Photographer Unknown, Inge Morath in Iran, 1956

Inge Morath, Iran

Inge Morath: Iran

Preface by John P. Jacob, Inge Morath Foundation.
From Inge Morath: Iran, Göttingen: Steidl, 2009.
Please also view the slideshow.

The place I longed to know had no political name. Inge Morath, 1990 ((Morath, Inge, in “Preface,” Russian Journal. (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1991), p. 7.)) Inge Morath came to Paris in 1949, to join Magnum Photos as a researcher and editor. She relocated to London in 1951, and was there apprenticed to Simon Guttman, founder of the legendary Dephot Agency in Berlin, where Robert Capa began his career as a photographer. After a few years selling her pictures under the pseudonym Agni Tharom – her own name spelled backward – Morath returned to Paris, and in 1953 she presented her photographs to Capa. He invited her to join Magnum as an associate member. She worked as an assistant to Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1954, and in ‘55, the year that she became a full member of Magnum Photos, traveled extensively in Europe. Being a greenhorn, as Morath later noted, most of her early assignments were jobs that did not interest Magnum’s “big boys.” ((Morath, Inge, in Magnum Stories. Chris Boot, ed. (New York: Phaidon, 2004), p. 339.)) In 1956, Morath made two trips to the Middle East for Holiday Magazine, one of Magnum’s most important clients. The assignment was a notable professional achievement for Morath, as it was among the earliest to take her outside Europe (she had traveled to South Africa in 1955, and would also go to the US and Mexico in ‘56). During March and April of that year she traveled to Iran, the partial fulfillment of her long-held dream to travel the Silk Road from Europe, through Persia, to China. After a brief return to Paris, she traveled on to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Israel. The article that her photographs would accompany, with a text by foreign correspondent Alan Moorehead, was published in the December issue of Holiday. ((Alan McCrae Moorehead (22 July 1910 – 29 September 1983) had won an international reputation for his coverage of the Middle East during the Second World War.)) For Morath, she later wrote, it was the beginning of “the time of big stories and far-flung trips.” ((Morath, Inge, in “Berlin Lecture.” Undated manuscript, Archives, Inge Morath Foundation, New York, p. 26.))

In addition to her work for Holiday, Morath also had assignments to photograph for the Pepsi-Cola Corporation in Tehran and for Standard Oil in Abadan, and she documented the Shah’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at the Golestan Palace for a Magnum distribution. ((A story created for widespread media distribution rather than for a single publication.)) In total, she exposed more than one hundred rolls of black and white and approximately forty rolls of color film during her visit to Iran. ((Morath’s letters suggest that one reason for her return to Paris after five weeks in Iran, rather than traveling directly on to the other countries she had been assigned to cover, was that she had used up all her film there.)) A self-proclaimed frugal photographer who rarely devoted more than a few frames to a single subject, the range of Morath’s imagery, across more than 5,000 exposures, is extensive. In contrast to her many later journeys, Morath did not keep a personal journal in Iran, and the letters that survive, all to her family, provide few details about the places she visited and people she met along the way. Her traveling companion was Robert Delpire, who would publish Morath’s second monograph, De la Perse à l’Iran, in 1958. Recalling their journey after more than fifty years, Delpire described Morath working in Iran “without a precise idea of what we could do with the photos.” ((Interview with the author, Paris, March 5, 2008.)) Indeed, the shooting script supplied to Morath by Holiday listed only two subjects that were required for its coverage of Iran: carpets and the mosques of Isfahan. Morath’s notes and letters indicate that after a long week in Tehran spent waiting for their travel documents to arrive she and Delpire drove south to Shiraz, and from there flew to Abadan. Delpire departed there, returning to Paris with the film that Morath had exposed until that point. Morath then returned to Tehran, taking an alternate route. She spent altogether five weeks in Iran. Morath was not the first Magnum photographer to work in Iran, and as a former researcher and editor for the agency she would certainly have been familiar with the earlier reportage of Cartier-Bresson, from 1950, and fellow Austrian Erich Lessing, from 1952. But Morath’s approach to Iran was different from that of her colleagues. In contrast with Cartier-Bresson, who photographed in Iran as part of his extended work in Asia, and with Lessing, who worked there on a specific story (the 1952 locust plague), Morath was the first to focus broadly on the country itself. Seeking to report on the larger culture through encounters with its various constituencies, Morath’s photographs verge on the anthropological in their attention to common aspects of life – family, work, religious and creative expression, clothing, architecture, etc. – in each of the communities that she visited. The recurrence of these themes in Morath’s photographs would appear to contradict Delpire’s description of her unpremeditated working in Iran, and yet the seeming absence of an editorial agenda is one of the work’s notable characteristics. In fact, Morath’s attention to what Azar Nafisi has referred to as “the undercurrents of modernity and tradition” that run side by side in Iran served to underwrite the impression that she wished to convey of the richly layered history – sometimes conflicting and sometimes harmonious – of an ancient culture in transition. To achieve this, a precise idea about her subjects was not required so much as consistency in the way that she approached them. As a photographer, Morath’s approach to Iran was curiously at odds with the texts that her pictures accompanied. Although many of her photographs of Iran were reproduced by Holiday, Moorehead’s text mentions the country only in relation to the nations it borders, such as Iraq. Personally, Moorehead was repulsed by the modernity of oil rich countries such as Iran, preferring the more exotic “whiff of the lazy Arabian East.” ((Moorehead, Alan, “The Middle East,” Holiday Magazine vol. 20, no. 6 (1956), p. 59.)) Edouard Sablier, the French journalist whose text introduces De la Perse à l’Iran, expressed a similar disillusionment. “The traveler leaves for Persia, only to reach Iran,” Sablier noted in his opening paragraph. “He looks forward to nightingales and roses, to a glimpse of dark eyes beneath a deftly fastened veil, and finds for the most part very ordinary people, rather glum and shabbily dressed, in very ordinary streets.” ((Morath, Inge. De la Perse à l’Iran. (English edition, New York: Viking, 1960), unpaginated introduction.))

