Bahman Jalali-war destruction
Bahman Jalali-war destruction ©

Bahman Jalali

Mehran Mohajer*

This article aims to provide a brief account of Iran’s photography after the 1979 revolution. This point of view is based on two hypotheses, which neither proving nor disproving them is in the scope of this writing. Firstly I think, not only Iran’s revolution was not a unified return to  tradition, but also, regardless of its leaders’ intentions, simplified the realization of a modern society’s apparatus and circumstances in the country; in other words, it underlay (contextualized) a type of Iranian modernity. One can generally point to the processes, however contradictory, of institutionalization of religious values and affairs , qualitative and quantitative development of urban institutes, women’s increasing participation in economic, social and cultural activities, rapid expansion of urbanity and consequently generation of various types of feminine and youth movements.  Secondly, photography has played the role of a dominant expressive form in narrating these evolutions. In other words, as photography has been called the eye of modernity, one might say photography became the eye of Iranian modernity in a 25 year period after revolution. In this writing, I have mainly focused on the generation of institutional spaces- the bases for production, distribution and perception of the photography- and left the critical analysis to another time, since I believe these institutional bases play a fundamental role in determining the characteristics and functions of any cultural phenomenon- including photography. Prior to discussing the main topic I need to mention one more point. 

Modernism in art has a relatively distinct but controversial history and genealogy. Historically it spreads over a period of time from the late 19th century to the middle of 20th. Negation of traditional values, innovation, construction of a novel artistic expression and emphasis on the artwork’s autonomous meaning are of modernism’s characteristics. In photography, modernism emerges following World War I, remains on summit until the 1930s, and can be traced until the 1970s. Of this movement’s characteristics, we can point to pure photographic expression, extracting specific potentialities from the medium, distinguishing photography from other forms of expression while bestowing the dignity of art upon it, belief in progression, awareness of industrial growth and urbanism and sensitivity to visual effects and urban spaces . Anyway, I want to indicate that if the generation of a “modernistic” attitude in post revolution photography has been brought into discussion in this writing, we must keep in mind all its essential differences and asynchronism with the original model. 

Iran’s revolution found objective appearance under Shia spiritualty’s leadership in 1979. Both revolutionary people and the spirituality, despite its traditional status in mosques, took efficient advantage of modern technological instruments in order to spread the revolution . Cassette tapes became a convenient device for propagating the remarks of the revolution’s leader. Moreover distribution of Ayatollah Khomeini’s pictures played an important role in reproducing the revolutionary fervour. It may be helpful if we consider the 1979 Ashura ceremony which instead of in mosques and shrines (traditional space) was held in Tehran’s main streets (modern space) and it transformed to one of the hugest political demonstrations. With the spread of anti-Shah protests, street photo exhibitions, especially those around the University of Tehran, tried to expose the regime’s brutality and savageries. The photographers were not necessarily professionals and ordinary people themselves found this medium an efficient apparatus for enlightenment. Likewise, the spectators were not elite, but very ordinary people. Meanwhile, the role of professional photographers (Golestan, Shandiz, Attar, Kazemi & others) in the dissemination of awareness through national and foreign press cannot be ignored. Hossein Partovi’s photo of the Shah’s air force army technicians (Homafaran) in attendance at Ayatollah Khomeini’s domicile had a significant impact on the body of Shah’s army. In sum, to both the agents’ and spectators’ credit, we are witnessing a process of democratization of photography through this period. However this process remained uncompleted due to unsustainable political and social freedoms in the post revolution era. But social documentation was brought into the arena with the commencement of the war against Iraq.

The analysis of the hundreds of thousands of photos captured in this period is a totally different subject. We can simultaneously observe both professional and amateur photographers in this field. However from this perspective, two points should be considered. Firstly, Iran’s photojournalism becomes known around the world through the photography of war (Golestan, Yaaghoobi & others), in other words, by this means Iran’s photography finds a broader field of perception. And this fact not only has an influence on the economy of photography, but also provides the grounds for more communication with the outer world. Secondly, we are witnessing an observation that instead of considering the immediate disaster of war, seeks the trace of war in other strata, especially that of “urban space” (for example works of Bahman Jalali “Abadan fighting” 1981 & “Khorramshahr” 1982).

