A Study of Aesthetics in The Works of Photographers During Qajar Reign

Aks [Picture]; Scientific, Cultural & Artistic (Monthly)
Oct. 23 - Nov. 21, 1998, Vol. 12, No. 140
By: Arman Stepanian
Pages: 21-39
Word Count: 2567

Summary: We have little record of the history of photography in Iran but the present article provides an account on the beginning of photography in the country and introduces some of the pioneer photographers during the Qajar period.

Text: In the history of photography in Iran we come across valuable documents about studio photography but regretfully none of these studios have survived nor are they protected. Anton Soriogyn's (Anton Khan) studio is an example of such a claim.

His humble studio was located at Ave. Ferdowsi (former Alaoldolleh Ave.). However, fortunately its portal escaped destruction and was transferred to the City Studio of Photography, but his studio has become a heap of ruin.

According to a note under a picture published in Hishatak (Recollections) which was published in Italy in 1991, his first registered picture in Tehran shows several Armenian girls.

Anton Khan might be called one of the most energetic and skillful studio photographers.

His studio was located at the second floor of a building in Ferdowsi Ave, adjacent to Imam Khomeini Square (Formerly Army Parade Square).

According to witnesses his studio resembled more a museum and all the rooms were filled with precious antiquities.

His equipment included 6 types of chairs, 3 small stools, 3 wooden supports, 4 models of ornamented silk curtains, 6 easy chairs or sofas, 4 china flowerpots and 3 specimens of painted curtains (which were hung behind the models).

Soriogyn benefited from the morning daylight (between 8 to 11 a.m.) coming from the east of the square to shoot portrait pictures. Two large mirrors were enough to reflect the light on the face and complemented his needed light. However, there is no information about any possible changes in the ceiling, windows or doors of the studio after it caught fire.

He was skillful in adjusting the light and spreading an even light. From the pictures survived from the photographer one can deduce that his studio was very spacious because one can see 20 persons in one of his pictures.

He was also a master in retouching the negatives and many glass negatives have survived from the photographer.

Soriogyn displayed different personalities in suitable positions and each of these personalities are sketched by a special method.

Of other studies that have survived from those times one might refer to the studio of Matos Aqakhan (Qarakhanian), in Khaqani Ave., Isfahan. Although he cannot be looked as a successful photographer, his gallery is adorned by beautiful tile work.

Other studies survived from old times is the Richarkhan's studio in Ave. Jomhouri Eslami (former Naderi) and Ernest Holtz's house and studio, who was a German photographer in Khaqani Ave., Isfahan, both of which have survived.

However among photographers of portraits and studio photographers in Iran one can cite talented and powerful photographers such as Mirza Seyyed Alikhan, Abdullah Mirza Qajar, Aqayans Armani (Beglar Aqayan) and Joseph Papasian, but regretfully no research has been made about their galleries or their methods of work.

Two years ago while I was researching about Anton Soriogyn, I came across a French magazine in which Andre was pictured by Mojtaba Minavi and Sadeq Hedayat. The picture was taken by Anton Khan in his house in 1930 i.e. 68 years ago. However, although it was a novelty for me, I did not pay much attention to the picture which was taken three years before the photographer's death. Several years later when I was reading Sadeq Hedayat's Bouf-e Koor (the Blind Bat) I suddenly noted how Anton's picture resembled the scene painted by Sadeq. What Hedayat had portrayed in words was portrayed by camera in front of us.

"At a little distance under an arch a strange old man is seated in front of his articles that he had spread for sale. On the table, one could see a small sickle, two horseshoes, several colorful beads, a poniard, a mouse trap, a pair of rusted pliers, an ink pot, a comb with broken teeth, a small spade and an enameled pitcher covered by a dirty handkerchief and a number of watches. For many days and months I have watched this picture from behind the trap door. The old man is wearing a dirty Shabestari shawl, open in the front displaying his white bush of breast hairs, with burnt eyelids showing persisting and shameless sickness and a talisman which is tied to his arm in a sitting position (The Blind Bat, 14th edition, Tehran, 1972, p. 52)."

I leave a broader analysis of the impact of Anton Khan's work as a photographer of Sadeq Hedayat's works to those researchers who are expert in literature. By referring to the above quotation from the Blind Bat I wanted to give a special specimen to the impact of an image in the contemporary novel writing in Iran.

