Paper short abstract:
I situate Iranian erotic photography of the turn of the century within the context of international scopic regimes of eroticism, exoticism, and the gendered gaze. I consider the erotic gaze on display in these photographs as an expression of elite selfhood within Iran's emergent modern identity.
Paper long abstract:
A set of erotic photographs, produced privately in Iran, is extraordinary in the context of contemporaneous Iranian photography of women. Borrowing from European painting, portrait photography, and pornographic traditions, the images signal intimacy with European visual culture, establishing a cultural authority from which they critiqued European hierarchies of visual culture to erotic effect.
By the end of the nineteenth century, pornography was closely associated with Paris, for good reason: much of the erotic material consumed internationally was produced there. Consumers and critics of erotica alike, outside of France, used this association to define explicit sexual expression in terms of its Frenchness—in other words, in terms of its foreignness. In the same moment, Paris was likewise considered the center of the European fine art world, and was actively participating in the construction of a Eurocentric art history that extended back to the Italian Renaissance. Central to that history was the female nude as subject, often characterized in terms of classical mythology or, by the eighteenth century, an anthropological gaze directed at ethnic others.
The photographs under consideration here explicitly model themselves on Renaissance paintings—and also on the conventions of French studio pornography. Together, the two iconographic modes are irreverent and parodic, and aesthetically progressive; paradoxically, they use a familiarity with the breadth of European visual tradition to undermine its claims of cultural superiority. In so doing, these images served not only the immediate purpose of erotic pleasure, but also asserted the social position and status of the Iranian elite who were creating and exchanging these images in an increasingly cosmopolitan context.
Beauty and the Beast: photography, the body and sexual discourse in the Middle East and Central Eurasia