Before getting into the history of photography of the 19th century Persia (now Iran), it is important to briefly outline the overall history of medium and its development to better understand the topic at hand. While some may say the history of photography has its roots even as far as into ancient times where the principles of the camera obscura have been first discovered, it was not until mid-1820 that Nicephore Niepce was able to permanently record an image after several days of exposure. Shortly after, Niepce’s associate Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process that would revolutionize the photography throughout the United States of American and Europe alike.
Of course, over the years, many others scientists and researchers have contributed to the development of the photographic process as we know it today, but it is important to note that photography was first introduced to Persia (now Iran) between 1839 and 1842 which actually happened not long after the official introduction of the medium to the Western world. As part of the European colonial involvement in the Middle East, the two colonial powers in Iran, Russia and England, have gifted the Qajar Monarch, Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848), with the first photographic apparatus. And despite the availability of written instructions on how to use the camera, in 1844, the French educator Jules Richard, also possibly the very first person to actually photograph the country, was invited to Iran to teach the Qajar princes the art of photography.
After the death of Muhammad Shan in 1848, the young crown prince Nasir al-Din Shah ascended to the throne and became the new Persian emperor. And as previously mentioned, Nasir al-Din Shah already received an introduced to photography at the age of thirteen from Jules Richards. And by constantly engaging with the medium of photography, he discovered his passion for the medium, and continued its study even after becoming the Shah of Persia. In addition, Nasir al-Din Shah learned advanced photographic techniques from the then little-known professional French photographer Carlliane, which allowed Nasir al-Din Shah to call himself the first major Qajar photographer.
Behdad also states that Nasir al-Din Shah has established “a photographic institute Akkas-khanah-I Mubarak-I Humayuni” in one of the buildings of the Gulistan Palace in the 1860’s, where it was Carlliane’s responsibility to train two palace attendants which were appointed to run the it. Furthermore, Behdad explains that from that point on court’s photographers documented every official event, royal trip, military campaign, significant figure (rajul), and historical monuments of the Qajar court. And because of the Shah’s enthusiasm for the medium, after 1860 the subject of photography was introduced to the Dar al-Funun College.
By establishing the main events that occurred in context to photography, that lead to the popularity of the medium, we can now look further into the key contributors to Persian photography. In the article about photographic traditions in 19th century Iran, the author Donna Stein has divided photography and its participants into three broad categories: those belonging to the European documentary and geographic tradition and recorded cultural and physical phenomena throughout the world like Neapolitan Colonel Luigi Pesce; those who experimented with the new technical discoveries without any particular mission like Nasir al-Din Shah; and those who discovered that they could earn their livelihood from images like Antoin Sevruguin.
While there may be a handful of photographers worth talking about that were active during the Qajar period (1785–1925), I would like to focus mainly on the life and work of Antoin Sevruguin. Despite the little information available in literature of the world history of photography about him, he has been known as the most prominent and prolific commercial photographer in Iran at the end of the 19th century. Antoin Sevruguin was an Armenian-Iranian photographer, also known by the name Serunian, Sergruvian, Sevriogin, Sevrugin, and Sevraguine, that spent almost all his life in Iran. Born in the 1830’s, he was the son of Vassil de Sevruguin, and orientalist scholar serving as a Russian diplomat to Tehran of Armenian origin, and Achin Khanoum of Georgian background. Antoin was one of their seven children all born in Tehran. Because of Sevruguin’s father’s early death, caused by a riding accident, the family was forced to return first to Tbilisi, and later to Akoulis where life was more affordable. There, the brothers attended school while helping to provide for the family. Later, Sevruguin decided to return to Tbilisi to continue his studies in painting and photography where he met the Russian photographer Dmitri Ivanovich Jermakov (1845-1916) that inspired him to conduct a photographic survey of the people, landscapes, and the architecture of his native country. Around 1870, as mentioned by Navab, together with his brother Emanuel and Kolia, they traveled through Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Luristan, photographing whatever appeared to be of interest on their way to Iran. Stein mentions that “Sevruguin recorded his surroundings with an encyclopedic eye”, and while many of his photographs from his journey were reproduced in travel books and narratives, they were not credited with his name which could be the reason why over the years his work has received limited recognition.
Antoin Sevruguin (Persian 1830-1933 :آنتوان سورگین: ) was an Armenian-Iranian photographer in Iran, also known by the name Serunian, Sergruvian, Sevriogin, Sevrugin, and Sevraguine, during the reign of the Qajar dynasty (1785–1925).
See more of Antoin Sevruguin's photographs and glass plates in the collection at the Freer & Sackler Galleries - Smithsonian and click here to read more about the history of photography in 19th century Iran.
Last year in the summer during my visit to Bonn in Germany, I have decided to venture out to the Japanese Garden before my visit to the Kunst Museum Bonn. It was rather by accident that I have walked into a beautiful garden after taking a wrong turn which proven to introduce me to a calming scenery and a welcome escape from the noise of the city. I stayed for a while, snapped few pictures and thought about life before returning to reality of the world of art. So if you are ever in Bonn, Germany, I would highly recommend an escape into the Japanese Garden near the Museum Mile.
It appears that 2015 is my year to explore the world! In April, I was invited to visit Oman and Qatar, and only a month later, a dear friend of mine suggested a visit to Morocco as part of my annually trip to Germany. Of course, I could not decline such offer, and mid May I was on my way to Rabat, Morocco. It was beyond amazing trip not only because I have gotten the chance to see my dearest friend, but also explore the city and its many sights and enjoy the typical everyday life of Morocco.
