Iranian Photographer Mehrdad Naraghi: “No Medium Can Ever Be ‘Finished'”

Iranian fine art photographer Mehrdad Naragahi's photography is the visual embodiment of Gabriel García Márquez ‘s magical realism. “We can be anywhere in our dreams.” Photo untitled from “The Fairyland” series. Provided by Naraghi through his website and used with permission.

With millions posting photos online every day, some people believe that professional photography is in jeopardy. Iranian fine art photographer Mehrdad Naraghi is not one of them.

“The simplification of photography provides more chances for artists to use the medium to express themselves,” says Naraghi, whose project, “Japanese Gardens,” won Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly’s 2014 PHOTOQUAI Residencies Award.

But the ubiquitousness of digital technology does carry some dangers, notes Naraghi. “If a photographer is preoccupied with technique more than an internal search and a meaningful way to express him or herself, things become difficult,” Naraghi, who was born and raised in Tehran, told me in a recent interview in New York City.

From Naraghi's “The City” series. Shot of Tehran in 2014, his hometown. Naraghi describes it as such: My city is one ravaged by the storms, an unrecognizable city, with undefined inhabitants concealed within its greyness. Dazed and confused, with gaping mouths and struggling to breathe. Unscorned but for a smile at another’s misery. Neither breaths sighed return to be breathed nor are desires fulfilled; greyness overwhelms. My city is the endless rule of grey. Photos from Naraghi's website and used with permission.

With his blurring of geographical markers and dreamlike imagery, Naragahi's photography is the visual embodiment of Gabriel García Márquez ‘s magical realism. “We can be anywhere in our dreams,” he says.

Naraghi’s quiet, opaque images, often seen only through slivers of light, demand the viewer’s attention. The quick visual impact commonly expected of Western art is nowhere in his work, which invites the viewer to explore and wander slowly.

Naraghi’s photos have been exhibited in China, France, Iran, the Netherlands, the UAE, the US and the UK, and published in prominent art magazines and books, including Different Sames: New Perspectives in Iranian Contemporary Art, Connaissance des Arts (No 21) and La Photographie Iranienne, (Un regard Sur la Creation Contemporaine en Iran).

Excerpts from the interview follow:

One of the characteristics of your photos is their blurred geographical traces, to the point where it is unclear in which city or country the photographs were taken. Once geographical identifiers are lost, viewers face a global space. What should the viewer be looking for in this space?

The atmosphere of my work is dreamlike, and we don’t have any borders in dreams—we can be anywhere in our dreams. In order to create this atmosphere, I avoid using elements that have specific geographic markers.

Naraghi captures a silhouette in a indistinguishable New York. Photo from his Instagram feed.

Just as people outside Iran cannot tell my nationality only from my appearance, this is also true about my art. We live at a time when our differences are no longer as visible on the surface, but found in deeper layers, layers that are formed from history, collective memory and the political conditions of our individual geographies.

Your photographs have been exhibited in China, the Netherlands, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and France, and you are in the U.S. now. What differences have you observed in the way different audiences view your work?

I work in a realm that is shared by all human beings. In this respect, my work is similar to that of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films depict a Russian location but have global audience; or Hayo Miyasaki, whose animations reflect Japan but have followers all over the world.

Perhaps the only border that can be defined is between Eastern and Western audiences. Subjects that are not based on rationalism or logic but instead rely more on intuition are more easily accepted by Eastern audiences, who have a different sensibility that allows time for study and reflection. Of course, this is a generalization—it is not possible to separate the two audiences with certainty. The only thing I can say with certainty is that audiences who are not dreamers relate less to my work.

I have also come to realize that as an artist from the Middle East, an artist who carries with him the memory of revolution and war, I feel closer to pain and am drawn to artwork that reflects this pain. This is something shared by many Iranian artists. Recently, after attending a Roger Waters concert in New York (he is a legend in Iran!), I realized that Iranians relate to his music on such a deep level because the issues he addresses, such as dictatorship, war and resistance, are a part of our daily lives, not an abstract or historical memory.

Naraghi captures an indistinguishable photo of Tehran's skyline under smog. From his “The City” collection. Photos from Naraghi's website and used with permission.

In a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I viewed works by Andy Warhol and Anselm Kiefer, and my identification with political upheaval was reinforced. I saw that as much as Warhol’s pop art is foreign to me, the pain and destruction in Kiefer’s works is familiar to me.

In the Fairyland collection we encounter a labyrinth-like atmosphere. Although the photos are of accessible subjects, the lines, colors, and objects do not allow the audience to move easily between the pieces. The viewer needs to linger and search for other layers. This is complex simplicity, like Japanese Haiku or Hafez poetry. Each time we approach it, we experience the piece differently. What kind of professional or artistic experiences led to this collection?

This collection (and my other collections) were not developed with a pre-defined plan. I see myself more as a member of my audience, than as a creator. When I am faced with questions about my work it often takes a long time before I find answers, and even then, they are tentative answers! In effect, I review my own works just as I would other artists’ works, and I ponder them. I can only say that in the formation of this collection, the secretive aspect of nature, as well as the collective depression of Iranians, played roles.

One of Naraghi's pieces from “The Fairyland” collection. Photos from Naraghi's website and used with permission.

In Zen teaching, it is said that “the sound of one hand clapping” exists. According to this teaching, the sound exists in the atmosphere and through clapping we only hear it. I believe that more than creating an art piece, the artist is just a transmitter, like a radio that makes the waves audible, but does not produce the sounds we hear.

