Photography and Cinematography in Qajar Era Iran
27-28 August 2011


Mirjam Brusius

Image problems: Photographic (self-)representations of Persia by Nasser Al-Din Shah and European Travelling Artists in the mid 19th Century (late Qajar Era)

The collection of 19th century photographs at the Golestan Palace has been largely neglected by European historians of photography, though it is remarkable for two reasons: First, because photography in Iran arrived shortly after its invention had been announced in Europe, making the collection particularly rich in its holdings of early photographs of the Middle East. Second, because it was the Shah, Nasser al-Din himself, who promoted the medium and became himself a photographer. This makes this royal collection a visual source documenting the Shah himself, a country and its people as seen through the royal lens while at the same time reflecting contemporary interests of power and hegemony; especially the Shahs interest in diplomatic relationships to Europe. The Shah arranged his own photographs in albums, added annotations, and arranged for European photographers to photograph his court and his country and to disseminate the images. This visual royal microcosm, the albums and photographs, possess their own ambivalent iconography, reflecting Persian miniature painting and contemporary European portrait photography alike.

At the same time, European travellers entered Persia and took their own photographs and arranged them in albums that were partly distributed amongst European rulers. Several of these albums are known, but due to its variety the Wilkinson Album (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is a particularly good example to show how these albums shaped the European view of a place that only few people knew at the time. The Wilkinson Album contains photographs of the Shah, Iranian people, architecture and archaeological sites taken around 1855.

But in what sense did Nasser al-Dins own photographic view of Persia and of himself differ from the vision of the Western travellers? How did photography prove useful to the Shah and how did it help him to gain local and international prestige? In how far did he succeed in establishing his own iconography that would please his own people and the Europeans alike? How did the European travellers ensure that European expectations – its notion of what the Orient should look like – were fulfilled? Does a new medium, in this case photography, always require a new iconography or does it smoothly tie in with already existing visual traditions? This paper is based on intense research carried out in Tehran, several European archives and in New York City (Metropolitan Museum) in 2009. It argues that both the Shah and the European photographers had to establish an iconography that pleased several parties at the same time. The images are problematic and ambiguous reflections of orientalised and self-orientalised attempts to shape the image of Persia and its people.

Layla Diba

Qajar Photography and its Influence on Modern and Contemporary Persian Painting

Photography found immediate acceptance in Qajar Iran during the long reign of Nasir al Din Shah (1848-96). Iran’s long-established tradition of visual culture was arguably one of the principal reasons that led to its rapid adoption. A veritable passion for photography gripped the Qajar court and, soon thereafter, spread throughout the Persian domains.

Photography functioned as a political tool for recording information as well as a short-cut to illusionistic painting and portraiture. In the late 19th century, Iranians believed that the camera would give them the ultimate and most modern means to finally achieve a perfect and modern realism which they had sought for so long. In spite of the generally decorative, stylized and abstract quality of Persian painting, Persian painting had aspired to a form of realism since at least the Timurid period. The Persian understanding of realism, very different from the European one, was constantly changing, reinvented in the works of the celebrated artists of each new generation, be it Bihzad, Riza Abbasi, Muhammad Zaman, or Abu’l Hasan Ghaffari.

Beginning in the 1980s, photographs of Persia began to excite scholarly interest, in the wake of an international boomlet in the study of the history of photography. Western scholars focused on the contribution of European photographers and on issues of Orientalism. Iranian scholars, eager to document indigenous contributions, published evidence based on the rich Persian contemporary sources and on the vast collection of photographic albums of the Qajar court housed in the Gulestan Palace in Tehran, both resources either untapped or unavailable to non-Iranian scholars.

Building on this pioneering research, this lecture will begin with a review of the rise of photography at the Nasseri court and reconsider its relationship to Academic painting of the period, focusing on the work of Muhammad Qaffari, Kamal al Mulk. The presentation will then examine the influence of Qajar photography on the art of the 20th century, particularly in the works of Ardeshir Mohasses and Qassem Hadjizadeh; and will end with a discussion of the creative appropriation of powerful Qajar photographic imagery in the work of contemporary photographers and artists such as Bahman Jalali, Shirin Neshat and Sadegh Tirafkan.

