Articles | Photography
Bijan Bani-Ahmad and Subjective photography
Pirooz Sayyar
Tavoos Quarterly,Nos.3&4,Spring & Summer 2000

The 1960s were an important period in contemporary Iranian art. Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, established two decades earlier, had educated students in a variety of visual arts fields, and the growing familiarity of Iranian artists with international artistic styles had opened new roads in the country’s various artistic circles. In this context, photography did not remain unaffected by these new influences. Becoming acquainted with the works and viewpoints of great European and American photographers, a few Iranian photographers acquired a new vision and tried to free this art from its traditional molds. Alongside them, a number of amateur photographers carried out studies in European schools of art and became closely acquainted with the new manners and the expressive and aesthetic possibilities of this art. Upon returning to Iran, they initiated developments in this field, the study of which can help clarifying the evolution of contemporary Iranian photography. Bijan Bani-Ahmad is one of these photographers, and the present article is dedicated to introducing his art.

Bijan Bani-Ahmad was born in Tehran in 1936. In his early childhood, he began learning the art of painting from his father, who was a professor of painting and a carpet designer. His father followed a teaching method which he had called “subjective painting”, and had published a book by the same title. This method later became manifest in Bani-Ahmad’s photographic work, particularly since his German photography teacher had also created the school of “subjective photography” and believed that a photograph must reflect the photographer’s imagination and inner feelings.

After completing his secondary studies, Bani-Ahmad went to Germany, where he spent six years studying psychology. During that period, he became interested in animated pictures and began making films with a 16mm Bolex camera. His acquaintance with the works of great European, particularly German, photographers, and seeing of the accomplishments of famous news photographers, gave him a deeper insight of the expressive capabilities of this art. Viewing an exhibition of the works of the great German master photographer, Otto Steinert, had a decisive effect upon him and prompted him to join Folkwang Schule, in Essen, where Otto Steinert was a professor. In 1965, after successfully passing the Folkwang Schule’s entrance test, he began his photographic studies.

The Folkwang Schule was one of the most prestigious photography schools in Europe, which had educated numerous photographers from various nationalities. In this school, photography was divided into 14 fields which each student had to complete in the course of his studies. Otto Steinert, the famous professor of this school, was in fact a physician, but his mastery in the art of photography and his wide knowledge of the styles and works of great international photographers had made him a highly capable professor in this field. Otto Steinert founded a style which became known as Subjektive Fotografie. He believed that the constituent factors of the visual quality of a photograph must be identified.

In his view, these factors constitute a frame which cuts out a section of the image of the outer world and isolates elements from it, the photographic perspective, which is different from that of the human eye, the neutral quality of the photographic image, which, unlike in human vision, covers a narrow range of gray scale values, and finally the instantaneous characteristic, which freezes the mobile reality. He used to say: “Photography has given us, for the first time, a perception of the structure of objects which had ever eluded the eye because of its limitations in accomodation.” In Otto Steinert’s view, photography was a process all the phases of which had to be thought out by the photographer and none left to chance, and that, eventually, a photograph had to embody the photographer’s imagination and inner feelings.

It was with this frame of mind that Bani-Ahmad began studying photography. He thus speaks of his experience of studying with Otto Steinert: “I began studying photography very late, at the age of thirty. In the photography school, our professor altered the students’ basic paste. He added water to it and softened it before giving it a new shape. He did this with each and every student. He gradually educated their views and talents, albeit indirectly. He would never say do this or don’t do that. He would say go and try it. Even today, whenever I want to take a picture, I remember his imagination and temper. He would always tell us to create. He abhorred imitation and thoughtless work. He told us that we should think, that he should be able to see and feel that a work has been thought out.”

Besides cooperating with the German press, Bani-Ahmad spent three years working as the photographer of the opera of Essen, regularly taking pictures of its performances. During this period, he became familiar with the methods of photographing various artistic representations, in which the photographer often has to work in weak lighting conditions and which require him or her to be fully familiar with the performers or dancers’ motions in order to best record their postures. For example, a ballet dancer remains immobile for a few tenths of a second during his or her motions, and the photographer has to know these moments and swiftly record them. Bani-Ahmad continued photographing artistic performances in Iran and, for ten years, took pictures in various theaters in Tehran and acquainted his students with the methods used in this field of photography.

After his studies at the Folkwang Schule, Bani-Ahmad worked for a year and a half as a professional photographer in Germany, cooperating with an agency active in news and commercial photography. At the same time, an exhibition of a selection of his works was held at the Landsknecht Gallery in Buer. One of the themes of Bani-Ahmad’s work in this period, in which his capabilities were well exposed, was architectural photography. His architectural photographs display consummate balance and composition. The main elements forming the architectural space are skillfully juxtaposed and their relationship is expressively shown. One of these photographs is that of the church of Maria Regina, built in a modern, non-traditional style in Stuttgart. Its roof forms a truncated cone topped by a circular light aperture. This light aperture, which illuminates the interior of the church, symbolizes the sun, or the divine light in more religious terms. Taking advantage of the optical possibilities offered by photography, Bani-Ahmad has juxtaposed the main elements of this architecture, i.e., the roof, the light aperture, and the interior space of the church, masterfully displaying their unity. The geometric shape of the light aperture has been altered by his use of a wide-angle lens, assuming an elliptical shape which has increased the attractiveness of the photograph and the dynamic character of its geometric masses. The photographs of this church and several of his other architectural photographs from this period were published in the German press.

