Iranian cinema: Film photography
by Massoud Mehrabi
When it comes to publicity, unlike what most people think, cinema as an influential medium gives priority to its own interests above all valuable ideas, benevolent actions and social commitments. Cinema takes advantage of all internal and external attractive elements to promote itself and this is a “necessity” which outdoes other necessities in terms of importance and priority. This is why cinema has hired a populous army of artists and specialists in various fields. Film photographers are just part of the manpower hired by cinema. In Iran, like other pioneer countries in film production, cinema started with imitation; painters and portraitists were employed to design posters while still photographers recording personal and family gestures were hired as film photographers.
Nasser-ed-din Shah and Mozaffareddin Shah were, respectively, promoters of photography and cinematography and importers of related equipment to Iran. This technique and art was first supported by people in the royal court before turning into a public profession. Still photography came to Iran three years after its international debut (1842) and Nasser-ed-din Shah’s longstanding dream for promoting photography came true by allocating a building at the royal palace to photographers. Under Qajar rule, photography was soon accepted as a “profession” and people like Abdollah Mirza, Ivanov (nicknamed Russikhan), Mirza Jahangir Khan Akkas and Antoin Sevruguin launched public photography shops in the capital city and other big cities. It was then that cinema and photography grew side by side and developed. Many years later, Russikhan and Sevruguin switched to cinema and one of the most important royal photographers known as Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi became the first cinematographer of the Iranian cinema. Under the first Pahlavi monarch (1925-1941) a number of professional photographers were among the first artists to continue their career in cinema by taking film photos and then cinematography. In 1950s, most cinematographers had, in fact, started their careers many years earlier as film photographers.
Before “film photography” developed into a profession in Iran, stage photography was vogue. Stage photographers along with stage players were among the first groups to go to cinema after its arrival in Iran. At a time when foreign films were screened in Iran, movie theaters turned into an arena for the competition of film importing companies. Some of those films were screened on limited scale and were bought and distributed by retailers. They were usually not accompanied by photos or a single series of photos was sent which was rapidly worn out after being used by several movie theaters. Therefore, there were two ways to have photos for display in shop windows of movie theaters. One way was to replicate the same few photos with the second way being to prepare negatives using the original photo frames and then printing those negatives. Some photographers were hired by film distribution offices whose job was to copy and print photos on the basis of the original photos. Sometimes, for more attraction, they manually painted their photos or used color filters to print photos in diverse colors and deliver them to distribution offices.
It has been customary for many years to review a major part of the history of cinema through “film photos.” The Iranian cinema is no exception to this rule. As said before, photographers of the first full-length dramatic films in Iran were already taking photos of stage plays and their actors. Of course, this was not their main job, but most of then ran photography ateliers in the city and took photos of stage plays as a sideline. Therefore, photos of early films were mostly like theatrical photos. They were like old memorial photos in which actors were portrayed like icons in order to attract more viewers. In parallel to technical advances, photos improved in quality, though they gradually distanced from their original innocent and honest appearance.
Photos were, and still are, supposed to identify corresponding films. However, during the past five decades in the history of the Iranian cinema, still photographers have been dominated by the way of thinking which is common to most Iranian film producers that give the highest priority to box office. Most often, those photos which are more imaginary and attractive are chosen for display in shop windows of movie theaters even if they do not represent the actual atmosphere of the film. Before the revolution, photos depicting erotic scenes were more popular and shop windows were full of such photos though those scenes accounted for a very small part of films. After the revolution, those photos were replaced by photos of action scenes though such scenes still accounted for a minimum of the actual length of movies.
Due to that negative background, only few moviegoers have been paying serious attention to arrangement of photos in shop windows of movie theaters for years and, perhaps, this is why some producers do not care much about film photographers. During recent years, there have been films with no still photographer on the set as they printed some frames to be displayed in shop windows of movie theaters and for other publicity purposes like posters, placards and the press. Such photos were dull in color, full of grains, and deformed.
Although there are few photos in the Iranian cinema which can be considered certified copies of their respective films and most photos are not good representatives for films, film photography in Iran has more class than other fields of photography including industrial, news, and social photography because film photos are done by skillful photographers. Before the 1970s, there were few lasting and attractive photos apart from news photos. However, when it comes to cinema, regardless of whether original films were valuable or worthless, photos have been among influential elements of cinema enjoying high aesthetic value. Since early 1970s, when taking social photos, especially on political issues, became vogue, nature photography was highly prosperous, and exhibitions of photos as works of art were held in galleries, social status of film photos plunged. In the heat of street unrests during the revolution in 1979, news photos overshadowed all other fields of photography, including film photos. During early post-revolution years, photos put on display at shop windows of movie theaters were similar to a small exhibition of news–political photos. They showed clenched fists, mass demonstrations by extras, bloody bodies of martyrs, and other portraits which reminded their audiences of political issues. After 1983 when cinema gradually went back on its rational track, film photos regained their true status. After a short transitional period, filmmakers decided to make real artworks and film photographers were offered with a good opportunity to create remarkable photos. That trend continued until photos became something more than representations of respective films and turned into exquisite, though abstract, works of art. Therefore, film photos were actually dissociated from corresponding films and were just framed as beautiful pictures for display.
Film photography has been treading a more logical path during recent years, but more often than not, film photos are not still certified copies of the Iranian movies.
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2010, Film International
Quarterly Magazine (ISSN 1021-6510)
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Publishing Date Spring 2010
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