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…
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.
In fact, he tried his hand at drawing a lot:
He even drew himself: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.
He photographed everything and anyone, including the servants, and carefully recorded information about each photo on the prints:
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:
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.
Looks quite dapper here, with European style trousers and a necktie. He always mentions who has taken the picture.
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.
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…
He was not always in the mood, I imagine. He might have been drunk here (no caption)!
For this one, he was just pissed off:
I imagine sometimes he was not in the mood at all. Here, he is posing for someone else, and complains about the situation too:He did pose for pics that others took, and they are interesting too:
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.
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.
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…