Alexander Fischer

Back in the Picture: the Search for Qajar-era Motion Pictures in Three Prominent European Film Archives

A bloodied man performs a religious ceremony in an bustling outdoor market, skilled hands weave to create an intricate pattern on a yet to be completedcarpet and Ahmad Shah Qajar inspects the Royal Fleet with the Duke of York; these are but some of the imagesuncovered in an in-depth examination of Persia and its people through the lens of early motion picture cameras at the start of the 1900s.

Back in the Picture: The search for Qajar-era motion pictures in three prominent European film archives identifies and discusses the available celluloid-based documentation of this dynamic period of current day Irans not so distant past. Made possible through the generous support of the Soudavar Memorial Foundation, this exhaustive examination of theRussian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk, the Gaumont Pathe film archive in France and the British Pathe film archive provides an up-to-date account of those films that were either shot in Persia or feature members of the Qajar Royal family abroad from 1895 - 1926.

Alireza Ghasemkhan

Iran’s Qajar Cinema and the First Steps towards Decanonization


This paper investigates the issue of decanonization in Iran’s art as it entered a new phase with the emergence of cinema in the country. Through reviewing ancient Iranian texts and images, the paper analyzes the theme of divine charisma and its representation in paintings and carvings with examples to further elucidate the issue. This approach leads to photography which albeit being the then newest method of imagery in Iran marks the termination of sanctity of the images of Iran’s kings and dignitaries. In its general sense, an image analysis portrays that the images of kings and nobles in any given period of Iran’s art history have been together with their own specific and exclusive symbols; yet, the presence of a halo behind the head of the king or the centrality of the king in the frame were consistently applied in paintings. This paradigm was broken with the emergence of photography and ultimately cinema. As Nasseredin Shah reveals himself in front of the camera while he was sick, a most exceptional phenomenon, that is disrupting the charisma of the Shah and eliminating his divine charisma, occurs in Iranian art. This is followed by his successor Mozafaredin Shah who is forced to repeat several times a pose as per the instruction of the court photographer Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akasbashi; consequently, the charisma and sanctity of the Shah loses its flavor and touch in the final product thus marking a new era in Iran’s art.

Carmen Perez Gonzalez

The Written Image: Text and Nineteenth-Century Iranian Portrait Studio Photography


In this paper, I explore the use and role of text/ calligraphy in Persian painting tradition and the influence that this may have had on nineteenth-century Iranian photography. It is fundamental to remark that when analyzing the text that is present in nineteenth-century Iranian photography (meaning here, taken only by Iranian photographers), we find several degrees of elaboration in those inscriptions to the point that we have to be very cautious on how we use the word calligraphy or text, since in some cases the inscription is just plain text that can not be named calligraphy due to the lack of elaboration and the lack of decorative purpose, even if it has been written neatly or beautifully. I analyze the use and meaning of text or calligraphic inscriptions   both within the pictorial and the photographic space, depending on the type of script used in each particular case. One of the topics that I take in consideration is the meaning of the inscription, whether they give factual information of the person depicted and/or the painter or photographer, or whether the content is more poetic or symbolic. A second topic that I explore is in which form the text or calligraphic inscription has been implemented on the pictorial or photographic space: confined in cartouches or flowing freely in the space. In order to explore this, I will analyze the work of several Iranian photographers active in 19th century, such as Abdullah Mirza Qajar (1849-1908), Mohammad Abdoll Ghassem Nuri (active 1870, Tehran) and Mirza Hassan Akkasbashi (1854-1916).

Elahe Helbig

The Eye of the Shah: Photographic Documentation of the Land and People of Persia by means of the Photo Album by Abdullah Qajar

The development of photography in Iran had its beginnings already in 1842 with the production of a Daguerreotype at the Persian court. The crown prince at that time, Nasser al-Din Shahwas highly thrilled by this new technology; indeed he was so zealous that he, following his accession to the throne in 1848, ordered the French photographer Carlhiée as his personal teacher to his court, and he established darkrooms in his palace. Lastly, he introduced photography as a subject in the school Dar al-Fonoun, which he opened in 1851, according to European paradigms. Further, he sent many Iranians to study photography in Europe, as well as engaging a number of Europeans and Iranians as photographers at his court or commissioning them to do photo documentaries.

