Iran was an early adopter of photography. Nasir al-Din Shah became hooked on the art form after receiving a camera from his father, who was given it as a gift from Queen Victoria and Tsar Nicholas I. He established his own photography studio in his palace, presumably where a photographer took pictures of his 84 wives. During Nasir al-Din’s rule, in the Qajar period, photography studios flourished.
This history is helpful to appreciate Reimagining Home, on view at the MFA through July 12 once it reopens. This rich, compact show pairs a teacher and his student, and while their work is stylistically different, both artists hint at a dense history of Iran that is both spectacular and tragic, and both gesture hopefully toward the future.
Bahman Jalali, who died in 2010, taught for many years at the Tehran University of Art, where Gohar Dashti was his student in the early 2000s. Jalali started out as a documentary photographer before gradually turning to a more experimental, conceptually driven approach. He used photomontage to superimpose historical photographs from Iran’s Qajar period for his series Image of Imagination. In some pictures, he used historical images exclusively; in others, he overlaid historical pictures with pressed flowers or with details from his own photographs of a defaced sign from one of Isfahan’s oldest photographic studios.
It is no coincidence that Jalali highlighted the early days of Iranian photography – he was an avid collector and historian of Qajar-era photography. His montages highlight early studio portraiture – and the subjects’ faces are riveting. In one, a plump-cheeked woman with lively eyebrows lies provocatively on her side, wearing a short, stylish tutu-like skirt. She dominates the photograph, her bemused half-smile and relaxed pose in striking contrast to the six men in the background who stand rigidly and stare stonily at the camera. The men are dressed in Western-style business suits and one of them, inexplicably, holds a bunny.
Jalali’s gift for the surreal was clearly imparted to Dashti, who credits Jalali with steering her toward thinking about photography as a way of giving form to ideas, rather than merely documenting what is there. Dashti’s photographs are elaborately staged scenes in which plant life overcomes existing, deteriorating architecture. Many of the buildings in Dashti’s photographs are modern and somewhat bland, meaning they could be anywhere. But others contain architectural details with an Islamic flair, such as an empty fountain in a courtyard, which, in Dashti’s image, now holds an evergreen pine tree.
Both Dashti and Jalali’s photographs are manufactured dreamscapes that seem to mourn the past by using physical evidence as material. Iran’s once-promising future, the artists suggest, was compromised by various international and regional political forces. But its past is still accessible to inspire and motivate artists – and citizens.