The Selfie King

Nasserreddin Shah (or Nasser al-Din Shah), the fourth king of the Qajar dynasty, ruled Iran for almost all of the second half of the 19th century (1848-1896). Both his life, and his death as the result of an assassination, were dramatic episodes in Iranian history. History has judged him unkindly for the most part, although I think he deserves a lot more credit than he gets. But whatever one might think of him, it is undeniable that the period of his rule was of utmost important in both political and cultural sense. His rule quintessentially encompasses the start of (European) ‘modernity’ in Iran. A major aspect of this modernity was cultural, with the visual side being quite influential. Some events, like the introduction of the ballet skirt after the Shah’s visit to a Paris ballet performance, are quite well known. This fantastic site, a project by the eminent Professor Afsaneh Najmabadi, is a must start for anything relating to Qajar studies: Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran

Esmat

Esmat-od-Dowleh, Nassereddin Shah’s daughter, in a modified ballet skirt

An important aspect of the Shah’s personal contributions to this visual culture was his personal love of the arts, particularly photography. Born in a world were people were still painted, Nassereddin Shah was himself in love with visuals.

Nasser

An official portrait of Nassereddin Shah as a young man (late 1840’s)

In fact, he tried his hand at drawing a lot:

Nasser-al-Din-Pen-and-ink

Nassereddin Shah’s portrait of Mohammad Hassan Khan Etemad os-Saltaneh, the Minister of Publications and the king’s personal reader and translator.

He even drew himself:

800px-نقاشی_ناصرالدین_شاه

A self-portrait by Nassereddin Shah (note that he is drawing the frame too!) “My own face, I looked at it in the mirror and drew it, near Jajrud River, we left from Niyavaran, riding horses to go hunting. Wednesday 12 Muharram [Sino-Turkic year]”

In fact, his obsession with picturing himself, something that one can call “selfie” these days, is what I am interested in. Much has already been written on his discovery of the daguerreotype and later, photo cameras. The king was a good photographer, and in each of his European visits, he bought the latest cameras, and appointed at least two official court photographers. This was a very new and exciting art.

Nasser-EdwardVII

Nassereddin Shah and a young Prince Bertie (future King Edward VII of Britain) and the Prime Minister, Mirza Mohammad Hossein Khan, Sepahsalar Qazvini…

He photographed everything and anyone, including the servants, and carefully recorded information about each photo on the prints:

Jujugh

“Baghbanbashi Jujugh at the kitchen door, on the same day, 8 Shawwal”

But his favourite subject seems to have been himself. He took many “selfies,” writing down information about where it was taken and how, with pithy comments and in a very cursive hand, under each print. I imagine these are very slow selfies, with the king setting up the frame and deciding on a particular pose, then moving in front of the camera and waiting for it to go off. These were not quick “look at me” snapshots. These show planning and a certain fascination with the medium. This is what fascinates me:

1

Nasserreddin Shah, in a good mood? “Month of dhil-hajja, (12)83, Tushqan Eil, I took it myself” (April-May 1867; Tushqan Eil is the Sino-Turkic name of the year)

I am going to share a few of these that I took from a printed book on the collection of the photo albums from the Golestan Palace, the main Qajar palace in the centre of Tehran.

Niyavaran

“In Niyavaran (palace), I took it myself”

Looks quite dapper here, with European style trousers and a necktie. He always mentions who has taken the picture.

Andarun

“I took this myself in the Andarun (the Harem)” The calligraphy on the top is from a the person organising the album, saying “(this is) the lord, the sacred Shahnshah, may our souls be sacrificed to him” (Persian taarof, nobody means it!)

The fact that he is taking pictures inside the Harem (there are many examples of the pictures he has taken of his wives, daughters, and other women of the harem) is by itself a fascinating aspect of this. The Shah was himself opening a door to the private quarters of the Royal Palace. This is an interesting read.

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Selfie with two women of the Andarun (Harem).

The attempt to look chic didn’t always work. Tehran is cold in Winter, so the Shah is pampering himself, but I am not sure if the entire ensemble works very well…

Chic

“the first ten days of Ramadan of 84, Tushghan Eil, in Tehran, I took it myself” (December 1867/January 1868)

He was not always in the mood, I imagine. He might have been drunk here (no caption)!

Drunk

For this one, he was just pissed off:

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Look at the white socks!

I imagine sometimes he was not in the mood at all. Here, he is posing for someone else, and complains about the situation too:

Sick

“They took it when I was sick and weak from flu [illegible] not good”

He did pose for pics that others took, and they are interesting too:

Ahar

“Jumadi ath-Thani 1286” (Sept-Oct. 1869) Then 90 degrees counter clockwise: “It is taken in Ahar, on the way from Shahrestanak, during the trip to Nour and Kojour…. this is when I was 39 years old”

Is the older kind looking at his old photos, lamenting the bygone years? He loved going on trips, and photographed his hunts too. Ahar is a beautiful mountainside village just to the northeast of Tehran. He loved travelling and hunting in the area and has left at least two detailed diaries of his trips there.

IMG_0203

On the top “Also in the month of Ramadan(?)” then on the side: “It was taken in the Andarun, Malijak is in my arms. He has not slept in two nights, and again has the flu. It was taken by Hassanali the Photographer”

Apart from his hunts, there was something else he loved. It was a little boy, Malijak or Gholamali Khan. He was the Shah’s nephew by marriage, and since the age of three, the king loved him like, or even more than, his children. Malijak was not pretty, not too bright, and not from a very refined background. Perhaps this was why the king felt safe in loving him as a child. The boy later got the title of Aziz os-Soltan “the Beloved of the Monarch” and married the Shah’s daughter (who divorced him after the Shah was assassinated). He grew up to a normal person, level-headed and never full of himself. He was never rich, he always kept close with the royal family and the important people, but never sought to bank on his royal connections. He gets a bad reputation for something he had no hands or influence in.

ملیجک د

Gholamali Khan Aziz os-Soltan, AKA Malijak, as a young man…

Let’s finish this little photo essay with an official picture of Nasserreddin Shah as an older man. This is an official portrait, and I think the look in his eyes is haunting. I wonder what was going through his mind…800px-Naser_al-Din_Shah_Qajar,_close_up,_with_slight_smile_by_Nadar

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