Thoughts on Photobook Tehran
Published August 4th, 2015 on The International Center of Photography Library Blog
Whenever and wherever I attend an event featuring Iranian art I go in skeptical. My lens in skewed by an awkward mix of nationalism and emotion, patriotism and ideology. I am American and I am Iranian. As galvanized as I am by the identity of one, I am indoctrinated by the other. I am turned off by a highly fetishized vision of Iran and the misguided idea that sharing art will free the Iranian, an oppressed individual, from despotism and dictatorship. I am offended by the self loathing aristocracy of northern Tehran that control much of the gallery scene, the longings and yearnings of post colonialism/imperialism.
In Photobook, an exchange of photography books between the Sazman-e-Ab foundation in Tehran and the International Center of Photography in New York City was decidedly neither of these as evidenced by an intriguing selection of photobooks that spanned generations and genres. Nima Behravan and Matthew Carson curated the exchange which boasted many titles including several newly self published books.
The collection touched on several parts of the history of Iranian photography without dwelling unnecessarily on any single one. The most prominent name among the list of photographers was Abbas Kiarostami. His work Snow White was featured on the bottom a shelf facing out into the hallway of the ICP library. Its’ size and design were bold, but images were disappointing.
Many of the books were written simultaneously in English and Farsi and it was interesting to see how designers dealt with the direction changes; English reads left to right, Farsi is the opposite. The same was true for cover design evident even in the placement of ISBN numbers and barcodes. Unfortunately the quality of some of the translations were poor, confusing and ultimately did distract from the quality of the images and their stories.
To be sure some of the books didn’t make it. Too many photographs, too little editing. Too much focus on layout design and translation, not enough focus on technique and context. But these too added a needed sense of originality to the exchange as a whole. They created a feeling of rawness. First look. Welcomed experimentation.
A self published work by Farshid Arzang, The Book of Amnesia, suffered from a combination of translation and design. The off-sized book featured dual covers, English on the left, Farsi on the right. I was confused as to which direction I should read the book. Some photographs were titled seemingly simultaneously in both languages while an adjacent photo was fully captioned only in Farsi. Had the English titles been removed all together I would probably have only focused on the image.
The highlight of the collection for me were The Hard Time, a book on Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict by Mohsen Rastani. Although English translations throughout the book were weak there was a decisive direction to the work. The book only opens one way and the text layout works well with English and Farsi reflecting each other. The photographs are ones I’ve seen before though not through Rastani’s lense. They are reminiscent of dozens of images I have seen from the Balkans: A boy laid out on a makeshift hospital bed, empty sniper lined streets, and bombed out buildings. They were good photographs, some even great. As part of the collection it made an important statement; “these are photobooks from Iran, not Iranian photobooks.”
In all Carson and Behravan should be congratulated. They brought new work into our world where as photographers we are desperate for a new way of seeing. They did so with a graceful eye for image and place, but left cliche for another time.