Persian Past

Luggage bearers stand ready in this Sevruguin photo, circa 1890

Pictures are coming in from Iran that Paul Wolfowitz is not going to like. They are not beaming live on CNN or revealing covert uranium reprocessing plants. No fundamentalist hordes shown feasting on the carcasses of freshly slain camels. Instead of the harsh images of the current escalation of tensions, the pictures are 35 historically evocative black-and-white photographs taken from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibit, titled "Antoin Sevruguin and the Persian Image: Photographs of Iran 1870-1930," debuts at the Museum of Lifestyle and Fashion History in Delray Beach before continuing on a 14-city tour.

Sevruguin was a native of Tehran, the capital of what used to be Persia and is now Iran. He was the court photographer for the shah at an exceptionally violent time, when the control of Persia was transitioning between the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. Royal coach bombings, assassinations of courtiers, and the shah's artillery bombardment of his own parliament were a part of the reality of Sevruguin's workday. While his official duties had him taking portraits of palace officials and recording the parades of the shah, he also found inspiration in the common people, exotic street scenes, and the archaeological sites of ancient Persia.

Photographs in the exhibition show a culture that has sparked mystery and curiosity in the collective subconscious of the West. The images conjure romantic fantasies of crowded bazaars with veiled women, of labyrinthine alleyways, and of walls embedded with phrases from the Quran. These scenes still play out in modern Iran, but the fantasy has little connection with modern socioeconomic realities. Though the time and place of Sevruguin's photos may be gone, it is intriguing to see the world as it was and to delude the mind for a fleeting moment.

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