A new exhibit from the dawn of photography also tells of the history of Iran, says Pantea Haghighi. Looking at Persepolis shows old photographs depicting excavations of Persia’s past glories, photographs that were once used as promotional tools in turn-of-the-century Iran.
“It’s something that happens around the world: an ailing monarchy would want to be affiliated with some sort of glorious past in their history,” explains Haghighi, an independent curator and Vancouver gallerist who curated this exposition and others about the role of art in Iran’s history. “The Qajar dynasty were Turks who had taken over. The dynasty chose to photograph [the ruins of] Persepolis so that [the Shahs] could affiliate themselves with the story of the Persian ancient past.”
Looking at Persepolis: The Camera in Iran 1850–1930 is showing at The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver until January 13, 2019, and forms part of the gallery’s new exhibition series, New Perspectives: revealing diverse perspectives, untold stories, and new voices in visual art. Tours will be held every Saturday at
2 p.m. Admission is by donation.
Democracy and daguerreotypes
In 1850, Iran was under the rule of the less-than-democratic Qajar Shah Naser al-Din. “It was the beginning of modernism, [and] he was engaged with modernizing the country. He bankrupt[ed] the country,” says Haghighi of the controversial Shah (king). “He had a harem of wives. He wasn’t a good ruler.”
The Shah may not have liked ruling, but he did like photography. “[The Shah] received two cameras as gifts from the Queen of England and the Tsar of Russia.” Haghighi continues. “There were only two countries in the Middle East and Africa who had cameras: Egypt and Iran.”
As propaganda for his problematic rule, Haghighi says, the Shah paid for many archaeological expeditions to Persepolis, a large city in the former Iranian Achaemenid or Persian Empire. He used his favourite new medium, photography, to record these excavations. “There was a huge amount of resources put towards documenting Persepolis in order to promote the country to the west and around the world,” she notes.
Albums of Persepolis were given as presents to foreign dignitaries. “It’s a dialogue, [a way of] getting to know your country,” Haghighi says. “If they had an ambassador in Italy, he would get an album of Persepolis. All [exhibition] photographs were found outside of Iran, albums that lived outside.”
Later Qajar Shahs continued these practices, and the exhibit spans eighty years of excavations, ending in 1930 when the last Qajar Shah died in exile in France. The exposition begins with the earliest cameras, called daguerreotypes, and continues through the technological advances of the time. “We are looking at years of [photography],” Haghighi says. “We are showing four different photographers. The [last] photographs are sharp. The first old prints are harder to make out.”
Columns and colonnades
And what the photographs show is beautiful, says Haghighi. The Persian Empire with its rich artistic tradition dominated the Middle East for a hundred years before it came to an end in 250 B.C.E.
“There’s three, four ancient civilizations: the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Chinese,” Haghighi explains. “The Persian empire was very powerful. They reigned over modern Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan. Alexander the Great took over Persepolis and burned it down.”
Despite this destruction, Haghighi says, Persepolis’s former glory is still visible in the ruins of the age-old city, now a UNESCO heritage site. “[The photographs] show details of the ancient sites, the columns, colonnades, the procession halls. [At the beginning] you can see the foot of a column, and, in 1930, you can see the whole column, eight feet tall. The city rose from underground.”
Haghighi, who emigrated with her family from Iran as a child, is proud she is able to pass on some of her heritage to Vancouverites. “It’s the most comprehensive collection put together on the history of photography in Iran,” she says.
For more information, please visit www.thepolygon.ca.