was created because of all the identity cards and passes and permits that had to be issued. This was business for the photographic trade whose members were now active in all the major
urban centers in the country, not only in regular studios and shops but also outdoors, in parks and on
the streets, in the vicinity of those government offices which required applicants to visit them already armed with a set of photographs. An overall evaluation of the photography of the ensuing decades is a job fit for a museum curator with daily access to photo archives and other relevant documents. This
writer’s attempt at an evaluation is not based on such solid research and makes no further claim than being just a personal opinion.
A major difference between Qajar and Pahlevi-era portraiture lies in the use of artificial lighting which
was first introduced in the better studios of Tehran in the 1920s and had replaced natural daylight in the
photography trade by 1945.Well,artificial lighting did not initially produce an improvement in the quality
of the portraits that were taken under floodlights. Why? Because photographers preferred to take all the portraits in the studio, and that a) put an end to the use of natural surroundings – the courtyards, the gardens and the mirrored halls -that are such a prominent feature of Qajar photographs, and b) imposed
a type of theatrical lighting upon photography and also ushered in theatrical poses and a heavy-handed retouching of negatives. And it took several decades for portraiture in Iran to free itself from the adverse effects of these strictures. Thus, we are of the opinion that Qajar photographs are more realistic and natural than early Pahlevi-era studio shots.
We mention only two photographers from this era: Hadi Shafa’ieh and the late Ali Khadem. Hadi(a
French-educated pharmacist) became so infatuated with the camera that he abandoned the family metier in order to pursue a lifelong career in photography. His studio was quite popular in the 1950’s and 60’s
in Tehran; he was the first photographer to introduce artistic portraits and many poets, writers, actors and actresses sought him out to pose for him. A well-remembered and still widely-reproduced portrait is that of Nima Yushij, the so-called Father of Modern Persian Poetry, with its ‘Hadi’ emblem superimposed in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph.
Ali Khadem was the son of Mohammad Ja’far Khadem,a professional photographer of the late Qajar period. Ali acquired the photographic skills at an early age and continued his father’s vocation when the
latter retired, but he will be best remembered as a pioneer photojournalist specializing in the use of light 35mm equipment and available-light photography, at a time when all the Iranian press photographers worked with twin-lens reflex cameras fitted with a strong flash gun. Their photographs were almost always contrasty shots with overexposed foregrounds and underexposed backgrounds. Khadem’s photographs with their natural lighting, on the other hand, provide us with a more realistic view of the major news events that he covered. In later life, Khadem began to experiment with the photomontage technique•, and for a while would graft the well-known faces of local celebrities to bodies borrowed from clowns and other comic types, thus creating visual jokes which were not always taken lightly. This practice did not
earn him new friends and gradually he turned to copying older photographs to augment his own collection and create an archive which has become a rich repository of historical images.
And now where are we to place Maryam Zandi,s portraits in the temple of contemporary Iranian photography? Which tradition is she upholding and where is she heading? Maryam is an easygoing portra1t1st; she uses minimum equipment; she is a professional but she dose not operate out of a studio. She was attracted to photojournalism because of her love for photography when she was fresh out of Tehran University with a first degree in political science. And it was in the cauldron of news coverage for television and for the press that she gained experience and became, in due course, a seasoned photographer. Her usual beat was cultural and artistic events and this put her in touch with celebrities and with the well-known figures of the art world. And in photographing these personalities she learned that a successful portrait records not only the outward likeness of a person but also reveals something
of the character behind the image. And we notice in the present series of photographs that Maryam, just
like any other serious portraitist, has tried to capture something of the character that lies behind the face.
But how is it possible to make visible in a still photograph a person’s character which is generally invisible? Let us seek the answer f rom Yusuf Karsh of Ottawa, the Armenian-born Grand Master of Portraiture. ”The endless fascination of these [great] people for me lies in what I call their inward power.
It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it
on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves, may lift for only a second to reveal
that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.” Karsh states elsewhere that before embarking on a photographic session, he
tries to do his ” ‘homework’ of finding out as much as I can about each person I am to photograph”. Maryam Zandi, too, tries to approach the writers she wants to photograph with some foreknowledge of their work and personality. She tries to read some of their work beforehand; she has several conversations with them while she obtains their consent and makes all the arrangements of time and place; and finally she sets out for the rendezvous, carrying all her equipment in a duffle bag. She prefers to photograph her subjects intheir homes or at the office where they may work, in their natural surroundings
and in the midst of objects they are familiar with. She chooses a well-lit spot (she works with available light only), which may be a desk, a corner of the study or living room, a place by the pond or near a tree .
in the courtyard. she allows the person to make himself or herself comfortable at the chosen location,
and keeps a sort of conversation going while she prepares her camera. Then quickly she exposes three .