One of the amazing and interesting sights we have visited has been Chellah in Rabat. A place with beautiful gardens, ruins, architectural elements, royal tombs, many storks and eels which are all part of a rich history of the monument. But why not see for yourself what I have experienced while visiting. And because there was so much more to see than I could possibly include in one post, feel free to also check out this additional photo gallery and follow me on Instagram (anitam_com).
And just in case you want to know little of the history about Chellah in Rabat, Morocco:
Chellah or Sala Colonia (Arabic: شالة), is a medieval fortified necropolis located south of Rabat, Morocco. Chellah existed since pre-Islamic times and houses complex of ancient Roman Mauretania Tingitana and medieval ruins. First spot of Salé, this latter was completed towards the north of the river. It is the most ancient human settlement on the mouth of the Bou Regreg River. Chellah was abandoned during the Almohad-era, then rebuilt by the Marinids. The Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, who founded several colonies in Morocco, probably inhabited the banks of the Bou Regreg. Actual Chellah is the site of the ruins of the Roman town known as Sala Colonia, referred to as Sala by Ptolemy. Excavations show an important port city with ruined Roman architectural elements including a decumanus maximus or principal Roman way, a forum and a triumphal arch. Chellah was a center of Christianity since the second century. One of the two main Roman roads in Morocco reached the Atlantic through Iulia Constantia Zilil (Asilah), Lixus (Larache) and Chellah. Another may have been built toward south, from Chellah to modern Casablanca, then called Anfa. The Romans had two main naval ouposts on the Atlantic: Sala near modern Rabat and Lixus. Sala remained linked to the Roman Empire even in the fourth century after the withdrawal of Roman legions to the area of Roman Tingis and Septem in northern Mauretania Tingitana: A Roman military unit remained there until the end of the fifth century. Some objects, including elements of Visigothic and Byzantine belt even attest to the persistence of commercial or political contacts between Sala and Roman Europe until the Byzantine presence in berber north Africa during the seventh century. The site was abandoned in 1154 AD in favor of nearby Salé. The Almohad dynasty used the ghost town as a necropolis. In the mid-14th century, a Merinid sultan, Abu l-Hasan, built monuments and the main gate, dated to 1339. These later Merinid additions included a mosque, a zawiya, and royal tombs, including that of Abu l-Hasan. Many structures in Chellah/Sala Colonia were damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The site has been converted to a garden and tourist venue. Actually it is included in the metropolitan area of Rabat. (Source: Wikipedia)
As we know today, the history of photography goes back into the ancient times when camera obscuras were used to form images on walls in darkened room. Over centuries the quality output of the camera obscura has improved, but it was not until 1826, when Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce combined the camera obscura with photosensitive paper, and created the first permanent picture.
By 1827 Niepce has partnered with Louis Daguerre, who later, in January of 1839, introduced Daguerreotype to the French Academy of Science. A process that creates images on silver-plated copper coated with silver iodide and develops with warm mercury. And only weeks after the introduction of Daguerreotype, Englishman Henry Fox Talbot announced his invention of Calotype to the Royal Institution of Great Britain. A process that creates permanent negative images using paper soaked in sliver chloride, fixed with salt solution, and creates a positive image by contact printing onto another sheet of paper. This technique is considered to be the basis of modern photography.
During the same time period a French civil servant and photographer, Hippolyte Bayard, invented his own process known as direct positive printing. A process that involves exposing silver chloride paper to light, which turned the paper completely black. It was then soaked in potassium iodide before being exposed in the camera. After the exposure, it was washed in a bath of hyposulfite of soda and dried. The resulting image was a unique photograph that could not be reproduced. In fact, Bayard claimed he had invented photography earlier than Daguerre in France and Talbot in England, the men usually credited with its invention. He might not have been known as the one of the inventors of photography, but on June 24th 1839 he presented the world’s first public exhibition of photography with some thirty of his photographs.
One of Bayard’s most interesting photographs is his self-portrait, where he is depicted as a downed man. He is leaning back, in almost upright position, with is knees bent in sitting pose. His nude torso and arms are pale and appear almost life-less, opposite to his tilted head and crossed hands that are tanned, yet still motionless. His eyes are closed, and little to no facial expression project peacefulness and rest. His body’s posture and the props in the image, big hat staged on his right side and the white sheet covering his lower body, have similarities to post-mortem photography that was very common in the 19th century. Perhaps it was Bayard’s way to tell the world that he is at peace for not being known as the inventory of photography, hence the portrait of death. Or perhaps he wanted to use it in protest against the injustice happening to him. In fact this image is the first known example of the use photography for propaganda purpose.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that his “outside the box” thinking and his artistic abilities have paved the way, not only technical but also creative ways, to what we know today as modern photography.
Recently, I was invited on a trip to the Middles East (Oman & Qatar) where I've had the opportunity to explore the magnificent art of the islamic world right in front of my eyes. One of the first and most amazing places I had the pleasure to walk into on my visit happened to be the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman. After years of reading about the architecture and significance of mosques to the followers of Islam, it was a very moving moment for me to set foot into such beautiful structure despite its rather young age. Nevertheless, it was nothing but a grand experience to walk around barefooted and veiled while enjoying every single piece of art (calligraphy, marble, wood works, carpets, carvings, chandeliers, stained glass windows, etc.). But for now enough of talking about my visit to the Grand Mosque as I would like to invite you to see it for yourself below.