Iran 1970 by Gabriele Basilico

Iran 1970” is a precious little jewel published by Humboldt Books, a publishing house in Milan, specialized in travel literature.

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© Humboldt Books

The book contains the travelogue of a young man exploring together with a few friends an enormous country that is “flattening out towards high plateaus“. They are driving along endless roads in total freedom. It is a “whistle-stop tour”, from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, eating peaches and kebabs, drinking only water. The trip is only occasionally interrupted: to repair their Fiat 124 or to recover from a fever provoked by poor nutrition, deep fatigue and the dirty dust.

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© Humboldt Books

The travelling company is cruising from Italy to the far ends of Iran “along straight roads intersecting spaces which they look upon with awe: a dimension that alters their sensitivity, giving them a sense of an even greater broadening of spaces and atmospheres.”

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© Gabriele Basilico

The young man who made the photographs for the travelogue was Gabriele Basilico, more than ten years before he would become one of the most important landscape photographers ever. And the travelogue is perhaps nothing else than the story of how he found his lifetime mission as a photographer.

Iran 1970” contains, apart from afterwords by Luca Donelli and by Basilico’s compagnon de route Giovanna Calvenzi, also some “notes for a text” by the photographer himself. In this notes he describes the Iranian capital Tehran as one of the “great ports of call” of their long Persian voyage. We are nine years before the Islamic Revolution that would kick out US backed Shah Reza Pahlavi. And Basilico describes Tehran as a frenetic city, in which an American-style capitalist culture is imposed onto customs which are thousands of years old – yet without managing to change them completely- and onto abject poverty. He describes how the country both participates in and is subjected to a process of capitalist economic growth.

According to the photographer, the Americanization of Iran is taking place “in the shadow of an immobile reality“. And it is this “immobile reality” that he wants us to see. We see vast landscapes and monumental mosques, “with their blue or golden domes, establishing a relationship of the spiritual order with the rest of the city, and they thereby stand as proof of the psychological power of religion.” We see the eternal beauty of the architecture of Persepolis. We also see an abandoned caravanserail. It oozes the same kind of beauty. It is in these photographs of architecture and landscapes that we can feel how Basilico’s photographer’s heart started to beat the way it would beat throughout his life thereafter.

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© Gabriele Basilico

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© Gabriele Basilico

Although human beings would hardly again show up in his later work, young Basilico has also photographed the “rapidly vibrating shades of the women running away to hide from the sight of the visitors, and the crowding of men drawn to us with childish curiosity“. There is the gesture of a lady who is holding her hijab before her mouth or the look in the pilgrim’s eyes that is reflecting the soul’s fulfillment after having reached the shrine of Fatimah al Masumeh……I am sure that Basilico saw in these instants of human behaviour the same “immobile reality” as in an archeological site.

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© Gabriele Basilico

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© Gabriele Basilico

When he points his lens at some guests of a traditional restaurant in Isfahan, he shows how they feel uneasy, not knowing how to behave in front of the unnaturalness of his technological equipment. Basilico knew very well how human gestures, gazes and ways of showing feelings are much more vulnerable to the omnivorous forces of globalization than old buildings. Maybe he read the uneasiness of their gaze as a sign of resistance to what was happening around them. Maybe he sympathized with their uneasiness that was defending their “immobile reality”.

The issue reminds me of Pier Paolo Pasolini who visited Iran a few months after Basilico and his friends. In his writings about this journey, Pasolini raged against Iranian youngsters who wanted to have their haircut in a western style. As if these westernized Iranians wanted to distance themselves from their fellow countrymen:”the underdeveloped have-nothings“, “the backward barbarians“. Instead, Pasolini sympathized with and even praised those who did not follow western vogues. He saw them as “the dignified and simple boys with their beautiful necks, the beautiful, bright faces under innocent haircuts.”

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© Gabriele Basilico

 

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© Gabriele Basilico

Pasolini clearly defended the immobile reality of an older world. Can we read Basilico’s work in Iran in the same vein? And did it set the tone for his later work? Francesco Bonami wrote in the introduction to a Phaidon edition about Basilico, that the photographer has always attempted to “salvage the remains of the individual’s autonomy and independence in the context of the continuous and tragic transformation of the world”.