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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Uncovering the Nafisi Album at the Freer|Sackler Archives

Mosque. Caption reads:
Abdollah Qajar, Darolkhalafeh Naseri. ca. 1870.
Given the opportunity to work with the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ Archives, I have been introduced to our recent ‘Nafisi Album’ acquisition. The album was generously donated to the Archives by Dr. Azar Nafisi, a renowned Iranian novelist and author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and daughter of Ahmad Nafisi, former mayor of Tehran. The Nafisi Album (unofficial title) has presented an intriguing yet enigmatic peak into life in Iran during the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925). The photographs are meticulously inserted with golden borders, and stamped with the photographer’s seal; and depict everyday snapshots of street scenes, schools, landscapes, and architecture, in addition to the portraits of Qajar royals and military figures. Most of the photographs date from 1870-1880 and are attributed to the photographer Abdollah Mirza Qajar (1850-1909), son of Jahangir Mirza of the royal Qajar family.

Man on horseback. Caption reads:
Abdollah Qajar, Darolkhalafeh Naseri. ca. 1870.

Former ruler of Iran, Naser al-Din Shah Shah (r.1848-1896), was introduced to photography in 1844 and was so drawn to the art form that he commissioned portraits and prints from numerous photographers. Unlike other Islamic countries in the Middle East that discouraged the practice of photography, specifically that of portraiture, it flourished in Iran due to its state sponsorship. The largest collections of royal Qajar photographs and shots from 19th-century Iran remains in the Golestan Palace in Tehran; however we are fortunate to have a fair share of some ourselves!
While perusing the album, I have been attempting (not too successfully) to determine the subject matter and photographer of these images. There are of course the obvious portraits of Nasser-e-Din Shah (1831-1896) with his signature stance and mustache, but there are also the less obvious monuments and landscapes (image on left).

To further complicate attribution issues, much of Abdollah Mirza Qajar’s work was taken concurrently with that of the famous Antoin Sevruguin (1830-1933). Thus, some of Sevruguin’s own works are scattered amongst these photos (such as this bathing scene).

Men Bathing by Antoin Sevruguin. ca. 1870.
 How then can we determine the purpose of these albums? While looking through the Nafisi Albums, it forces one to consider the role of albums today: family mementos or historical documents? For this seems to be something of the two. Was it a studio portfolio of Abdollah Mirza Qajar that fell into the hands of the Nafisi family? We do know, for example, that Abdollah Mirza was the official photographer of the Dar al-Fonun school, the subject of many of these works. Or did the Nafisi family have relations to all of the following buildings and military figures included?

Caption reads:
Herzlichen Gluckwunsch (congratulations).

Furthermore, what purpose would these seemingly random European sketches have in a family album?

The Album undoubtedly deserves further research and exploration, but we are nevertheless excited to house the intriguing pieces in our collection and we look forward to unveiling more about the photos! 

Mariam Gheissari Freer|Sackler Archives


  1. is there any digital version of these two albums?

  2. These albums are newly acquired and have not been digitized yet. I'll let the powers that be know that you're interested!