The Eye of the Shah: Qajar Court Photography and the Persian Past explores the fascinating world of early Iranian photography and the country it so richly depicted.
The Eye of the Shah: Qajar Court Photography and the Persian Past explores the fascinating world of early Iranian photography and the country it so richly depicted. With some 200 photographs—the great majority of which have never been publicly exhibited—the exhibition encompasses unprecedented, captivating images of life at the royal court in Tehran, intriguing pictures of daily life outside the court, and photographic portraits of the country’s ancient monuments and sites. Virtually all of the images were taken by royal photographers engaged by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r.1848–1896), the longest-reigning shah of Iran’s Qajar Dynasty (1785– 1925). They are complemented by the work of two modern-day Iranian photographers, Bahman Jalali (1944 – 2010) and Shadi Ghadirian (b. 1974), demonstrating the ongoing, enduring power of the country’s past.
The Eye of the Shah is on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW) from October 22, 2015, through January 17, 2016. It has been organized by ISAW and is curated by a team comprising ISAW Exhibition Director Jennifer Y. Chi; Carmen Pérez González, research associate at Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Germany; Reza Sheikh, an independent scholar; Judith A. Lerner, research associate, ISAW; and Jennifer Miyuki Babcock, curatorial postdoctoral associate, ISAW.
“The Eye of the Shah is unusual among ISAW’s exhibitions to date in looking at the past primarily through photographs rather than artifacts,” notes Dr. Chi. “In examining historic cultures and their portrayal through the then-new technique of photography, the exhibition continues ISAW’s efforts to explore both the past and the shifting ways in which we have viewed it through time.”
Photography was introduced to Iran in 1842, just three years after its invention in Paris, when Naser al-Din Shah’s father, Mohammad Shah Qajar, acquired two daguerreotype cameras for his court. The young crown prince soon became enamored with the medium, and eventually developed into a photographer in his own right and a visionary patron of its practice. He established photography as a major activity at court, where he built an infrastructure for it, and ensured that it was taught at the Dar al-Fonun (Polytechnic University), which he had founded.
Unlike many other non-European countries that adopted photography, in Iran the medium grew primarily through the endeavors of indigenous practitioners. Except for a lucky few (including Naser al-Din Shah), these men had no formal education in the field and virtually no way of traveling to other countries to learn it. Rather, they explored the technique and artistic potential of the medium on their own, documenting Persian life and its environment and developing a portraiture practice, and leaving behind a rich and informative legacy.
The Eye of the Shah contains work by photographers including relatives of the shah appointed as court photographers, the well-known Tehran-based Antoin Sevruguin, who had a thriving commercial practice, and European commercial practitioners (including Félix Nadar) who took portraits of the shah and his retinue during their journeys abroad.
The Royal Court
The first of the two exhibition galleries opens with a series of photographs, all shown here for the first time, that open a window onto court life. These pictures played the same role for the shah and his family that photography continues to play today—as personal records and reminders of people, places, and events in one’s life—and they were taken by men specially selected by the shah as among those he could trust with the intimate act of gazing upon the Royal Self (zat-e homayuni) and documenting his daily life. The display begins with a group of images of the shah and the tightly circumscribed group of men around him. Mostly taken within the walls of the Golestan Palace complex, these range from intimate, informal pictures, such as one of the shah seated on a rug and apparently gazing at something outside the frame, to examples in which he is formally posed, dressed in full regalia, and seated on the step of the Takht-e Tavus, a jeweled throne in the Palace.
The portraits of the shah and his retinue are accompanied by compelling, often intimate images of his wives and both his own and other children at court. One especially engaging example shows the shah at rest, partially reclining on a rug and flanked by two of his wives. (Visitors to the exhibition will be able to discern the most influential wives by the frequency with which they were photographed and their relaxed, sometimes playful poses, bespeaking an intimacy between sitter and photographer that identifies the latter as the shah.) Children are similarly depicted in both formal portraits, like one of the shah’s son, who appears to be about three years of age, dressed in formal attire and holding a sword, and informal ones like that of a young girl standing in front of what may be her older sister, who appears to be holding the younger child still for the camera.
