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Middle East Moments
UCLA Comparative Literature Chair Ali Behdad says illustrators feared their displacement in the court of Nasser-al-Din Shah, a photographer and patron of the new art.

Middle East Moments

Four scholars uncover, try out ways of seeing early photographs of region.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Middle-class families took instruction on how to tastefully display photographs in their parlors.

From early in 1839, when the press got word of Louis Daguerre's refinements on the technique, Europeans trying to understand photography seized on its relationship with travel, explained Professor Joan Schwartz to a UCLA audience. Cameras would save the labor of sketch artists, so no one had to recruit one for a journey to Egypt. In fact, no scholar really had to go there at all if a photographer could be sent to obtain instant and "exact facsimiles" of the right monuments and hieroglyphs.

For early enthusiasts, photography was "an enhanced form of note-taking," a historical preservation method that copied artifacts before they decayed, or even, for reflective souls, an improvement on "hasty travel," said Schwartz, summarizing and quoting various commentators. She was one of four speakers to discuss the uses of photographs in the Middle East in roughly their first century at an April 27, 2006, event sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Department of Art History, and the Getty Foundation. In conjunction with a course that they co-teach at UCLA, Art History Chair Irene Bierman and Getty Program Officer Nancy Micklewright organized the colloquium on "Paradox of Vision: Photography in the Middle East."

In addition to Schwartz, a geographer who teaches at Queen's University in Canada, the speakers were Kathleen Stewart Howe, director of the Pomona College Museum of Art; Ali Behdad, chair of the UCLA Department of Comparative Literature; and Stephen Sheehi, a professor at the American University of Beirut. These four scholars considered how photographs were produced and how they circulated in Middle Eastern societies, embracing approaches from art history, geography, sociology, and literary theory.

Borrowing the geographer Derek Gregory's notion of "geopiety," Howe took up photographs as one of the forms in which British colonizers expressed their spiritual identification with and their claims on the lands of the Bible. She looked at portrayals of Jerusalem and Palestine by British photographers sent on official surveys in the 1860s, among other examples.

Before the twentieth-century ascendancy of the United States, Britain's only "special relationship" was with the spaces named in biblical accounts. The spaces, not the people. Howe explained that photographs represented the lands as "empty, tractless," and therefore available; alternatively, she said, they depicted people as one of the resources that these lands had to offer.

Death of a Sketch Artist

In his presentation, UCLA's Ali Behdad was also concerned with photography's place in East-West interactions, but he focused on Iranian practitioners, especially the court photographers of Nasser-al-Din Shah. During Nasser-al-Din's reign of 1848-96, "the photographic image became the image of dynastic power," Behdad argued. In a drawing displayed by Behdad, a court illustrator reveals his anxiety about being replaced by cameramen. Note, Behdad said, the proximity of the photographer to the Shah of Persia.

Behdad characterized many of the court photographs as "picturesque" or "exoticizing," observing that Iranians often participated in the production and reinforcement of Western stereotypes about them. He said that he was still more intrigued by photographs that depicted a clash of perspectives between Iranians and Western visitors, including one of Nasser-al-Din's European dentist pictured among "dour" Iranian courtiers.

Shifting the discussion to his home country's past, Stephen Sheehi looked at ways in which photographs were used to "naturalize" the material desires of the well-to-do in the years before World War I and the founding of colonial Lebanon. He quoted from texts that instructed bourgeois families on how to tastefully display photographs in their parlors and reception rooms. Among other things, the pictures served to make families' habits of consumption conspicuous to visitors.

In 1888, Kodak began selling cameras to the region's middle classes, Sheehi said, giving them something to carry that was at the same time a tool for representing themselves in sectarian and class terms.

Center for Near Eastern Studies