Following Mirza Reza Akkasbash (1843 – 1889), Abdullah Qajar is the second well-established Iranian photographer at the court of the Qajars with a great reputation. During his education he exhibited a great interest for printing and photography. Qajar was sent by appointment of the Minister of Science (Ali Gholy Mirza Etemad al-Slataneh) to Paris, where he initially studied photography, photo lithography and phototype. He continued his in Salzburg. Immediately after his return from Europe in 1883 he began his career as a photographer at the court of the Qajars.

There exists a great number of photographies, especially in the albums in the historical archives of the palace of Golestan, of Abdullah Qajar with various perspectives of Iranian cities, historical places, such as Persepolis, holy shrines in the cities Shahr Rey and Qom, of important buildings in cities, like Teheran and Shiraz, of landscapes, border areas, business establishments, courtiers, relatives and affiliates of the Dar-al Fonoun school, as well as photographies of daily life and of the ethnical populations. These photographies usually carry his name and his official seal, as well as the date and many comments about the photos, in order to inform the King about the pictured motives. Thus these photographies are not only as examples of the photography of the Qajar era of an immense relevance but also as historical records of that time period.

This presentation discusses the relevance of photography at the court in the early Qajar era and how the Persian society was reflected in the photographies of Abdullah Qajar. Hence it is concerned with the impression that the Shah got of his country through them.

Basak Kilerci

Portraiture in Qajar Iran and Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Approach

This article deals with photography and portraiture in Qajar Iran and Ottoman Empire, in 19th  century when photography gained importance in both states. In Iran, Nasser al-Din Shah (1848-1896) himself was interested in photography and was eager to widespread the photography. Some students at Darolfonun were sent to Europe for this purpose.

Meanwhile, during the reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), photography has gained importance as an art, in the Ottoman Empire. He charged his photographers to witness important events happening in the Ottoman Empire. Besides, court photographers appears as an institution.

My aim is to focus on the portraiture tradition in the reign of Nasser al-Din Shah and Sultan Abdulhamid II, in a comparative perspective. I would like to examine Ottoman and Qajar portraits in terms of westernization, patronage and propaganda. What are the influences of westernization on the portraiture traditions of both states? In which ways, Nasser al-Din Shah and Sultan Abdulhamid were the patrons of arts? How did they use portraits as a propaganda tool?

Modern studies assume that sultans and shahs were trying to conserve the official authority in this period. Can these portraits and albums be a part of this conservatism process? Analyzing the portraits of the Nasser al-Din Shah and Sultan Abdulhamid II, one can easily observe them as symbols of power which could then lead to new ideas about the modernization and the westernization of the respective states. I believe that such a study may reveal additional insights to the ideology and mentality of that era.

Ali Mir-Ansari

The Comparative Social Impact of Theatre and Cinema in Iran: A Case Study of the Constitutional Era (1897-20)

Many years before Iranians began to embrace modernity, the dramatic arts of theatre and cinema took root in the minds of certain Iranian intellectuals. This paper attempts a comparative analysis of the social and political impact of theatre and cinema in Iran during a short period of roughly two decades, 1897-1920. During this period, Iran was in a state of incredible turmoil: the Constitutional Revolution took place in 1907; the first Iranian parliament or the Majlis opened its doors in 1908; Mohammad Ali Shah came to power in a coup détat and ruled briefly as dictator; then, the Majlis was bombed; arrests and killings followed suit, and with it, the flight of Iranian intellectuals from the country. The Anglo-Persian treaty was signed in 1919. Five years after the coup of Esfand 3, 1299 (1920), amid growing confusion Reza Shah overthrew the last Qajar king. Behind the backdrop of these events, this paper examines the role played by theatre and cinema focusing on specific examples in an attempt to show which of the two dramatic arts had a greater impact on Iranian society in the short and long term.