The ultimate accolade that the shah could give to a photographer was to include his work in an album, and The Eye of the Shah exhibits a number of rare, prized examples. Some include pictures taken behind the palace walls—portraits of the king and his entourage, of his wives and other members of the royal family, and of government officials and members of the palace retinue, from servants to troubadours to the eunuchs who served as protectors of the shah’s harem. Others include images of members of the royal court taken on photography expeditions across the country, sponsored by the shah in order to document the lands under his rule, and on journeys (mostly hunting trips), taken by the first court photographer, Reza Akkasbashi, or by the shah himself. Together, these reveal the impact on photographers of frequent changes of setting and subject, which forced them to experiment with the large Naser al-Din Shah Qajar and Two of His Wives 3 field cameras, and of the shah’s demand for the highest quality, which compelled them to continuously improve their printing—an onerous task given the rather cumbersome processes at the time.
Other travels that kept court photographers busy included sojourns to Europe, which Naser al-Din Shah was the first Iranian monarch ever to visit (in 1873, 1878, and 1889). The European travels—the first of which took the shah to Russia, Prussia, Belgium, England, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy—are a rich source of photographs of him, and the exhibition includes numerous examples, taken not only by those who had accompanied him from Iran, but also by major European commercial photographers. Also here are pictures of Naser al-Din Shah’s son Mozaffar al-Din Shah, who ruled from 1896 to 1907 and managed to travel to Europe three times during his short tenure. On each of the trips by father and son, the shah and his royal hosts would exchange cabinet-portraits or cartes de visite, about 20 of which are on view throughout the exhibition.
Life Beyond the Court
Photographs of the royal court at home and abroad are complemented by images of daily life across the country. Unlike other countries in the region, Iran didn’t attract great numbers of artists, due to the difficulty of land travel, political instability, and other issues. As a result, photography was the primary record of life in the country. Antoinin Sevruguin was the most prolific photographer of daily life and the main provider of images of Iran to Western audiences, and The Eye of the Shah includes a series of his studio photographs, shining a light on the human landscape beyond the palace walls with images of farmers, bakers, a beggar, a dentist (at work), carpet weavers, and more, all intended to portray various “types” for potential buyers.
Work by Bahman Jalali and Shadi Ghadirian is installed at either end of this gallery. Jalali is represented by photomontages created from Qajar-era glassplate negatives, bridging past and present; Ghadirian’s work is from her series Qajar, staged photographs of women posed in settings and costumes that summon the Qajar Dynasty, but accompanied by quotidian objects of modern life.
Ancient Monuments and Sites
Iran’s long and complex history is evoked in the exhibition’s second gallery, which displays a range of photographs of ancient monuments and sites. Naser al-Din Shah’s early engagement with photography coincided with a blossoming of interest in the country’s pre-Islamic monuments, which, except for those of the Sasanian dynasty (224 – 651 CE)—the last pre-Islamic Persian empire—were known only through mythology and romanticized stories that had been passed down through the centuries. Enthusiasm for learning about these may be traced to 1846, when English military officer Henry Creswicke Rawlinson published the first accurate reading of an inscription of the Achaemenid king Darius the Great (r. 522 – 486 BCE), carved into the mountain at Bisotun, in northwestern Iran. In providing a view into the first Persian empire, the translation inspired a desire to rediscover and learn about the country’s pre-Islamic history.
Naser al-Din Shah recognized the value of photography to this endeavor, and he encouraged photographic documentation of Iran’s pre-Islamic past. As seen in this gallery, many photographers made use of meticulous framing, dramatic shadows, carefully composed angles, and other techniques to Bakery 4 capture the grandeur and beauty of these ancient sites, thereby conveying a sense of pride in the country’s historical identity.