Stepan Stepanian is another photographer of the Qajar period. Before joining the Dashnaksion Party in Iran he was a revolutionary figure who had been arrested and exiled to Sakhalin Island by the Russian Tsarist army for his political incursions against the Ottoman Empire.

In his "Memoirs" Stepanian says during his banishment to Sakhalin, a medical team was dispatched from Moscow to prepare a report on the medical condition of the prisons and the ill prisoners. The keepers of the place of exile assigned Stepanian to shoot pictures from the patients for the medical team (According to late Herair Stepanian, his son, these pictures are being preserved at the Armitazh Museum's in Saint Petersburg).

The leader of the medical team was no other than Anton Chekhov, the great Russian dramatist. In order to discharge his duties in the medical profession which he called his "legal wife", Chekhov had traveled to Sakhalin in 1890. In 1895 Chekhov published a 300-page medical report along with pictures about his trip to Sakhalin which he thus describes: "Asia comes to an end.... In front of you, you can hardly see the narrow patch of earth which is called the island of penury... It looks like the end of the world for you cannot see any other place to go. In the utter darkness I could not see the dockyard and the building. A strange savage building emerges from the confines of darkness. The shadow of mountains, smoke, flames and sparks of fire, all looked as a whim.."

Elsewhere in the book Chekhov says: "Often we could spot an individual lonely and unattended, as if dazed and dump of compulsory boredom and waste of time... His hearth is not lighted; his only kitchen utensils consisted of a small bowel, a bottle closed by a paper.... he looks with cold humiliation to his life, his house and family. He says he has experimented everything but has failed to find anything meaningful (Chekhov, dear Chekhov, edited and compiled by Hormoz Riayi, Tehran 1991, Nashre Qatreh)."

These collections and pictures have much literary credit besides their scientific value, are also being preserved at Saint Petersburg Museum. Since Stepanian's exile and Chekhov's assignment to the island were simultaneous, one can be assured Chekhov's photographer was no other person but Stepan Stepanian.

Anyhow a combination of medicine, writing, art and photography have created a collection which is preserved as a valuable heritage at the Armitazh Museum.

Stepan Stepanian who arrived in Tabriz after escaping from Sakhalin discharged his obligation to the history by joining the constitutional movement as a photographer and by rendering the faces of Satar Khan, Baqer Khan and Yeprem Khan, the historical devotees to that movement.

During history many artists have created artistic works in the court of kings and rulers in painting, sculpturing, writing, architecture and other arts, but that which is recorded in history is the fruit of their art. People are always living in special times and circumstances and their behavior is a joint fruit of instinctive and environmental abilities and impressions.

Artistic work is a sort of exertion. To analyze and define these exertions, we concentrate on our goals and give meaning to them. In other words the artistic works in each generation differ from that generated by future generations.

Each work of art finds its significance in its own era and it never dies, because the meaning of the artistic work in the next generation is a mixture of former opinions and definitions.

Abdullah Mirza Qajar lived in one period of history which left him perhaps no other alternative. In the nineteenth century the government was trying to copy the Western political institutions and was trying to hire artists for the court.

Photography and Abdullah Mirza shall remain for ever alongside each other in the records of history of Iranian art.

Photography was a self-revolutionary evolution of many other arts and artists and fascinated Abdullah Mirza like others, and in the end converted him to a first class artist.

Son of Jahangir Mirza, Abdullah Mirza was born in the year 1266 lunar year. After completing his preliminary studies he entered the Darolfonoon college (college of techniques) and learnt photography and started work in that college.

When Mirza E'tzadulsaltaneh was minister of sciences he was dispatched to Europe (on or about 1295 lunar year) with Moayerol Mamalek's help to complete his studies in that branch.

His description of his education in the field of photography in Europe is recorded in the History of Iranian Pioneer Photography and Photographers which has been compiled by Dr. Zaka who has given detailed explanations about the photographer.

Abdullah Mirza started his business in the Qajar court in the lunar year 1300.

In an introduction to one of his albums which was prepared in 1304 lunar year and covering pictures from Rey and Qom, he says: "Upon the decree of His Majesty Nassereldin Shah, the Qajar King, and her highness the queen and upon the instrument of His Excellency Aminolsoltan, the minister of finance and court, the undersigned who is a servant of the eternal government, was assigned to take pictures of the new buildings in the Hazrat-e Abdolazim (peace be upon him) shrine in Rey and Hazrat-e Masoomeh (peace be upon her) shrine in Qom under the supervision of His Excellency. Whatever was built in the two sites and holy shrines were fully pictured and submitted to His Excellency. Rabiolaval, 1304).

