Iran, in the shadow of an immobile reality

Iran 1970” is a precious little jewel published by the phantastic Humboldt Books, a publishing house in Milan, specialized in travel literature. Each time I take it in my hands, I forget about everything else.


© Humboldt Books

The book contains the travelogue of a young man exploring together with a few friends an enormous country “flattening out towards high plateaus“, driving along endless roads in a complete and unprecedented 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 the Fiat 124 or to recover from a fever provoked by poor nutrition, deep fatigue and the dirty dust.


© 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.”


© 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, as far as one can say something so personal with regard to the great Basilico, is nothing else than the story of how he fell in love with his lifetime mission as a photographer. It is the proclamation of his vocation to record how the contemporary, urban landscapes in Western Europe are subjected to a permanent transformation, imposed by the forces of economic globalization and social hybridization.

Basilico, who passed away too young in 2013 did not see this precious publication but, reportedly, he had carefully stored away these pictures, thinking about turning them into a book one day.

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 poodle 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.

But Basilico doesn’t show anything of all this. We don’t see the intrusions of modernity, the effects of the economic globalization or the social hybridization. Instead he finds that the Americanization of Iran takes place “in the shadow of an immobile reality”.  And it is this “immobile reality” that he wants us to see. We see the vast landscapes and the great historical buildings in Isfahan, Shiraz, Qom and Persepolis.   We see the 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 Cappadocia’s Fairy Chimneys along the way to Iran. We see the eternal beauty of the architecture of Persepolis and of an abandoned caravanserail. And, it is in these photographs of architecture and landscapes, made with simple means and without any arty farty pretentions, that we can feel how Basilico’s heart started to beat the way it would beat throughout his life thereafter.


© Gabriele Basilico




© Gabriele Basilico

Although human beings would never again show up in his later work,  we can see as well how the young Basilico has 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“. I like to consider these men and women also as a part of  the “immobile reality” Basilico wrote about. Indeed, I like to see an “immobile reality” in the gesture of a lady, holding her hijab before her mouth. I like to see an “immobile reality” in the light of the pilgrim’s eyes that are reflecting the soul’s fulfillment, after having reached at last the site of the shrine of Fatimah al Masumeh in the holy city of Qom.


© Gabriele Basilico


© Gabriele Basilico

I believe that Basilico-before-Basilico, as Donelli gently describes the author of this book, knew all too well that forces were extinguishing the light in the eyes of these simple but profoundly living Iranians. He knew how the identity and dignity of everyone was threatened.


© Gabriele Basilico

These purely human emanations of beauty, though as eternal as the Turkish landscape or as Persepolis, are much more vulnerable to the omnivorous forces of globalization, consuming the souls and hearts of us all. When Basilico points his lens at some guests of a traditional restaurant in Isfahan, he sees (and shows) how they feel uneasy, not knowing how to behave in front of the unnaturalness of his technological equipment. But the photographer does not want to judge or condescend. Maybe he merely reads the uneasiness of their gaze as a sign of resistance to what is happening around them. With respect to this, Francesco Bonami points out in his introduction to the Phaidon “best off” edition, that the photographer throughout his work attempted to salvage the remains of the individual’s autonomy and independence in the context of the continuous and tragic transformation of the world. It is as if Basilico wanted to show how disappointed he was about the rescue of what he believed is still hidden in the decay of contemporary society. Bonami relates Basilico with respect to this with his mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Interestingly, Pasolini visited Isfahan a few months after Basilico’s passage through Iran. In one of his famous essays Pasolini raged against Iranian youngsters having their haircut in a western style. As if these westernized Iranians wanted to show that they did not belong to  their countrymen:”the underdeveloped have-nothings“, “the backward barbarians“. In revenge, with regard to those who never saw western vogues, Pasolini praised “the dignified and simple boys with their beautiful necks, the beautiful, bright faces under innocent haircuts.”


© Gabriele Basilico

Heavy stuff!! But don’t let you be discouraged by it. Go to Iran 1970 as well, become a part of the traveller’s company, drive with them through the deserts of Turkey and Iran, take a stroll under the leaden sun above Persepolis, show respect to the pilgim and meet Basilico-before-Basilico. And come back safely!

Thank you very much and rest in peace, Mr Basilico!