Behind the Veil

Veiled Woman with Pearls, c. 1890, by Antoin Sevruguin, Gelatin silver print, Freer Gallery of Art a

The Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery contain a collection of nearly a thousand prints and glass plate negatives by Antoine Sevruguin, a leading photographer of late-nineteenth century Iran. Made during the years just before and just after the turn of the last century, Sevruguin’s photographs of people, landscapes, images of domestic life, architecture, court and religious ceremonies, offer a unique view of late-19th century and early-20th century Iran. In their essay for the catalogue for the 1999 exhibition Sevruguin and the Persian Image: Photographs of Iran, 1870-1930, Crien J. M. Vuurman and Theo H. Martens  point out that Sevruguin had two lifelong obsessions. The first was to record with the camera Iran in all of its facets. The second was to capture light in his photographs the way he so admired in Rembrandt’s paintings. Portraits of Persian and Kurdish women, reclining on piles of carpets or sofas or opulently dressed in blank studio spaces seem to accomplish both of Sevruguin’s documentary and artistic purposes. Operating in an Orientalist framework, Sevruguin’s images of harem women also project one of the most familiar of western fantasies of the East—as a place of eroticism. Produced mostly for European consumption, the portraits assume a male gaze that is more erotic than ethnographic. The photograph of the woman seductively removing her veil to show her eyes to the photographer-voyeur, exposes both the woman and the male fantasy. His portraits of the period, carefully posed and lighted as if the subjects occupied rare intimate places, strip away the contingency and commonplace of experience to present a portrait of place and type that meets higher audience expectations.

Veiled Persian Woman, 1896, by Antoin Sevruguin?, Albumen print, National Anthropological Archives,

I was reminded of these images when I read the commentary that Lois Banner submitted for click! about the power of photographs to change what we desire. But in the case of the now iconic image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing up around her waist, the emphasis shifts to the power of the subject to control the viewer, as Banner says, “Because she [Marilyn] had a great talent for directing the entire impact of her personality at the lens.” We have no way of knowing if Sevruguin’s models had any choice in the matter of shaping their picture—or residence in the harem for that matter—but the legacy of these photographs suggest another element in a consideration of the power of the gaze. It is a rare record of simultaneous desire and response that, like art, marks beauty and also power.

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