This RSF Album of 100 Photos for Press Freedom, no. 72, is dedicated to an eye of freedom that is no more. Abbas Attar left us on April 25, 2018. The book published as a tribute to the Franco-Iranian master of light is the result of several months of work by Melisa Teo and Behnam Attar, Abbas’s wife and brother.
Born on March 29, 1944 in Kash, Iran, before spending his childhood in Algeria and then emigrating to France, Attar launched into photography by covering human suffering: Biafra, Vietnam, Chile, Northern Ireland, South Africa… He returned to his native country in 1979 to document the Islamic Revolution; and plumbed the soul of Mexico before producing a colossal work on religions. Blind looks back at this major figure in the history of photography through the RSF photo book and the testimony of the photographer’s wife, Melisa Teo.
Bringing order to chaos
In the quiet of the Montmartre district in Paris, the pale light of a March morning illuminates the imposing library in Abbas’s apartment. We are welcomed by his wife, Melisa Teo. The books have not moved since the photographer’s death. They stand as straight as ever, arranged in alphabetical order by photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson sits next to Robert Capa, while another shelf is populated with books from Magnum Agency, Abbas’s second family. “Cartier-Bresson and Capa were among his models, but he was also very fond of Edward Weston,” notes Teo.
Photographer Ian Berry, Abbas’s brother-in-arms in Vietnam, remembers his friend as an “absolute perfectionist.” He is quoted in the RSF book: “As soon as Abbas returned from an assignment, he meticulously selected, edited, and captioned his photos. When my wife and I stayed at his Parisian apartment, his discipline was plain to see: there was not a contact sheet in sight, compared to my rather chaotic method.”
Abbas applied the same rigor in the field. “He took very few photos. He pressed the shutter release only when he was sure about the photo. He was always in the front lines. Even when there was a crowd. He was able to sneak up quickly. I’d often wonder, ‘Where is Abbas?’, and he would already be right up front,” says Teo, who accompanied the photographer on many assignments and who offers the best advice about the job: “Buy a good pair of shoes and fall in love.”
Abbas himself asserted this rigor with every gesture in his photographic practice. “Even when I photograph chaos, I try bring order into it,” he said in a moving documentary Abbas by Abbas directed by Kamy Pakdel.
The suspended moment
Next, Teo showed us a photograph taken in 1972 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “A wall crumbles down after having been set on fire, presumably by the IRA,” says the caption. Abbas snapped the shot and held the fall of the entire wall in suspension, ordering the chaos of the scene. The snaking hose handled by the fireman in the foreground is prolonged by the arch of the jet of water, which in turn mirrors the buckling façade. The viewer’s eye pictures the rest: a crash and smoldering ruins.
In Abbas’s photos, order is brought to chaos and time outruns the frame; flags continue to flap in the wind, passersby come and go; history moves forward. This is an aesthetic that the photographer termed the “suspended moment.”
The photo of a family taking a break in a New Orleans neighborhood in 1968 exemplifies for Abbas this way of photographing—a trademark that would be his throughout his life. “Spontaneity, the suspended moment,” he wrote, “occurs during the action, in the viewfinder. It is preceded by thinking about the subject and followed by meditation on the result, and it is there, in that exhilarating but fleeting moment, that the true writing of a photographer begins, in the sequencing of the images.”
“To do it well,” he continued, “you have to think as a writer. But isn’t photography all about ‘writing with light’? With one difference: the writer possesses his words while the photographer is possessed by his images, by the limits of reality that he or she must transcend in order not to become their prisoner.” “Black and white was his way of transcending reality, of going beyond it. When he used color photography,” adds his wife, showing us the bright red in a ceremonial sacrifice in Nepal, “it was to show the color itself.”
A photographic eye is honed through refined knowledge of the arts. A great lover of classical music, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in particular, Abbas went to painters for inspiration: specifically, Rembrandt and Cézanne. Speaking of the latter, Abbas observed: “He does not paint the envelope of beings and things, but their essence. He does not paint reality but transcends it.” His encounter with Rembrandt, during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was groundbreaking: it was in front of The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild that Abbas came to truly define the style he would adhere to for sixty years. “We have the impression that the painter surprised them in their deliberations, that they were talking before the painter’s intrusion, and would resume their discussion when he left. Their meeting is suspended.”