Another important development which occurred a few years after the revolution was the appearance of photography in the academic realm. Following the reopening of universities after the Cultural Revolution crisis in 1983, the first groups of students attended photography courses in the University of Tehran, Art University of Tehran and Iran Broadcasting University. Islamic Azad University joined the list during the next decade, when Master’s courses were established too. Hundreds of Bachelor’s and dozens of Master’s holders have graduated from these institutes so far. Regardless of the excessive fundamental deficiencies in the realms of planning, facilities and education, the presence of photography in a modern institute like a university, by itself resulted in some noticeable changes. Photography’s juxtaposition with painting, graphic design and other arts brought the possibility of contemplation on other configurations of photography. Thanks to this institutional position, finally photography could be considered as a branch of fine arts. However it should be emphasized that the background of such an approach towards photography can be observed in Ahmad Aali’s illustrious works of the 1960s, some of which in comparison to their present-day examples are more avant-garde and innovative, either in terms of theme or form of expression and performance. But there, we are faced with an individual approach and here with a collective movement. 

In the isolated atmosphere of those days, Yahya Dehghanpoor and Bahman Jalali’s classes where the place for students to get familiar with works and ideas of prominent photographers of history. And I believe the core of artistic movement in photography was formed in the very same place. This leads to the emergence of certain personal visions which are excessively influenced by the works of the 1950s and 1960s western photographers. But despite this influence, the photographers were highly sensitive to the possibilities of their medium’s expression. Of this movement’s distinctive characteristics are formalistic curiosity and scrutinizing everyday life in search of the unseen. 

This movement needed a context in order to express itself. Photo exhibitions, which after the revolution had transformed to huge governmental shows with documentary photos mostly presenting themes related to the revolution and war, got realized in private galleries in 1980, thanks to small groups of students. Individually or collectively, this trend has continued to the present time, so that it has reached several exhibitions per month in the 2000s from a few per year in the 1980s. The outcome of these two decades is that photography has turned into a tradable artwork and photographers have found artistic dignity. Towards the end of the 1990s trading in “photographic commodity” crossed the national borders and found an international market and audience, though this market had its own impact on Iranian photographers’ theme and style of production and its negative and positive aspects are not in the scope of this paper.

Until the middle of the 1990s artistic photography experienced some smooth developments. The initial detachment from wholly socio-political issues, which may implicitly signify the atmosphere of the era, was replaced by an encounter with social vicissitudes in second half of the 1990s. In line with the realization of the reformist movement, issues like confrontation between tradition and modernism, concerns of feminism, socio-sexual identity, ecological concerns and socio-political freedoms were brought into discussion in the broad spectrum of society; the  photographic speculation on these subjects were presented in works of some of the photographers of the time (e.g. Shadi Ghadirian, Bahman Jalali, Sadegh Tirafkan, Peiman Hooshmandzadeh & others) who were mostly graduates of the aforementioned universities. Among these, Mohsen Rastani’s “Iranian Family” collection astutely illuminates the structural changes of society by means of merging documentation and staging together.  

Photography almanacs and young cinematographers’ festivals were other fields that made the presentation of this type of photography possible. After the revolution, the first photography almanac was held in 1987, before its counterparts in painting, graphics design and sculpture; also photography festivals such as Young Cinematographers were already being held from the mid-80s on both national and provincial scales. Following the 1997 election, reforms in the realm of art management, specifically in Contemporary Arts Museum, on the one hand drew the organization’s attention to modern forms of expression, and on the other, highlighted the international presence of Iran’s art. In both cases, photography’s contribution is not negligible. Meanwhile, photography, whether independently or as an important factor in multimedia arts, confirms its place among “modern arts”. “The Iranian Visions, Iran a Photographic Revolution” exhibition (2001) in Paris becomes the most illustrious stage for Iranian photographers and even artists in the outside world (Hereby, I should remark that in my opinion the exhibition’s name supports this writer’s claim that photography is considered the expressive language of post revolution developments in society). The publication of photography books is another development following the revolution. Historically, books have provided a proper platform for distributing this modern medium. The few photography books before the revolution, basically printed by the government, were mostly on the “glorious” history of the land and ancient memorials. One of the first books after the revolution is “Days of Blood, Days of Fire” (Zamineh publication, 1979) which chronicles the days of the revolution. The arrival of the private sector into this field is another significant development which backs up a possibly relative independence for photographer’s expression, however in comparison to public sector, it has always had a thinner, more vulnerable body. In those years the public sector had also become more active in the publication of books, mostly including the works that deal with war from an official perspective (e.g. “Imposed War”, a 6 volume collection).

