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Introduction

In 1842, only three years after the invention of photography in France, Mohammad Shah, the third monarch of the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925), received, upon his request, two daguerreotype cameras—one from Queen Victoria of England and the other from Emperor Nicolas I of Russia. His son Naser al-Din Shah (1831–1896) was fascinated by this invention and would become both an avid amateur photographer and Iran’s first patron of photography.

The Eye of the Shah: Qajar Court Photography and the Persian Past is the first comprehensive exhibition of Qajar photography in America, bringing together over 200 photographs—many of which have never been exhibited before—to illustrate the enterprising and inventive nature of nineteenth-century Iranian photography, particularly through the eyes of its great patron, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar. The exhibition begins in our first gallery with a photographic tour of the royal court that focuses on portraiture. Although at first meant primarily for private and not public consumption, many of the royal portraits—through framing, posture, and sometimes the activity recorded—directly reflect the shah’s absolute power in all arenas of society. One of Naser al-Din’s titles, Qeble-ye ʿalam, in fact, can be translated as “Pivot of the Universe,” indicating the shah’s omnipotence. Images of palaces, the royal retinue, and court entertainers elucidate the luxuriant as well as secluded nature of royal activities.

Court photographers also explored subject matter outside the palace, recording rural, village, and urban environments. A selection of this type of photography can be found in our galleries as well, providing a view onto the human landscape of Qajar Iran, albeit from a specific perspective that at times borders on Orientalism.

Iran’s long and complex history is evoked in the exhibition’s second gallery. Naser al-Din Shah’s early engagement with photography coincided with a blossoming interest in the country’s pre-Islamic monuments. With the awakening of a historical consciousness, largely through the first accurate reading of cuneiform in the mid-nineteenth century, Iran could present itself as a country with a deep-reaching historic identity. Indeed, knowledge of the past no longer had to be drawn from mythology and romanticized stories, but came now from actual historical events. Photographs of Achaemenid and Sasanian sites in this exhibition exude a sense of national pride and embrace their monumentality and grandeur, thus emphasizing the great role that these Persian dynasties played in world history.

The exhibition also includes the photographic works of Bahman Jalali (1944–2010) and Shadi Ghidirian (b. 1974), two modern Iranian photographers whose work directly reflects the aesthetic and intellectual influence of Qajar photographs, but in divergent ways. The Eye of the Shah thus provides an overview of early Iranian photography, embracing its precociousness and reflecting its importance in the development of an Iranian photographic sensibility over the past 150 years.