• May 3, 2016

Old School Persian Photography With a Modern Twist

Jehan Jillani

Naser al-Din, the longest reigning shah of the Qajar Dynasty, was known to be one of the great patrons of photography in Persia. After bringing one of the first cameras to Iran, he proceeded to photograph his family members, attendants, pets, even himself, with commendable zeal. Three court photographers and a fully functioning photo studio were all established under his rule. Iran’s extraordinarily rich photographic tradition thrived.

Picture of a woman in a hijab carrying a boombox

Tehran-based artist Shadi Ghadirian is one of the many Iranian photographers who continues to draw from the strong tradition of image making that Naser al-Din helped build. She was only a student at the University of Azad when she came across 19th-century studio portraits of women and men from the Qajar era—several of which were produced under his reign—at the National Museum of Photography in Tehran. The work, with its rich, painted backdrops and bold poses, stuck with Ghadirian and she eventually went on to adopt the style of photography for her dissertation project.

Picture of two women in headscarves underneath an umbrella

“I wanted to show the existing contrasts and contradictions for the young generation of Iranian women, so I renewed the old part of the photographs and combined it with the elements of today’s life,” Ghadirian told me over e-mail.

Picture of a woman wearing a headscarf and sunglasses

The final product of Ghadirian’s approach was the critically acclaimed Qajar series that consists of historical studio-style portraits of women—many of them who are the artist’s family members or friends—dressed in the 19th-century Qajar style and equipped with props from the present. (Many of the items that the subjects are holding, such as a Pepsi can and a boom box, were considered taboo in Iran in the late nineties, thus adding a delightfully anachronistic twist to the work.)

Picture of two women in burkas standing next to a painting

The work is also largely successful because of how historically accurate these portraits look. “There are so many little points of reference—from the pose to the outfits­—to the 19th-century portraits in this series, and it is only when you familiarize yourself with the history of Persian photography [that you can] appreciate Ghadirian’s attention to detail,” Kristen Gresh, the curator of the touring exhibit “She Who Tells a Story,” now currently up at the National Museum of Women in Arts in Washington, D.C., told me over the phone.

Picture of a woman in a headscarf holding a Pepsi can

Qajar, which has been exhibited and published quite extensively since 1998, continues to resonate with audiences all around the world even today. The work’s enduring quality is why Gresh decided to include it in the show, even though it was made almost twenty years ago. “People are [still] very drawn to this work,” she told me. “The work automatically raises a lot of questions. It tackles the tension between the public persona and the private life with a sense of humor and that, I think, is a key part to what makes it successful.”

Picture of two women in headscarves holding cosmetics

See more of Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs on her website.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Nasar
    September 7, 2016

    Wow… Good Idea by Photographer.. Nice Photography & Off-course Love Persian People…
    Greetings from Himalayas of Pakistan

  2. meraj
    August 2, 2016

    that is great / i love persian people

  3. Xavier Anderson
    June 8, 2016

    Excellent photographs. The photographer is a great talent.

  4. Margaret Thorpe
    June 6, 2016

    Exquisite photos from a novel perspective. Quite wonderful.

  5. Richard Alden Peterson
    May 17, 2016

    Great photography work, and an interesting idea. Thank you.

  6. Marie
    May 17, 2016

    Enjoyed these photographs

  7. Tarah Miller
    May 5, 2016

    This is a fantastic post. I’d love to see some photos in flesh, and look forward to seeking them out.


  8. Silas S
    May 5, 2016

    These pictures show that frayed jeans or the so-called funny-looking “home-distressed jeans” could be photographed as elements which waste precious resources at a time when many homeless kids couldn’t afford new clothes. Yet, there is fear that any sense of decency and common sense lawfully prevailing or working against counter cultures would also likely be considered “taboo.” Nowadays one could even point to a teacher or an instructor wearing not-so-decent rags for work which even cowboys would have trashed.

  9. شهرزاد
    May 4, 2016

    این عکسها جدید هستند ولی با سبک قدیم ایران طرح قشنگیه.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.