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Abbas Kiarostami, the Photographer

Abbas Kiarostami, the Photographer

Spotlighting the importance of photography in his work, Centre Pompidou in Paris devotes a vast retrospective to Abbas Kiarostami, a major figure in the new wave of Iranian cinema.
The Passenger © Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1941 in Teheran, d. 2016 in Paris), Iranian director of iconic auteur films, including Close-UpTaste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us, was also a passionate photographer. The “master,” as he is often called, said he began practicing photography at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Making movies had become next to impossible. “The first years of the revolution slowed our work down. One day, having nothing else to do, I bought myself a cheap Yashica camera and went into the woods,” he told the journalist Michel Ciment in an interview. “I wanted to be one with the camera. At the same time, I wanted to share the enjoyable moments I was witnessing. That’s why I started taking pictures: to immortalize these moments of passion and pain.”

Gradually, this hobby came to occupy a prominent place in Kiarostami’s artistic career. From 1989, he began to exhibit his photographs in Iran and, in 1995, abroad. However, his work did not elicit unanimous response in the art photography community: many looked at him only as a director, and frowned at someone switching between one medium and another. The narrowmindedness! Despite the care he put into his prints, framing, and paper, he made no effort to circulate his images. He generously gifted his prints, rarely numbered the originals, and entrusted some of his archives to unreliable people. 

“Doors without keys” series, n°23, Abbas Kiarostami © Kiarostami Fundation
“Look at Me series”, Abbas Kiarostami © Kiarostami Fundation

Essential in preparation for a film shoot (Kiarostami photographed while scouting for location), photographs became an integral part of some of his filmed works. Roads of Kiarostami, for example, is made up of a series of photos taken on the road, spaces he was particularly fond of; and in Rain, shot during a downpour, Kiarostami decides to get out of Tehran: “I packed my bag, not forgetting my film camera and my digital camera.” Sheltered inside his car, he took candid photos of the urban landscape and the countryside. Shot through the windshield streaking with rain, the images show tall silhouettes of trees, blurred headlights, and, at the edge of the road, a yellow wall. In this short film, Kiarostami alternates between moving and still images. The latter went on to be published in a book entitled Pluie et vent [Rain and Wind]. The photographs are in color, but grays and blacks dominate, lending them a painterly quality. Kiarostami went on to publish five books of photographs in his career.

© Laëtitia Jardin – Marin Karmitz collection
© Laëtitia Jardin – Marin Karmitz collection

Initially trained as a painter, Kiarostami used photography to merge the documentary aspect of photography and the reverie of painting. In some series, such as Look at Me and Monet and Me, which focus on classical paintings and museum spectators, there is also room for humor. “I have practiced painting a lot, but I have never been a painter,” he admitted in 2010 to the critic Stéphane Corréard. “And since I’ve been doing photography, I don’t even do painting anymore. I think that a lot of the frustration I felt about painting is compensated in photography.” Kiarostami felt he was a poor painter, and photography allowed him to create the canvases he had imagined. “My images are not taken from life,” he said, “but from my imagination.” However, everything in them is often true. Sometimes his short poems accompany the images. One of them captures his approach: “I photographed a tree. It blushed, you don’t have to believe me.”

By Sabyl Ghoussoub

Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.

“Abbas Kiarostami | Where is Kiarostami?”, Centre Pompidou, Paris, May 19 to July 26, 2021. For further information, visit the website.

To learn more about the artist: Agnès Devictor & Jean-Michel Frodon, Abbas Kiarostami: L’Oeuvre ouverte, Gallimard, 2021 (in French).

“Steps” series, Abbas Kiarostami © Kiarostami Fundation

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