Iranian filmmaker and photographer ABBAS KIAROSTAMI. Photo sourced from Alchetron

Jul 08 2016

Deep Focus: The Photography of Abbas Kiarostami

by HG Masters

By chance, a few weeks ago I came across an audio recording of an interview that I did with the late Iranian filmmaker and photographer Abbas Kiarostami in May 2013, when he was having an exhibition of his “Snow Series” (1999–2002) photographs at Rossi & Rossi gallery in Hong Kong. In the past few days, after learning that the legendary Iranian cineaste had died in Paris on July 4, I listened to that interview again and transcribed it. Our conversation lasted less than 30 minutes. Kiarostami was tired from his trip and eager to finish a pack of cigarettes that he claimed would be his last. We spoke through an interpreter, although Kiarostami understood many of my questions. He wore his trademark sunglasses while we sat at a desk in the back room of the gallery, so it was hard to see his eyes. He didn’t particularly seem to enjoy talking about his own photographs, and it took some time before he would give up information about them or about what he thought of the works. But his own comparison between the “Snow Series” and Japanese sumi-e brush-painting best revealed the kind of meditative precision he sought, as well as the kind of relationship to nature he was evoking. Though very different than his socially oriented films, his photographs are similarly pared down and intensely focused, and should also be seen as an effort to get directly to the essence of things.

When and why did you begin taking photographs?

 The history of my photography goes back to the time of the 1979 revolution in Iran, when my profession was at a standstill and was almost outlawed. Exactly 32 years ago, as a film director, I had no choice but to buy a camera and do photography. The photographs I took then were of the winter season. Every year I return to the theme of winter and take more photographs. The present collection is the one I took over the past decade. I have many collections. Rain is another collection. I have a collection of walls and also of single trees, crows and, recently, of stairs.

Do you carry a camera with you all the time? Or how did you find your subjects?

I pick up my camera for the intended purpose of taking photos of the subject I have in mind. I don’t usually take photographs of various other subjects or objects; I specifically focus on one theme. When I was taking photos of walls, I saw nothing but walls. I didn’t focus on anything else. For years I just took photos of single trees. For the rain photos, I only took out my cameras when it was raining.

With the “Snow Series,” are these pictures of a particular place or region?

Only where it was snowing. I tried to arrive at the location where the snowfall had just stopped, before there were any impressions or touches. I tried to take photos where the snow was perfectly in tact.

How do you find these locations?

These are places not far from where I live [in Iran]. When it is snowing I leave home at the crack of dawn to find the best place for photography.

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, Photographs from the Snow Series, 2002, digital print on rag paper, 57 × 90 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, Photographs from the Snow Series, 2002, digital print on rag paper, 57 × 90 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong.

The long shadows in many of the images make it look like early morning or the evening. Do the photographs represent a particular time of day?

It depends. Sometimes it was a cloudy day, sometimes it was a sunny day. Sometimes the shadows were very strong and they were more important or stronger than the photos themselves. The only limiting factor I had in mind was to make sure that I did not put anything else in my collections—that I was just focusing on one specific theme. If I was taking photographs about winter, I wanted it to be about winter and nothing else.

I used to use color negatives, but I realized color is meaningless; it has no role in the nature of winter. From then onward I decided to take black-and-white photos.

What are you looking for when you are out in the landscape? Where do you decide to point your camera?

Whatever attracts me, I’m drawn to it. I don’t determine it in advance. This the theme that attracts my camera. There is no pre-determined formula for a photograph. When you look at nature, you see a hidden mystery that gives a special flavor to the photograph.

The good thing about the snow is that it will hide the bad things of nature, and everything will look pristine and nice under snow. Like a Japanese ink wash painting—like a sumi-e painting, which is drawn with very long strokes.

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, Photographs from the Snow Series, 2002, digital print on rag paper, 57 × 90 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong. 

Do you think of them as abstractions?

No. I don’t plan to show nature as more than what it is or as more abstract than it really is. But some of the details of the photos are parts of nature that add to the abstraction of the photograph.

The other thing that strikes me is that many are taken on a sunny day, so there is a huge amount of light and warmth from the sun. There are two contrasted elements and a sense of stillness after an event has occurred.

That is your poetic interpretation of my photographs. But, yes, this is what I like and what attracted me to snow: a uniquely pristine environment where you see no interference by human beings.

What kind of landscapes are these usually? I’m asking because I wanted to know what the snow is covering up and whether there is any significance to that.

It depends. It can be a small place like my front yard or part of a very huge country meadow. Sometimes in it is the sand for construction that is offloaded in the rural areas. After snowfall, it has transformed 100 percent from what it is underneath. The beauty of the snow is that it makes a not-very-beautiful object into a beautiful one.

Is your idea of something ugly becoming beautiful a metaphor?

I have no philosophy or justification as to why I don’t want to show the ugly things in my photos. But there is something about my camera: it is attracted to the beautiful things.

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, Photographs from the Snow Series, 2002, digital print on rag paper, 57 × 90 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong. 

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, Photographs from the Snow Series, 2002, digital print on rag paper, 57 × 90 cm. Courtesy Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong. 

I’m curious about the relationship between these photographs and films. Your films are very much about evidence and documentary; they have a very direct approach to life. But in the photographs the world often has a filter, whether with rain or the snow.

Finding similarities and differences between my photographs and films is much easier for you as a bystander, who is looking at them from far away, than for me as the person who is creating them. I would imagine I am doing the same in cinema as well. My stories are minimalist. I try to clear the space around my personalities. I try my best to get to the nature of people.

But in that way you strip away things, in terms of being minimalist and very direct—at least compared to the photographs, which I see as being about the addition of a layer that makes things harder to see.

I don’t want to cover up or hide anything. There are two natures involved. One nature covers another nature, like one mattress covering the other one.

To take it the way you framed it: is your still camera drawn toward beauty and the natural environment, while your film camera is drawn more towards realism and people?

There is a difference, obviously, between my still camera and film camera. But there is also the difference between what the viewers of a movie expect from what the audience of photographs expect. In my movies I try to find people’s true nature. This is my intention. But in my photos you can barely find any trace of humans.

Do you see any spirituality or mysticism in the photographs?

It is not in my photographs. It is in the subject of the photographs, in the environment. If you go out to a beautiful environment—even in a confined space—and, for instance, you see a leaf shaking on a tree, you would have the same feeling.

My photographs, taken over these long years, have only been focused on the environment and nature—nothing else. I have taken photographs of walls and doors that show the effect and the impact of nature on human beings.

In many photographs, the artist as the creator is a barrier between the subject and the viewer. But for other artists, they don’t want to be the barrier at all.

I don’t know to which group I belong.

So do you want yourself to disappear and to have your photographs present the beauty that exists in nature, or is it more important that you are the person choosing the representation of nature?

In my photography I have tried to remove myself as a barrier between the audience and the subject. But nature, or the environment, does not need any explanation or any interpretation. There is no need to propagate it, no need to support it. Nature finds a direct link with its own audience.

It may be an unrelated story, but in the countryside where I stay, a villager told me that any time Tehran residents come to visit, after just a few days they are asking about the price of every square meter in the land in the area.

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.