In several of your photographic series there are very few humans present. Why is that?

I believe that the presence of humans—their clothing, facial expressions and even the way they stand, can completely affect and dominate the frame and dictate a direction to the audience which distances the work from the atmosphere I have in mind.

I also feel that when people get in front of a camera, they often start acting and become unnatural, and consequently the work becomes unnatural and cheapened, too. This problem pops up more in cinema and stage photography (a field which is of interest to many Iranian photographers these days). Film directors either use professional actors who are able to act naturally in front of a camera, or, like Abbas Kiarostami, obtain excellent acting out of non-actors.

Photographers such as Sally Mann or Emmet Gowin tend to photograph individuals who are very close to them, individuals who don’t feel like strangers around the camera; or, like Jeff Wall, they photograph arranged stagings in such a way that they appear natural, and both of these are very difficult to manage. Very few photographers have explored different things in this area.

As I am interested in the work of painters, I follow and photograph the subjects used in paintings, such as nature. Nevertheless I hope to work on humans and figures too someday, although it will be a difficult challenge.

In all five collections available on your website (Work, Home, Fairyland, Japanese Gardens and City), the imagery is reminiscent of the supernatural literary style ofmn writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, or the poetry of German writer Hermann. How much has your photography been influenced by prose writing and poetry?

Poetry, fiction, cinema and music that disconnects us from the world of reality even for a few moments have entirely affected and continue to affect my work. For me, poetry holds a special place. As an Iranian, I feel closer to the realm of poetry, as this is a distinctive aspect of Iranian culture, and one which runs through our daily lives.

When I talk about my interest in dreamlike spaces in art or literature, I am not talking about entirely imaginative and fantasy spaces, such as what we see in Harry Potter stories. Rather, I am talking about building a channel between reality and dreams, like in Haruki Murakami’s works, where the real and unreal worlds run in parallel, and meet at some points, but the reader does not recognize whether the events are unfolding in reality or in the imagination. It’s a pendulum-like motion between reality and imagination.

What limitations have you experienced in expressing yourself through photography? Have you ever been in a situation where you put your camera aside because you thought it could not do justice to the situation?

Photography is the most limited artistic medium for creating dream-like environments. As a painter or sculptor, you can create a piece 100% based on your imagination. But photography is based on reality; it documents, and you can never photograph “nothing”! On the other hand, this characteristic makes photography very interesting to me—putting the audience in limbo between reality and dream. Looking at my works, the audience knows that because these are photographs this space must have existed in real life, but due to lighting and color conditions, they don’t see anything reflective of reality in them. The audience is put in a position where the line between reality and dream is minimized.

To what extent are photography and the camera a means, and to what extent an end? Is it possible that someday you might choose forms of artistic expression other than photography?

The camera and photography are only a medium of expression for me. Due to my deep interest in paintings, I have always created photographs with a painterly quality, and this method is in contradiction with the realistic nature of photography. I also use photographic errors—some intentional, others not—to create the imagery and evoke the effects I am seeking.

Any form of artistic expression brings its own limitations, which are in contrast with the imagination’s lack of borders. An artist who possesses different skills can constantly create new artistic works and be freed from repetition. As Abbas Kiarostami said in an interview, “I never think about what my next film would be, because if an idea is suitable for the medium of cinema, I would make a film. Otherwise, I would either paint, photograph, or write poetry.”

In recent years, I have started experimenting with poetry, painting and film, and I hope I will be able to present works in these areas in the coming years.

New York is a seductive city for a photographer. Do you have any photography projects focused on New York? Have your experiences with the city and your relationships with its people and other photographers influenced your work?

New York has a unique character. My work here has become closer to documentary photography. New York is a city where reality has a solid presence and this constricts the atmosphere for poetic thinking and dreaming. The hardships of living in New York may be one of the reasons one is constantly faced with reality in this city and not allowed to daydream too much. I have only lived in this city for six months, but I hope to stay longer to develop a deeper experience with it. I publish my experiences with New York through daily postings of photographs and videos on my Instagram page.

From Mehrdad Naraghi's Instagram feed.

At a time when so many people have a high-quality cameras on their cell phones, and considering the democratization of photography and the existence of hundreds of millions of photographers, where do you see the role and place of fine art photography?

While the space has become more difficult and restricted for photographers, for many artists who use photography as their medium this has also made things easier. An artist always uses artistic media for expressing his personal views, and for this reason the simplification of photography provides more chances for artists to use the medium to express themselves. Conversely, if a photographer is preoccupied with technique and the medium of photography more than an internal search and a meaningful way to express him or herself, things become difficult.

In the past, the difficult part of photography lay in the utilization of a camera; now the difficult part has shifted to the editing and selection of photographs. With digital capabilities, you can have tens of frames from each scene, and with software capabilities you can make hundreds of changes to each frame. Under these circumstances, if the photographer does not know what he or she wants or is trying to express, they will be lost in a labyrinth of images.

Naraghi captures New York. From his Instagram.

This is not only limited to photography. It is now possible to make a cinematic film with a cell phone. With the reduction in the prices of 3D printers, it is also now easy to create sculptures. This happened to graphic designers years ago, when Photoshop brought graphic design tools to the masses. At the time, many graphic designers resisted computer graphics. But technological advancements create restrictions only for individuals who rely solely on technique for their creations. Some may believe the time for certain media such as photography or painting has ended, but this is true only for artists who have nothing else to say. No medium is ever “finished.” It is only an artist who can be finished.

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