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Old School Persian Photography With a Modern Twist

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"Untitled" from the Qajar series

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.”

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

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