or four frames. ”I want the ice to break and I want to ease the tension,” she tells me. ”After those first shots, they relax and I can begin my work in earnest.” Maryam also refrains from using a tripod so that she may walk freely around the subject and take successive shots from different angles. She works with a 35mm camera – a somewhat old Nikon body – and a variety of lenses, including the 105mm telephoto which is the favorite lens of many portrait photographers. Working with available light, without a tripod, with a telephoto lens, and with a moderately fine-grain film may sound like a formula for disaster, i.e. if you do not have steady hands and a cool nerve. Maryam possesses both thanks to her long experience as a news photographer; and it is with a definite sense of self-assurance that she has accepted the challenge of hand-held photography while enjoying the freedom of action it affords her. If the portraits in this collection are any proof, she has succeeded admirably.
The photographic session usually ends when she reaches the final frame of a 36-exposure roll, and before the subject has lost all of his or her patience. Maryam works solely with black-and-white material and she herself develops her exposed negatives as soon as she returns home. She prints a set of contacts the same day, but the rest of the process – a careful scrutiny of the contact sheets, and enlargement of
the best frames – is left for another day; that will require a full session in the dark room. Maryam’s favorite print size is 24×30 cm., both for exhibitions and for reproduction, but she first test-prints the negatives on papers of smaller size. Photographic material in Iran costs a lot more these days, and she cannot
work too lavishly. Each frame is first test-printed with an even exposure all over the negative area; and then a second and third time with controlled exposures, with dodging and burning in introduced, so that
the details in the highlight areas are brought out and all the shadow detail is not lost. In this way she
works her way towards a final print which will reveal the full potential of her best negative. She is guided
in the darkroom by the teachings of her mentor, Ahmad
– i, and the experiences she has shared over
the years with her fellow photographers. She has to work meticulously and patiently to attain the highest standards of craftsmanship.
Maryam Zandi’s portraits make up a varied collection, something which is a big plus for an album of this nature. No two photographs share the same angle, the same lighting, the same pose or the same background. Each portrait is an independent entity; each time we turn a page, not only do we discover
a new face but a wholly novel visual composition worthy of exploration. First, an overall look at the face
in an attempt to identify the subject, then a furtive look at the caption to see if we have been right in our identification, then a careful scrutiny of the features, starting with the eyes and ending with the details
of the garment and accessories in the background. And when we have taken in all the details, we undertake an overall aesthetic evaluation of the photograph, especially bearing on its composition and lighting.
Maryam’s rejection of artificial illumination does not mean that she does not care about the quality of the light in her pictures. On the contrary. She does not like the flat frontal light which is the easiest and also the least satisfactory way to illuminate a subject; she also avoids direct sunlight because it creates too much contrast in the negative. Her favorite source of light is a relatively high sidelight that breaks P a face into peaks and valleys of light and shade and brings out its correct proportions. By depending so much on a sidelight as her principal source of illumination, she makes her job in the darkroom that much more difficult, but her portraits gain in expressiveness and vividness as a result.
Maryam’s photographs do not appear ‘extraordinary’ at first glance; there is nothing stunning about them, nothing exaggerated. Everything is correct and proper, so much so that we sometimes forget we are admiring a portrait which could have been just as easily not so natural and intimate, and not so casual-looking. Maryam’s main achievement, in the humble opinion of this writer, is her success in persuading her subjects to be just themselves, and not individuals playing a role.
No, it is not all that easy! You must have tried it. Is there anyone who has not pressed the shutter of some camera at least two or three times in his or her life? It is easy and then it is not. It requires special mental abilities: the ability to establish a rapport with a person who may have had no previous meetings with you and may feel ill at ease, the ability to inspire confidence in the subject so that he or she may lower her guard, relax and forget his or her self-importance in the presence of a camera which keeps fluttering around, clicking away.
The idea of creating a photo archive for all the Iranian writers and poets and translators was Maryam
Zandi’s own, and she went about it at her own initiative and expense. The project is nearly ten years old now, and it has not been smooth sailing for her all the way. Suffice it to say that some of the subjects have not been too eager to be photographed, and it has required Maryam to use all her powers of persuasionto make them change their mind; and there are still some who have yet to relent. The creation
of the archive has resulted so far in two exhibitions, one staged privately in Tehran, and the other in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the annual conference of American Orientalists and lranologists (MESA 1991), and in the present album, of course.
In conclusion, as a pen-pusher who has servedthe community of Iranian writers and translators for a long time, I take this opportunity to thank Maryam Zandi for her ,initiative in starting her collection of contemporary portraits. This is an archive whose usefulness will surely transcend the present boundaries of time and place, and the images preserved in it will continue to serve the media of the world in the decades to come. I have also to offer Maryam Khanom a personal word of thanks. She has allowed me to include in her book several portraits that I was lucky enough to land in another era.
Tajrish, June 1992.