Hamid Naficy

Qajar Era Cinemas Mode of Production

Every nations film industrys mode of production tends to reflect and parallel the dominant production mode in that society. Qajar period cinema, running from 1897 to 1925, is not Qajar cinema, for it did not benefit from enabling film infrastructure such as studios, labs, acting schools, and chain cinemas or from legal and financial protections such as favorable taxes, loans, and tariffs. It was an artisanal cottage industry, somewhat patterned after the workshops and ateliers which produced the bulk of Iranian manufactured goods and major arts and crafts such as carpets and miniature paintings. These film workshops were manned by a few multifunctional entrepreneurial importers, exhibitors, and cameramen with ad hoc sponsorship by the royal court, the local elite, or the Great Powers. Later, wily commercial film importers, exhibitors, and cameramen relied on market forces to film and to attract paying spectators. This pre-capitalist artisanal mode, consisting of many specific attributes, characterized the entire Qajar period cinema and extended to the mid-1950s despite evolution toward industrialization.

Golbarg Rekabtalaei

Picturing Modernity: Early Cinema in Qajar Era Iran

Cinema "creates backbone, bravery, and seriousness, [it] guides towards the right path and away from the wrong, [it] reproduces the consequences of [bad] deeds in front of the eye," proclaimed the Grand Cinema of Tehran in an advertisement advocating the benefits of cinema in 1925. With the emergence of new technologies, novel social spaces, domestic conflicts, revolution and international wars in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Iran, the space of experience had become increasingly dystopic for the urban Iranians. During this new time, cinema propelled a common horizon of expectation; actions in the present were informed by the past, and motivated by future expectation, a temporalisation of historical time that characterised modernity in early twentieth century Iran. The majority of literature on early cinema has, however, only perceived the emergence of cinema within the sensory environment of Western urban modernity. Upholding the dominant Eurocentric conceptions of modernity, many film scholars have, thus, ignored the developments of early cinema in Iran, often considering it as non-existent or mimetic.

In this paper, I intend to recover a brief history of Iranian early cinema through primary sources such as journals, autobiographies, and interviews, and to explore the experiences of cinema-going as they appeared in the Persian memoirs and newspaper reports in late Qajar Iran. I will then analyse my findings in relation to Iranian  modernity from 1900 to 1925. Much of this paper is informed by the relatively recent release of a substantial cache of films at Gulistan Palace. The films made at the Qajar court, as well as the early public film screenings illustrate a modern form of aesthetics that spoke to the transformations in the urban life. Cinema came to re-imagine the urban construction of the cities, as it re-imagined different environments and spaces on screens. Considering it not only as the technology it had developed, but also as the medium through which the spectators experienced, cinema was an opening to the world. It facilitated the encounters of Iranians with their Occidental Others, either through depictions of Europeans and their cities on screens, through their physical encounters with Europeans in the theatres, or through their day-to-day conversations about films. These encounters refashioned Iran towards a horizon of expectation spurned by the images and dynamics captured and re-presented by cinema; and as such, they shaped the refashioning of Iranians into modern cosmopolitan individuals.

Corien J.M. Vuurman

Persia Through the Lens of a Dutch Businessman: the Albert Hotz Collection of Nineteenth-century Photographs at the Leiden University Library in Netherlands

From 1875 onwards Dutch businessman Albertus Paulus Hermanus Hotz (Rotterdam 1855 – Cologny 1930) not only pursued a commercial career in Persia, he also became an ardent collector of items related to the Persian culture and daily life, and a publicist on Persian-Dutch history. He owned different trade offices in Basra, Bushehr, Shiraz, Sultanabad and Esfahan and was involved in the first banking activitiesand petroleum explorations in nineteenth-century Persia. His most lasting legacy, however, is his collection at Leiden University Library, donated in 1935. It is partly an academic collection, but it also contains exquisite popular items that no university librarian would ever have dreamed of purchasing in those days, such as Amurath, Prince of Persia. An Arabian Tale (1815) or Thirty Years in the Harem (1872). The collection also includes more than twenty photograph albums, mostly from the Middle East. Many photographs were taken by professionals who catered for European travelers. Hotz, however, also took his own photographs and used them as public relations material for hisbusiness activities.

For this lecture I would like to focus on Hotz as photographer in general and share my ideas on his place within European photography in nineteenth-century Persia. Next to this I would like to focus on a selection of his photographs in relation to ancient architecture and the daily life in nineteenth century Persia.