Bahman Jalali

Juan Vicente Aliaga on Bahman Jalali

Though not a formally trained photographer, for more than four decades Bahman Jalali (born in Tehran, 1944) has recorded historical moments in black-and-white photographs—scenes of which very few other images exist. I am speaking, above all, of “Days of Blood, Days of Fire,” 1978–79, covering sixty-four days in Tehran, from the first mass demonstrations against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi until the army’s withdrawal, leading to the fall of the dictatorship. Similarly, in making the series titled “War between Iraq and Iran,” 1980–88, Jalali visited different regions of his country to find evidence of a devastating war to which the world was largely indifferent and from which foreign photographers were mostly absent.

This retrospective of Jalali’s work, curated by Catherine David, included both these series as well as many other photographs, the great majority taken in Iran. In “Days of Blood, Days of Fire,” the photographer’s bold vision emerges in a variety of scenes: families observing the events of the developing revolution, clerics ranting, cars burning, women in Western clothing holding up their fists, police officers brandishing weapons, soldiers cheering, the wounded being transported, and so on. Jalali took the pulse of the street, portraying the chaos in which it was immersed and the political conflicts at work in those tragic yet promising days, so full of hope, whatever one thinks of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that followed. Photos from the series as well as other documentation were published in a book of the same title a few months after the revolution. Days of Blood, Days of Fire was so popular that it had two print runs in 1979; a third, however, was stopped by the government, and the book was never published again.

Though its subject is violent, the series on the war with Iraq conveys a sense of calm. Soldiers, barely in their teens, wait in a ditch, sleep in trenches, or lie dead, eyes and mouths covered with sand. Some of these images of destruction and death were featured in Abadan Fights On, which was published in Tehran in 1981. However, as Jalali tells David in the excellent interview included in the exhibition catalogue, this book was also banned by the government, on the grounds that it did not offer an uplifting vision of the war.

In Jalali’s recent series “Image of Imagination. Black and White,” 2000, “Image of Imagination. Sepia,” 2002, and “Image of Imagination. Red,” 2003, he leaves realist documentary behind, using photomontage to manipulate historical images from the Qajar dynasty, which ended in 1925. “Image of Imagination. Red” combines post-revolution images of the defaced sign for a former photography studio in Isfahan with the prerevolution pictures to which the vandal objected: portraits of women without veils—some of them, oddly, sporting bushy mustaches.

Many of Jalali’s works attest to the obliteration of cultural heritage, such as the images of the abandoned house of the great writer Sadeq Hedayat, author of the 1937 novel The Blind Owl. The catalogue reprints an image by Iranian photographer Bahram Chehrenegar that Jalali explains cannot be shown in Iran, Musicians Playing at a Wedding Ceremony Held in a Home in Tehran, Iran, 1968, a photograph of a group of women. Their sin: bare arms and uncovered hair. As Jalali states, “The problem in Iran is that every time a new regime is established after any political change or revolution . . . it has always tried to destroy any evidence of previous rulers.” Thus, in 1998, the artist compiled a collection of early photographs from Iran in the book Visible Treasure (1998). A witness to Iranian history, Jalali has played the valuable role of archivist, preserving, studying, and conveying his country’s rich photographic heritage.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.