Against the Sun: The Photographs of Tahereh Fallahzadeh and the Exhibition Architecture of Fia Backström @Baxter St at CCNY

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, framed in black with textile matting, and hung on metal arms in the center of the gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made by Fallahzadeh between 1994 and 2018. The prints are generally sized 9×12, 11×14, or 16×20 inches, with one larger collage sized roughly 40×28 inches. All of the works are unique. The Flexible Image Arrangement System on which the framed prints hang was designed by Backström. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the photography world is now making more dedicated efforts to be broadly inclusive, one of the perspectives that we still need to work harder to see is that of the women photographers of the Middle East, particularly Iran. It is certainly true that a few globally recognized names from the region pop up repeatedly, but we don’t often get the opportunity to dive a layer or two deeper to the photographers that may be well known at home, but are virtually unknown in the West. And so we miss out on those diverse vantage points, making our artistic understanding of the rhythms of life in those places less well grounded.

This intimate exhibition introduces us to the work of the Iranian photographer Tahereh Fallahzadeh, and brings us inside her measured and often introspective view of everyday womanhood. Fallahzadeh’s gelatin silver prints make liberal use of chemical interventions and ghostly photogram overlays, adding symbolic and metaphorical notes to the underlying photographs, creating composite images that resonate with complex interior thoughts.

Many of the photographs start with headscarved women, their powerfully silent faces framed by black cloth, their thoughts unknowable. Fallahzadeh then interrupts these portraits with visual devices that provide hints, clues, and allusions to their worlds. One image collapses a doubled exposure into a face that seems divided by alternate personalities, while in another, the head of man (a father, a husband, a brother, a lover?) looms and smothers the woman underneath.

The gestural stripes and drips of chemical wash are similarly used to add layering to the portraits. Sideways slashes create a window blind effect that conceals a shadowy face inside, and jagged streams fall from eyes like rivers of tears. Still other works include photogram elements that surround the faces like mood boards, with everyday items like wine glasses, flowers, and eating utensils adding formal interest, and a hand reaching in from the side to roughly cover a mouth. And in a group portrait, pull tabs from aluminum cans cover smiling faces like masks or bibs, only the eyes visibly through the metal holes.

The rest of the works in the show surround and enhance the themes in the portraits. Women are seen completely covered by black clothing at the park, their forms and actions turned bulky and mysterious. Sheep are herded, cars birth gaggles of kids from their open trunks, a jeweled necklace lies in the dirt, fish take on spiritual significance as ghosts, and the world cycles and returns via spinning planets and the cosmic rotation of a child’s head.

Each of Fallahzadeh’s photographs has been matted with actual printed fabrics from the artist’s life, most in muted shades of grey, creating yet another set of delicate personal connections. Stripes, polka dots, swirled patterns, plaids, and simple prints provide tactile backdrops for the imagery, firmly placing them in a domestic context. The prints have then been installed on metal racks designed by the artist Fia Backström, each print hung back to back with another in mid air, defining a flowing movement through the gallery space. The effect is immersive and atmospheric, a loose wandering from image to image that breaks up the usual rigidity of the white cube.

The overall impression that Fallahzadeh’s work delivers is a sense of the intricate subtleties of women’s lives taking place inside the narrowed exterior structure of social, political, and religious constraints in a country like Iran. Her women have carved out personal richness inside these limits, but it takes the sensitivities of an artist to make them visible to the rest of us. It is this inside/outside conflict that animates her best pictures.

Collector’s POV: The photographs by Fallahzadeh in this show range in price from $800 to $1200 each. Fallahzadeh’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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