In Morath’s photographs, the seeming absence of any indicators of modernity serves a different motivation than orientalist nostalgia. Morath sought evidence of the endurance of tradition within new contexts, revealing both the past as a place of ongoing resistance to the present, and the present as unknowable except as it is revealed by the past. ((“What interests me,” she wrote, “is the continuity – or lack of it – between past and present. This is what […] is expressed in the title of my [book] From Persia to Iran.” Quoted in Carlisle, Olga, manuscript for Grosse Photographen unserer Zeit: Inge Morath. (Luzern: Verlag C.J. Bucher, 1975); Archives, Inge Morath Foundation, New York, p. 6.)) Only in the images produced for her assigned work for Holiday, Pepsi, and Standard Oil, is modernity unavoidably at hand. In these photographs Morath has, in each case, produced a counter-narrative to what was required by her clients. While photographing carpets for Holiday, she documented child labor; while photographing the oil refineries in Abadan, she documented the imbalances between native and foreign labor forces; and while photographing the new Pepsi bottling facility in Tehran, she documented the incursion of foreign goods and influence into the domestic economy. Thus, although the encroachment of the West was not her primary subject in Iran, neither was it one that she shied away from. In these images, Morath typifies the optimistic yet unswervingly critical style that would come to be known as “concerned photography.” ((The phrase was coined in the 1960s by Cornell Capa, Morath’s colleague at Magnum Photos, to describe photojournalists whose work demonstrated a humanitarian impulse to educate and change the world, not just record it.))

Nevertheless, as a reader of history Morath would have recognized these as contemporary political conflicts. Aware that a culture as ancient as Iran’s is densely layered, Morath was far more interested in documenting the persistence of Iran’s traditions than she was in their clash with Western values. For her, the continuity between past and present is expressed through the coming together, within a single photographic frame, of Zoroastrian, traditional Islamic, and contemporary Iranian life; in the ancient architecture of the bazaar, for example, where boots and umbrellas dangle from the ceiling and shoppers wear chadors. Such images offer a reconfiguration of the traditional understanding of “decisive moment” as a coming together of distinct historical, rather than optical, elements. In fact, Iranian modernity is not absent from Morath’s photographs, but conventional symbols of Western modernity are. A passionate interest in history, and an awareness of the difficulty in representing its complexity without falling back on convention, would remain central to Morath’s work, particularly in her later photographs of China and Russia. One of the most vexing questions about Morath’s photographs of Iran, given both the scope of the work and its great personal and professional importance, is why so few images were seen during her lifetime. ((After the publication of De la Perse à l’Iran in 1958, small selections of Morath’s photographs of the Middle East were presented in two retrospective exhibitions and their accompanying catalogs, Inge Morath: Fotografien 1952 – 1992 (exhibition: Salzburger Landssammlung Rupertinum; catalog: Salzburg: Otto Müller Verlag, 1992), and Inge Morath: Das Leben als Photographin (exhibition: Kunsthalle Wien; catalog: Munich: Gina Kehayoff Verlag, 1999). In both of these, Morath presented only her black and white photographs of Iran.)) While this question may never be answered definitively, the most likely reason, discovered during the making of this book, is that a light leak in her camera caused significant damage to many of her black and white negatives. Without access to a lab during her journey, Morath would not have known about the problem until after she had returned to Paris and examined her film. Prints made from the damaged negatives would either have to be cropped or in some way doctored to remove the black streak created by the light leak; in either case an undesirable flaw. For the young photographer, the damage to her film must have been an extraordinary disappointment.