In 1970, he was photographing a family in Cairo mourning the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Some look straight at the camera, others look past it into the distance; the hands of the woman in the center are about to rest on the window frame or are moving away from it. She is clutching a tissue with the fingers of her right hand. The faces are tense, inquiring. “I created a suspended moment,” Abbas wrote. “But it was that day, in front of Rembrandt’s painting that [I had defined] the style that would remain mine for nearly sixty years.”
A fashion photo taken in Paris on an assignment for Marie Claire represents another suspended moment: “My first foray into fashion,” commented the photographer. Wearing Yves Saint Laurent’s collection, nine models are taking a break before the photo session resumes. Sitting or standing, hands in pockets, staring at the ground, they await. Obviously, the photograph did not make the cut. “Regardless, my choice goes into the folio of my best photos,” captioned Abbas.
Abbas went on to photograph for Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld; he immortalized Ines de la Fressange reclining on a couch at Coco Chanel’s apartment… A world that he liked portraying. “He delighted so much in taking photographs. The act of photography was an absolute pleasure for him,” says Teo. “He always had his camera on him. He was always taking pictures. Even with his family, he would sometimes say ‘don’t move, don’t move!’, and so we would freeze,” she recalls fondly.
A man and the gods
“A photograph can sometimes tell us more than a book. This power is attested when you immerse yourself in Abbas’s work,” noted Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, speaking of Abbas’s coverage of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This was a key episode in the history of his native country, which left a deep impression on the photographer, and he covered both sides of the political spectrum with the same rigor.
Affected by the mullahs coming into power and by this “confiscated revolution,” Abbas experienced this historical juncture as a trauma, as “the last time I was really a photojournalist.” His photos resonate all the more tragically today since the violent repression of the Iranian youth uprising caused by the death of the student Mahsa Amini in September 2022 for an ill-fitting veil.
The Iranian Revolution was a turning point in Abbas’s work. Mexico would be a land of rebirth. The photographer entered a new time frame, sought the air of a country where “nothing was happening.” Three years and multiple trips later he published Return to Mexico: Journeys Beyond the Mask (1992). The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote a profound introduction to the book, after having immersed himself in Abbas’s photographs to the point of dreaming about them. “Abbas is an artist because, among other things, he imagines. And to imagine, as Baudelaire said, is to see relationships between things”, Fuentes wrote.
To plumb the depths of souls was to become Abbas’s quest in a project he carried on nearly until the end of his life. As he mischievously liked to say, his relationship with God was “purely professional.” He followed the paths of the great monotheistic religions, coming into contact with shamanism in Siberia and touching the heart of voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. A few months before his death, he was still in Jerusalem among the Jewish community. He never lost the desire to understand the connection between humans and the sacred, the horrors committed in the name of God, and the deliberate disappearance of the sense of the marvelous and the spiritual in modern societies.
“I found in him a true example of spirituality, someone who did not preach it but lived it, in his generosity, in the purity of his heart,” says Melisa Teo. “He was an exemplar of humanity, he deeply believed in human values. And to him, art represented the highest form of spirituality.”
Isn’t there something wonderful about the photograph of this Buddhist monk and his disciple in Thailand, sitting under mosquito nets draped into the shape of flying saucers? Or this night mass performed by an abbot in Mali? Abbas captures a moment of grace. Or yet the little girl, a modest Venus, covering her eyes with two small sugar skulls during the Mexican Day of the Dead? Through the marvelous and the spiritual, Abbas speaks to us about life, death, meaning, essence, depth of souls, and mystery. His gaze is worth a thousand words, and his eye has remained, to the end, free, rigorous, curious, and penetrating.
Reporters Without Borders, 100 photos d’Abbas pour la liberté de la presse, €12,50. In bookstores or on the RSF website.
*Founded in 1985, Reporters Without Borders works for the freedom, independence, and pluralism of journalism around the world. Book sales are an essential resource for RSF (30% of the annual budget). All profits from the sales are donated to the organization.
The Abbas Photos Endowment Fund was created in 2018 to protect, preserve, and promote Abbas’s photographic work. A large archive is made available on the Fund’s website in an effort to bring Abbas’s work to the public.