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Brought Into Focus

- The Work of Antoin Sevruguin -

THomas Cole

Antoin Sevruguin was one of the earliest photographer-explorers. As explained here, his pictures of Persia and its people both help to define and transcend the cult of orientalism as well as enlighen us to the detaila and nuances of the lifestyle, dress and customs of the people of old Persia.


The Blue Mosque, circa 1890 - 1900
"As with the photograph of the inscriptions, here isa remnant of Iran's past preserved within its later history. A mud brick wall and wooden planks nailed into a door are constructions contemporaneious with the phtoographer. ..... What they enclose is in the full frame of this image: an anient colossal archway, standing erect yet broken. It isa remnant of the Blue Moseque of Tabriz, built in 1450 during the rule of Jahanshah Qaraquyunlu (reigned 1438 - 1467)."

Times have changed dramatically since the first photographers of the world ventured from the comfort of their European parlours, a king’s court or the inner sanctum of a private studio. Travel was difficult, and they must have experienced some degree of culture shock, as is evident in the journals of some early explorers. On a mission to document these far-off lands, they were unfamiliar with the language; the distance between themselves and the living cultures often resulted in what has been called an ‘orientalist’ view of the region.

The world east of Europe – be it the Near East, Central Asia, or the Far East – appeared through their lenses as both primitive and decaying. These earliest explorers to carry cameras saw such lands as well past their prime, in a state of ultimate decline. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Persepolis, Colossi of the Porch of Xerxes, circa 1900.
It is easy to interpret this phtoograph within the orientalist school of thought, with large ruins dwarfing the explorers in the countryside. Instead the photograph is evidence of Sevruiguins perseverene with travel as well as photography in the hinterlands of Persia at the turn of the 20th century was very difficult.

Early images of Persia are rare. The most renowned 19th-century photographer of that country is Antoin Sevruguin, who operated one of the most successful commercial photography studios in Tehran in the late 19th century.

Like Samuil M. Dudin, the Russian photographer dispatched to Central Asia by the Tsar at the turn of the 20th century, Sevruguin was first a painter, an artist, who adapted his skills and eye to a camera.

The Cemetery and the City of Qum, circa 1885
"The excessive heat has kept most people indoors. Those see are just beginning to emerge from the main or side entrances of the shrine complex. Some gather around a tombstone; most mind their way across the graves. The cemetery stretches beyond the edges of the phtoograph, giveing the space a boundless quality. The people moving across it seem almost to walk and clearly to stare, into the viewer's space."

Though the photograph may appear to convey a romantic quality, the fact that it is a cemetery in the foreground is somewhat of a letdown to the orientalist school of thought in the West.

He was born in Tehran in the 1840s, the son of a Russian diplomat. After his father’s death in a horse-riding accident, the Sevruguin family returned to his Georgian mother’s home city of Tiblisi.

There, his photographic skills were cultivated through his association with the photographer Dimitri Yermakov, who is often called Sevruguin’s mentor.With his two brothers he returned Iran in the early 1870s, setting up a photography studio, first in Tabriz then later in Tehran.

Mendicant, circa 1890.
A fascinating image of an itinerant mendicant or "malang" as they are called in this part of Asia. Not unlike the holy men of India, "sadhus", men like this wandered from village to village in search of alms as well as bestowing blessings and even miracles for the people with whom they mingled.

The 19th century saw the rise of a European vision of the Orient from the perspective of a colonial mentality. Although the body of his work transcends such stereotyping, Sevruguin did shoot scenes in his studio to satisfy his clients and marketplace demand. His posed studio photographs of women fastidiously adorned in elaborate fabrics, lounging in the midst of rugs and ‘oriental’ objects, contributed to a contemporary perception of the Orient.

There was no way to experience the outside world except through photographs or paintings. Before the moving pictures and, later, television, the reality of life in far-off lands remained but a fantasy induced by the few available black-and-white photographs.

The Old Medicine Man, circa 1880
Nur Mohammad was a well known Jewish doctor living in the Paminar district of Tehran. He practiced traditional medicineand received patients at his home. Here he is photographed with members of his family and a few of his patients and servants in the interior courtyard of his house. His wife, inside her quarters, wearing a white veil, is peeping through the window."


Although Sevruguin catered to a disparate audience, including those thirsting for exaggerated images of life in the Orient, there were probably others who sought a realistic view of the living cultures of the tribal peoples from the region.

It would be interesting to know how he himself would view the various interpretations offered for any particular composition captured on one of his surviving 696 glass plates.

The Ice Cream Vendor, circa 1890
"Street life and street business were favorite subjects of Sevruiguin. This scene has also been staged in teh Drill Square. The trace of carriage wheels from a parade can be een on the ground. A barefoot itinerant ice cream vendor pushes his car into our field of vision. .... A fsahionable young man with a well trimmed mustache stops for his ice cream. Beside him a young boy hesitates. Two young men louge on the ground."

A devastating fire engulfed Sevruguin’s studio in 1908, destroying most of his more-than-7,000 glass plate negatives. Many of the lost images were studio shots; but the depth of material he captured among the tribal people of the provinces is rivalled only by the efforts of Dudin in Central Asia.

No one taking photographs in 19th-century Iran seems to have been as well travelled as Sevruguin, nor as familiar with the people who allowed him access to very personal domestic scenes.

Village Life, circa 1880
Not one of Sevruguin's acknowledged 'great' photographs, nevertheless, it is an extremely interesting image depictingwhat I am guessing is an extended family seated (and sleeping) around a table covered with a woven striped 'jajim'. Under the table is a charcoal brazier providing warmth as children are seen sleeping with only their heads emerging from under the cover. This set up, in Afghanistan, is called a 'sandali', referring to the covered table with a heat source underneath. Though it is uncertain exactly where the phtoograph was taken, the textile or weaving stretched over the low table or "sandali" appears to be a Shahsevan jajim, enlightening us to how such a weaving could have been used. Clearly this is not one of his "staged" photographs as is the case with "The Ice Cream Vendor" image, and it appear to be an accurate and quite graphic image of home life for a large family.

In the words of Edward Said, orientalism, as a concept, ‘connotes the high handed executive attitude of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century European colonialism’ and s ‘nothing more than structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away’ (Orientalis, Vintage Books, 1979).

"Nan" Vendor
"Nan" (flat bread) is a staple in these eastern countries. It is baked in ovens that are depressed into the floor (ground), round ovens with wood and charcoal burning at fiercely hot tempertures. Though I have not seen a 'nan' vendor using scales, I am guessing the nan is sold by 'weight' as they appear, for the most part, to be of different sizes with the price determined by weight of the wheat flour rather than merely the approximate dimensions of the bread iteself. Note the bird cage hanging above. Shopkeepers through out these Asian locales, especially Central Asia and apparently Persia too, enjoyed the sound of these birds in the crowded, often dusty bazaars and still do to this day.

Sevruguin’s photos are not ‘orientalist’, but some of the images were made for or termed as such by those motivated by political and/or colonialist perspectives. Sevruguin had an obvious love for and understanding of the cultures through which he moved.

To term his serious field work ‘orientalist’ is inaccurate. His contributions to our views of tribal life in Persia have proved invaluable to those with a sincere, unbiased interest

Saddlery Bazaar
One can imagine Sevruguin's arrival in any village or town was met with a flurry of excitment and wonder. Setting up his ponderous equipment, he attracted crowds of onlookers, some of whom then became his subjects. Seen here is a section of the bazaar devoted to selling horse trappings, covers, whips, stirrups and more for riders.