Iran: A tumultuous time captured in Isfahan's portrait photography
Hundreds of images and thorough research produce a unique documentary of a nation in transition, 1920-1950

By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

BEIRUT: In one picture, a young woman strikes a playful pose in a photographer's studio. With lustrous black hair and a coy smile, she wears a man's suit jacket over a full-skirted white dress. She has one hand plunged rakishly into her pocket and one hip extended suggestively toward the camera. Exaggerating the feminine and masculine attributes of body language, her stance is that of a dancer and gangster at once.

In another, three men face the camera with hands clasped respectfully behind their backs. Two are formally dressed and standing a few steps back. The other, in the foreground, is bare-chested and built like a truck. The triangular set-up is rigged to show off one man's athletic prowess, as the depth of field makes the flanking men seem tiny in comparison.

In yet another, a wedding portrait captures a blissful bride and groom with hands held delicately in the center of the frame. The standing groom smiles down on his sitting bride, who directs her peaceful gaze off camera. The photograph seems to be a study in matrimonial convention until you realize that both subjects are women. An early example of women dressed in drag, the groom's voluminous tuxedo jacket camouflages her breasts, her hair is swept up under a hat, and a fake moustache adorns her upper lip.

These are portrait photographs from Isfahan, three among the hundreds that have been published in a new book by Iranian artist, academic and activist Parisa Damandan. "Portrait Photographs from Isfahan: Faces in Transition, 1920-1950" focuses on a tight but tumultuous time frame, when Iran was undergoing rapid social, political and economic transformation. Damandan, who was born in Isfahan and remembers her own early experiments with having her picture taken by a professional photographer, returned to her hometown to find evidence of the old studios and commercial practices that once flourished in the ancient city.

The book resulting from her research reveals as much about how photographers worked in the first half of the 20th century as it does about how people in those times saw themselves, how they constructed their identities before the camera and, in turn, how the identity of a nation took shape, fell apart and reformed against a backdrop of industrialization, modernity, political change and looming revolution and upheaval.

"My age and the generation I belong to [is] a link between this period and now," explains Damandan, taking a break from her work to answer questions by e-mail about her book. "There is evidence that is still alive - existing, forgotten and endangered archives. I have studied the history of photography before this period, and [I have] followed the traces back to the appearance of photography in Iran, and soon after in Isfahan.

"The main part of my collection of photographs dates back to 1920 to 1950. It is an important period, as the country is changing from traditional to modern and industrial, and there are also a lot of changes in the faces and in portrait photography itself."

The period is also important, she adds, because "portrait photography became popular in this period in Iran, almost a century after the 1850s when it became popular in Europe."

Damandan studied photography at the University of Tehran in the late 80's and early 90's. She mounted a few exhibitions of her own work in Iran, the U.K. and the Netherlands, but soon devoted all her time to more academic research on photo-portraiture. The legwork for "Portrait Photographs from Isfahan" began with her undergraduate thesis. And over the past 10 years, Damandan has not only written a great deal on the subject, she has also assembled traveling exhibitions and amassed an impressive personal collection of archival images.

"Portrait Photographs from Isfahan" introduces readers to the lives of such photographers as Minas Patkerhanian Mackertich (an Armenian who learned how to take pictures in India before settling in Isfahan) and his son Vahan (who took Damandan's baby pictures in the late 60's). Damandan traces the development of Isfahan's portrait studios, following the well-worn story of photography's evolution overall (from an expensive practice reserved for the elite to a more affordable commodity accessible to the middle classes) and in light of the particular modifications made to that narrative in Iran.

To this, Damandan adds the story of a city, a country and a people. The book is full of surprises - cross-dressing women, Isfahan's community of Russian prostitutes and the flood of Polish refugees who took up temporary residence in Iran during World War II. And it captures telling evidence of changing times - women casting off and taking up the veil, the significance of gymnasiums as a social space in men's lives, family configurations, gender roles at social events and the growth of industry (textile factories, workers on strike) that is evident both on the landscape and in the photographs themselves.

In addition to Damandan's narrative, "Portrait Photographs from Isfahan" includes essays by Iranian writer Reza Sheikh (who looks at the relationship between portraiture and democracy) and Dutch writer Josephine van Bennekom (who explores the differences between and encounters among Iranian and European portraiture). These texts are embedded with ideas that warrant further research. Yet the pictures lend themselves to endless interpretation, raising a number of pressing issues about the collection and study of historical photography.

"I have gathered more than 50,000 photographs," says Damandan. "I am keeping them in my personal archive at home, not in a good situation. Most of them are glass-plate negatives and are very fragile and need to be preserved in particular conditions of temperature and moisture."

Searching for images like these is often an act of salvaging prints and negatives from age, time, ruin and decay. But once they are found, how can they be preserved? And who should take charge of such efforts? The photographs Damandan has unearthed reveal a great deal about Iran's past, but to what extent do such archives constitute cultural patrimony? Are they a part of a nation's heritage? And if so, who has the right or responsibility to protect them?

"There is no special organization yet in Iran to be responsible for such archives," explains Damandan. "And we don't have a photographic museum."

What's more, the book itself - as a portable representation of Damandan's collection - is unavailable in Iran: "Unfortunately, the book couldn't be published in Iran because of the portraits of unveiled women," she says. "It won't be distributed in Iran, so the book really can't be seen here." Damandan is hoping to place the book in a few libraries, so that students will have access to it and in hopes that it will provoke further research.

The fact that her work can't be shown in Iran hasn't diminished Damandan's efforts.

"Wherever I travel in Iran, I am usually curious to find the origins of portrait photography," she says. "I have spent some time in Kurdistan for this reason, and I am busy with a project in Bam, again making my research."

Seventy-two hours after a massive earthquake struck the southeastern city in December 2003, Damandan arrived on the scene to help. For the past 10 years she has been involved with a Dutch organization, AIDA (Association International de Defense des Artistes), which she describes as a second home. When she got to Bam, she realized she wasn't the best person to help rescue workers pry bodies from fallen buildings. But she was qualified to save the city's copious photo archives. (She met a woman whose two sons had been killed in the quake, one had been married the day before, and his mother was hoping to find his wedding pictures among the rubble.) So she secured support from AIDA to fund a rescue mission of a different sort.

"The first time I went," says Damandan, "I started to dig out photo studios which were ruined in the disaster. I dug out six archives and have made several trips until now. Later, I will work on these archives, clean them and make a new archive ... I am focusing on making a memorial photo wall in Bam," she adds, and next year, she will begin working on another book. It promises to be more somber than "Portrait Photographs from Isfahan" but it will no doubt prove as valuable - and as fascinating - an archive.

Parisa Damandan's "Portrait Photographs from Isfahan" is published by Saqi Books and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.