The centerpiece of this gallery is Album fotographico della Persia, by Luigi Pesce. A Neapolitan lieutenant colonel and accomplished photographer, Pesce, who had been hired by Naser al-Din Shah to train and modernize the army, left Tehran in 1857 to take the first photographs of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and nearby Achaemenid and Sasanian sites. As a whole, Pesce’s album, which also includes contemporary photographs of Tehran, provides important documentation not only of ancient sites and monuments, but also of the political climate at the time, in which Iran was at the geographic nexus of competing imperial agendas. (While the exhibition will only present a single spread at a time, other pages of the album will be visible on a tablet stationed nearby.)
Following Pesce’s album, the display presents a chronological tour of ancient sites, beginning with an anonymous photograph of the tomb at Pasargadae of Cyrus the Great, who, as founder of the Achaemenid Empire, one of the largest and most successful in ancient history, was among the most important rulers of the ancient world.
This is followed by additional photographs of Persepolis, installed to recreate the experience of walking into and through the site. These begin with an image of the famous “Gate of all Lands,” with its monumental carvings of winged, human-headed bulls, and move through such places as the northern staircase of the Apadana (columned assembly hall), with its majestic reliefs depicting a procession of tribute bearers and animals.
A display of photographs of Sasanian sites focuses on Naqsh-e Rostam, the burial place of Achaemenid kings, where Sasanian reliefs were carved below the tombs. In some areas, examples from both eras are juxtaposed, enabling direct comparison of the distinct visual languages of each period. A group of photographs shows the Sasanian reliefs carved beneath the tomb of Darius I, revealing both the decorative style of the earlier Achaemenid sculptors, with figures carved in low relief and shown in strict profile, and the much higher relief and rounded, more dynamically posed figures of the Sasanian era.
Finally, the enduring hold of ancient Persia on the imagination of both Iranians and Europeans is evoked by a series of photographs of Persepolis from the first half of the1930s. Taken by German excavation photographer Hans Wichert von Busse, these include beautiful panoramic views of monumental architecture and sculpture, as well as close-up details that reveal the precise carving of the limestone reliefs. Von Busse’s photographs are accompanied by an album with the first aerial photographs of Persepolis, taken in 1930 by German aviator Georg Jüterbock and showing the condition of the sites unmitigated by modern reconstruction.
Throughout the gallery, pre-photographic material is juxtaposed with photographs to provide an idea of the evolving representation of these sites and its transformation by the new medium. A fascinating display Relief of a Lion Attacking a Bull, Staircase of the Apadana, Persepolis Sasanian Relief of Shapur I (r. 241–272 CE) and His Triumph Over Emperor Valerian (r. 253–260 CE) with Antoin Sevruguin in the Foreground, Naqsh-e Rostam 5 of European books and prints dating from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries shows prephotographic images of Persepolis and Bisotun, with depictions ranging from the authentic to the fanciful (including one in which the Apadana at Persepolis looks very much like a seventeenth-century Baroque architectural assemblage). The display culminates in Rawlinson’s 1846 transcription of the cuneiform inscription of Darius the Great—the event that started it all—along with the publication that reported on it.
This exhibition was organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and made possible by the generous support of the Selz Foundation, the David Berg Foundation, Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Special loans provided by the Kimia Foundation and the Collection of Azita Bina and Elmar W. Seibel.
The Eye of the Shah: Qajar Photography and the Persian Past will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, containing essays by Carmen Pérez González, Reza Sheikh, and Judith A. Lerner. Published by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and distributed by Princeton University Press, it will be available for $39.95 at ISAW and on the Princeton University Press website.
Established in 2006, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University is an independent center for scholarly research and graduate education, intended to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world. ISAW encourages approaches that encompass cultures from the western Mediterranean to China, and that cross the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, promoting methodologies open to the integration of every category of evidence and method of analysis. It also engages the larger scholarly community and the public with an ongoing program of exhibitions, lectures, and publications that reflect its mission and scholarship.
The inspiration for the Institute was the lifelong passion for the study of the ancient world shared by the late Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, and ISAW was established with funds from the Leon Levy Foundation. Ms. White is the founder of ISAW and chairman of its board. Leon Levy Director of ISAW is the historian and papyrologist Roger S. Bagnall; Dr. Chi is Exhibitions Director and Chief Curator. For additional public information: www.isaw.nyu.edu.