In lunar year 1307 following another assignment to Gorgan and Astarabad, Abdullah Mirza Qajar says:

"Your imperial majesty, Nassereldin Shah, the Qajar King and your highness the queen, upon the instruction of his excellency Mirza Ali Asgharkhan Aminolsoltan, minister of the court, this servant of the eternal government was assigned to accompany the imperial majesty to Astarabad, Aq Qale'eh and Gorgan. After leaving Tehran and touring Qezlaq and Astarabad and Aq Qaleh and Turkmandasht, and Mazandaran and Ashraf, Sari and Amol I took pictures of all ancient and new buildings and important monuments and personalities and have collected all these pictures in this humble album which I submit to your imperial majesty, the king. If this humble service has met with your acceptance, I beg your excellency to allow me to discharge similar services in the future. Looking forward to your royal benevolence, I remain your servant and devotee, Abdullah bin-e Jahangir Mirza, bin-e Mohammad bin-e Malekara."

In 1311 lunar year we find him write the following letter:

"Upon the decree of Nassereldin Shah, the Qajar King, and her royal highness the queen, the undersigned and your servant Abdullah Qajar Sartip, the photographer of Darolfonoon college, was instructed to take pictures from Khorassan province. Accordingly I have taken pictures of that province and along with detailed description of pictures have gathered them into a volume which I submit to the inspection of your imperial majesty. Rajab, 1311, Your servant Abolkheir Qajar bin-e Esmaeel bin-e Hajji Kioumars Mirza Malekara".

After Nassereldin Shah's death in 1314 lunar year, like other artists in the court he was also visited by depression and disappointment and thus expressed his grievances: "Although lately I have also taken steps, but one hand cannot clap. As a consequence, I am writing this letter to those interested in photography so that should a benevolent dignity encourage me and arrange for my travel, I undertake to shoot pictures and develop and submit them within a period of twenty days.

"Meanwhile since I consider myself as a paid servant, I expect you to help me not to fail in my duties so that I can discharge my duties without hesitation and round the clock. Should I fail in my mission I expect you to punish me severely so that others will learn a lesson and shall not fail in their duties in future. Your servant, Abdullah Qajar."

After Nassereldin Shah's death and succession of Mozafareddin Shah, Hekmat, a magazine which was published in Egypt, thus wrote about the photographer: "Prince Abdullah Mirza is one of the artists in Iran who has been working for many years in Darolfonoon college as photographer and has shot many pictures of royal personages and ministers and of the state. Four years ago Iranian and foreign newspapers published detailed reports about the assignment of the prince to Vienna to complete his education and learn new techniques."

Abdullah Mirza was still engaged as a photographer at the beginning of Mashrootiat (constitutional monarchy). Commenting on the method of communication of the decree for Mashrootiat, one interesting document of that period says: "One of the privileges of the decree for constitutional monarchy is that it is truly communicated to the people and a number of people have touched the decree and read it and not heard it only in the form of a notice. It is true that Mirza Nasrollah Khan Moshiroldolleh, communicated the Mashrootiat decree to all provinces and districts and this is a valid document for the public. But the fact is that the people themselves have also seen and read the royal decree and have become assured of its existence.

"The fact is that when the decree for Mashrootiat was issued, a number of merchants along with Hajj Hossein Aqa Aminolzarb, highly respected and trusted by people and their representative in the government, was summoned to Rostamabad, the prime minister's summer resort and was advised about the decree so that he could personally communicate the matter to the public. Aminolzarb personally took the original decree to show to the people and we went to him and took a picture as a memorial event. The picture was taken 70 years back in 1905 by skilled photographer Abdullah Mirza Qajar and is one of his good pictures (guide to the book of the year September/October, 1975)."

Of precious albums surviving from this gifted painter which shows his devoted service to the Mozafari court, one of the albums belong to the prime minister of Nassereldin Shah and Mozafari court.

Due to his elevated status in the court many of his previous albums are being preserved in the Golestan Palace archives and Tehran University's Central Library, the Center of Publication of the Contemporary Iranian History and private collections which we hope will be carefully researched in the future.

In conclusion I must say that during all his artistic tenure Abdullah Mirza was a tool in the hands of the elders of the Qajar court to satisfy their complexes and ambitions.


From netiran.com: http://www.netiran.com/Htdocs/Clippings/Art/981023XXAR01.html