The book “Five Visions for Soil” (1982) demonstrates a type of independent social documentation, the common style in the works of the next generation. I should mention one more point here. ‘Photobook’ has mainly been the best way to present documentary photography though, perseverance in these projects and consequently publishing books in this field demand institutional support (e.g. the memorable collection “prostitute” – 1976 – by Kaveh Golestan, despite its formal importance and documentary content, has never been completely exposed or published, neither before nor after revolution). Even if in the early years after the revolution and due to circumstances, there was some governmental support (though not based on any contemplated idea or plan), it seems to be on the wane nowadays. Of few examples in this regards are a series of projects set up by the Research and Urban Planning Centre of Tehran in the mid-90s. During the program certain urban documentary projects were overseen, exhibited and delivered enough material for one or two books. Meanwhile Yahya Dehghanpoor in “Foothills” (1996) by documenting recreational and religious spaces, ironically pries into parts of the subculture of Iranian leisure time. 

In my opinion one of the turning points in photo publishing were the books that Nasrollah Kasraeian published, firstly  the book titled “Our Land, Iran” in 1990 followed by other books mostly on the ethnography of Iran. Giving identity to certain Iranian groups might be one of the important factors in the success of these books. This process of giving identity, unlike most photos which do not carry their temporal atmosphere, thoroughly enfolds the flavour of the era. Even regardless of this point, independent photo publication was finally recognized with the aforementioned collection. Maryam Zandi’s collection “Portraits” (photos of literature, art and cinema celebrities) came next and in line with this stream, several books of non-functional or artistic photos got published in 2000s (Tirafkan, Rastani, Adim, Azarang, Tavakoli, Eye Shows etc.).  

In realm of press publications two points can be noted. Firstly, on magazines; Aks magazine has been published since from 1986 and Tasvir, Aksnameh and Herfeh: Honarmand joined the field from second half of the 90s. This sort of continuity and expansion is expressive of a limitless range of audience, though the photos have been less accompanied by analysis or critique. Secondly on newspapers; soon after the 1997 election several independent papers emerged which played an important role in the reformist movement. 

In this era, photos were no more merely used to fill part of a page as a convention and photojournalism became a significant dynamic activity, moving along with other social developments (see works of Hasan Sarbakhshian, Abbas Kosari, Javad Montazeri, Omid Salehi & others). Inserting a photographer’s name beside the photo came into fashion from then, which by itself is a sign of the reputation for photo and photographer in this field. Photos of the serial murders (autumn of 1998), police invasion of a university dormitory (summer of 1999) and the seventh parliamentary elections (winter of 2004) are exemplary in this regard.

Once more I should emphasise that this writing was not going to provide a critical and analytical account of the essence and nature of Iran’s contemporary photography, and notes made here, were mainly momentary and sketchy. Certain basic developments were the focal point of this text. In my opinion these developments- serious and widespread presence of photography during the revolution, the establishment of the photography discipline in universities, continuous presence in exhibitions, emergence of photography books and magazines, press developments in the last decade- are themselves part of social developments that Iranian society, with all its contradictions, have passed through during the realization of a modern society. Nonetheless, these institutional grounds, both through their forms and contents, point to photography’s correlation with these contradictory social developments. 

The logic of this text is the logic of a snapshot and it may have not followed the standard conventional direction. There are lots of omissions and lapses, however I hope the result has the attraction of a snapshot.

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* First published in Herfeh: Honarmand magazine , issue 18, winter 2007

** above image: Bahman Jalali - War Destruction

See also