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Iranian Photography Exhibit Shows Americans a Personal Iran


Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography From Iran tours 11 U.S. cities

College Park, Maryland -- The first major exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography in the United States emphasizes the interior life of individuals and families in Iran over journalism or documentary-type photography.

Sadegh Tirafkan
Persepolis, Installation of two videos with two prints

Co-curators Hamid Severi, of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran, and Gary Hallman, of the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, chose photos to show American audiences that, although Iran is awash in photojournalism, its photographers also have a modern, artistic sensibility, Hallman told USINFOPersian Visions: Contemporary Photography From Iran travels to museums in 11 cities through 2009.

Hallman said the photographers in Persian Visions represent an “attitude” that photography is “a way to represent an idea, rather than show you what something looks like.”  He said the work measures up to the most poetic photography being exhibited worldwide, which increasingly is done by “interlopers,” sculptors or artists who have no concern about photographic traditions.

Esmaiel Abbasi
Generous Butcher

Hallman said he was surprised when he visited Tehran to prepare the exhibit.  “It was not just looking at portfolios. I met the artists, went to their studios,” he said.  He said some of the artists talked of problems with limitations due to politics.  But Hallman said that, since the cultural revolution of 1979, artists have looked inward and developed a “new Iranian aesthetic.”   

Birds, universal in art as a symbol of freedom and consistently present in Iranian tapestries and literature, are depicted in many of the photos.  Ebrahim Khadem Bayat’s untitled photo of a bird on a chair draped with netting creates an effect that Hallman describes as “beautiful … and mysterious.” 

In the catalog for the exhibit, Robert Silberman, art history professor at the University of Minnesota, calls the Bayat photo a play on presence and absence.

While some symbols are universal, the exhibit includes works that are “coded with secret cultural cues that insiders know, and outsiders don’t,” Hallman said.  Many photos include fish, which in Iranian culture represent “good luck, life or optimism,” according to the co-curator.

Mehran Mohajer
T.V. SERIES (The light is out the room is dark)

In Mehran Mohajer’s T.V. Series 1 (The Light Is Out The Room Is Dark), television images are reduced to eerie light due to a newspaper placed over them.  Silberman says Iranian television is “government controlled and therefore relatively conservative, while many of the newspapers are liberal, but the contrast is not necessarily political.”  In some photos in Mohager’s T.V. series, the overlaid text is from a photography book or a mosque wall.  “The writing is poetic, not dogmatic,” Silberman says.

The exhibit includes war photos, including heroic portraits from the Iran-Iraq War of men with swords and guns.  The war photos by Kaveh Golestan, a photojournalist for the BBC who was killed in 2003 in Iraq, are washed with color in a way that beautifies them, “but makes them more painful,” Hallman said.

Of the 20 celebrated Iranian photographers in the show, two are women, and several of the photos depict women in veils.  In most, the chador is used to evoke pictorial mystery, rather than express an opinion about gender roles, Hallman said.

The exhibit has been well received in the United States, according to David Furchgott, president of International Arts & Artists, a U.S. nonprofit organization that is coordinating the tour.

The show’s genesis was a 1998 visit to the University of Minnesota by Iranian filmmakers who asked to meet Hallman, a professor of photography, to talk about American photography.  That meeting, scheduled to last 20 minutes, resulted in several dinners and two trips by Hallman to Iran to visit with experts at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.


Farshid Azarang
Scattered Reminiscent

This is a “people-to-people project,” Furchgott said, of the exhibit, which is showing in April at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.  “There was no official government involvement on either side.”  Several American photographers also have sent their works to Tehran.  Those photographs are in storage in Tehran, but organizers hope they will be exhibited there in the near future.

Collaboration and travel to Iran has affected Hallman’s own work.  In Tehran, he noticed abundant textures in carpets, tiled walls and stained-glass windows.  At a presentation at the University of Maryland gallery, Hallman showed the audience one of his most recent photo compositions, Tapestry No. 10, in which a photo of concrete roses is overlaid with photos of real roses. 

The resulting “botanical excess” approaches the textures prevalent in Iran, Hallman said.

More information on the exhibit is available on the International Arts & Artists Web site.

For more stories about the influence of photographers and other artists in society, see The Arts.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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