Bani-Ahmad returned to Iran in 1970 and initially worked as a news photographer for the Rheinischer Merkur newspaper. Alongside this occupation, he traveled to regions in northern and southern Iran and spent some time photographing the local nature and rural environment. In these pictures of Bani-Ahmad, a still, uncrowded atmosphere prevails and the people have an inconspicuous presence subdued by their environment. One of these expressive pictures, taken in the village of Ziarat, near Gorgan, shows a village girl weaving cloth with primitive instruments. With its abundance of environmental elements within a cramped space — an impression reinforced by their shadows — this enchanting picture appears at first glance to be an aggregate of several photographs. The multitude of elements within the

composition and their patches of light and darkness are masterfully combined and the play of lines is particularly striking. The curving, slanting and upright lines scattered in apparently chaotic arrangement, together with their shadows, draw the viewer’s eye here and there in the picture, giving him an impression of tension and turmoil. At the same time, the girl sitting in the background weaving without paying attention to the camera is in distinct contrast with the chaotic play of lines; as though these tense lines have overwhelmed this girl’s leisurely life and enveloped her existence in a cocoon.

In 1971, a collection of Bani-Ahmad’s photographs made in Germany and Iran was exhibited at the Khane-ye Aftab gallery. Since then, because of his increased activities in news photography, Bani-Ahmad has not been able to continue his travels around Iran. In fact, news photography has taken up most of his time, compelling him to travel across five continents in about one decade. One of his fruitful activities in this period has been to hold news photography courses for the students of the Communications Sciences Faculty and the photographers of Pars News Agency and Kayhan newspaper. During these courses, the students became acquainted with modern methods and the instruments and materials used in this branch of photography. Of course, in news photography, the quality of the equipment is of secondary importance and what matters is that the photographer be able to anticipate events by relying on his experience. Bani-Ahmad says in this concern: “The best news photographs have been those whose photographers were able to foresee, to feel what could happen, what the present situation was and what the next would be, and were prepared to record it. This is a postulate. A news photographer must have a sense of anticipation and acquire experience. After working for 5 or 10 years, a news photographer can better imagine and foresee moments.” Another quality which Bani-Ahmad believes is important in news photography is impartiality in retelling events, because the optical and mechanical possibilities which the camera and editing facilities provide allows him or her to magnify or diminish the importance of events. Of course, in the politically biased press, photography is sometimes used as a means of distorting reality so as to promote specific objectives, but true news photography should keep as close as possible to reality and reflect it truthfully, whether beautiful or ugly.

In 1973, another exhibition of Bani-Ahmad’s photographs, entitled “The People of Iran”, was held simultaneously in the Goethe Institute in Tehran and Berlin. The pictures in this exhibition consisted of portraits of Iranian people from different social strata.

In conclusion to this article, a description of Bani-Ahmad’s work in the domain of portrait photography seems appropriate. All along his career, Bani-Ahmad has been fond of portraiture, which he has always practiced. This fondness is perhaps due to his earlier psychology studies and his interest in people and their characters, which he later began recording in photographs. Also, his professor, Otto Steinert, himself a highly capable portraitist, emphatically advocated this field of photography. He believed that portraits should most expressively show the models’ inner traits, and that, because each person has a character of his own, the photographer’s method should be adapted accordingly; that an artist’s portrait should be created differently from that of a politician.

Bani-Ahmad began making portraits of artists in Germany. For this purpose, he always preferred to photograph them in their studios, giving relief to their portraits by utilizing the elements surrounding them. One of his successful photographs in that period was a portrait of the German sculptor Kappen posing beside his works, with his favorite sculpture, The Imaginary Beloved, which he would not sell, sitting on his lap. This photograph shows the intimate relationship between an artist and his creation. Later on, back at home, Bani-Ahmad also created a collection of portraits of Iranian painters, sculptors and calligraphers, which the models Bani-Ahmad has chosen for this collection have particularly expressive faces. In order to make their portraits, Bani-Ahmad has selected them from within the exterior environment and photographed them against an utterly plain background. The result of this approach is that the viewer only sees the face of the model, without any element from the surrounding environment distracting his eye or any secondary atmosphere interfering with the picture. Before him, Richard Avedon and David Bailey had experimented with this method, and indeed achieved successful results.

Besides these collections, Bani-Ahmad has made a multitude of portraits of world famous politicians. In fact, alongside his work as a news photographer, he has been busy making portraits of political figures, and these pictures constitute his largest collection of portraits. These pictures have continually been in demand by the press and have been printed, alongside his news photographs, in such foreign publications as Rheinischer Merkur, Die Welt and Bunte Illustrierte.