It may also explain why Morath’s photographs published in De la Perse à l’Iran were predominantly color, in contrast to her earlier, largely black and white monograph with Delpire. ((Guerre à la Tristesse. Robert Delpire, ed. (Paris: Robert Delpire, 1955).)) Like many of her colleagues, Morath, at that time in her career, preferred black and white, producing color photographs primarily for her clients. ((Morath later worked extensively with color photography, and for some projects, particularly after the 1980s, used it exclusively.)) In Iran she worked with two cameras, one holding black and white film and the other holding color. Her second camera functioned flawlessly, and her color film came out fine. ((Morath also carried a Polaroid camera in Iran. According to Robert Delpire, she used it primarily to make portraits of nomads which were, in most cases, their first encounters with a photographic image. The making and giving of a Polaroid served as a kind of Introduction, which enabled Morath to then photograph freely within the encampments she visited (interview with the author, Paris, May 17, 2007). This is the only known professional usage of Polaroid materials by Morath. As no Polaroid prints remain in her archive, it is presumed that she gave them all away in Iran.)) Inge Morath: Iran is a reinvestigation of the black and white work from this important early assignment, something that would have been nearly impossible during Morath’s lifetime. Images were selected for inclusion by studying the markings and notations on Morath’s contact sheets for indications of personal preference. Her negatives were then scanned and digitally retouched to remove the light stain caused by her damaged camera. Finally, the photographs were sequenced in a roughly chronological order, in part for accuracy, and in part to preserve the way that Morath worked by creating a unique portrait of each community that she visited. ((The photographs are grouped geographically, then roughly chronologically, following Morath’s notes. Morath devoted the first leg of her journey, from Tehran to Abadan, to work for Magnum and for her book with Delpire, and the shorter, second leg largely to complete her assignments for Standard Oil and Pepsi-Cola.)) In addition to representing an important body of her photographs, Inge Morath: Iran also offers an opportunity for reassessment of the photographer herself. Morath’s visit to Iran provided her with the freedom to explore and develop her own vision as a photographer. Her distinct interest in the continuity between past and present in Iran, and the techniques that she deployed in order to illustrate that concept with her camera, provide key insights into Morath’s later work. Although photography was the primary means through which Morath found expression, her camera was but one of many tools in a kit to which she continued to add throughout her lifetime. In addition to the many languages in which she was fluent, Morath was also a prolific diary and letter-writer, a dual gift for words and pictures that was unusual among her colleagues. Morath was also atypical in her working practices, rejecting many of the precepts common to photojournalism of the period. Chris Boot, a former director of Magnum Photos, has written of Morath that: She did not pursue events […] and so her work lacks the drama of some of her colleagues. Nor was she given to moral rhetoric. Rather, she unsentimentally made pictures that were guided by her relationship to a place. These relationships were invariably intimate and long lasting… Similarly, her photographs of people are born of intimacy without sentimentality. It is as if the presentation of relationships takes the place of story structure, and her work is best understood as an ongoing series of observations of the life she made for herself. ((Magnum Stories, op. cit., p. 338.))

Morath’s photographs comprise a highly personal view of Iran; less a body of objective knowledge than a catalog of personal encounters. Not surprisingly for such a young artist, her images reach across photographic history, ranging from picturesque conventionality, in her photographs of the village of Vanack, to pointed commentary, in Abadan. But in her subjective and unsentimental approach, and in her free-ranging narrative structure, Morath’s work points forward to the future of photography. In this respect, as Monika Faber notes, Morath’s work in Iran is perhaps more closely allied to the contemporaneous work of Robert Frank – whose book Les Américans was published by Delpire almost simultaneously with De la Perse à l’Iran – than to the Magnum colleagues with whom she is more frequently compared. ((Morath would certainly have been familiar with Frank’s photographs through Delpire, who had published Frank’s work alongside photographs by Magnum colleagues Cartier-Bresson, in the revue NEUF, in 1952, and Werner Bischof, in the book Indiens pas Morts, in 1956. The title of Morath’s De la Perse à l’Iran is a parallel to that of the English language edition of Indiens pas Morts, Incas to Indios. Moreover, Morath’s working “without a precise idea,” that Delpire encouraged of her in Iran, is similar to the style of Frank’s photography in Peru, which he described as “[…] very free with the camera. I didn’t think of what would be the correct thing to do; I did what I felt good doing,” quoted in The Pictures Are a Necessity: Robert Frank in Rochester, NY November 1988, William S. Johnson, ed. (Rochester: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1989), p. 30.)) Above all, Morath’s work is distinguished by the fact that she approached her subjects through the same prism of intellectual history to which she also sought to contribute. She prepared for assignments by immersing herself in the history and literature of the places she intended to visit, rather than relying on visual tropes and social stereotypes. More importantly, she rejected the notion of photographic objectivity; the authoritative position of standing outside the picture looking in. “Inge Morath,” as former Magnum director John Morris has noted, “was a part of history more than she was a witness to it.” ((Interview with the author, Paris, May 17, 2007.)) She recognized herself – as a photographer, but also as a human subject – as a participant in the larger historical document comprised by her photography. Uniquely among her Magnum colleagues, Morath was a diarist who wrote with images. The thread that connects her work is time; the convergence of intellectual history and social memory within the photographic moment.