Antoine Sevruguin (Teheran, 1840?- Teheran, 1933)
Antoine Sevruguin was born in the Russian embassy in Teheran as the son of an Armenian mother and Russian father in diplomatic service. When Antoine's father died, life became impossible for his mother as an Armenian in Iran, and she moved with her three young children to Tbilisi, the present capital of Georgia. There Antoine was trained as a visual artist, and fell under the spell of Western painting; particularly the work of Rembrandt made a deep impression on him. Throughout his life he would also remain interested in Persian painting.
Under the influence of the photographer Dmitri Ermakov, who at that point was living in Tbilisi, he decided to become a photographer. With two of his brothers, in 1870 Antoine returned by caravan to his birthplace, Teheran. On the way he photographed landscapes and the people he encountered along the route. Once in Teheran he established a photography studio with his two brothers. Antoine was the photographer, while his brothers took care of the business aspects. Very quickly the firm acquired a very good reputation, and clients came from all over Iran, and other countries, to have photographs made, or buy photographs.
In the eyes of the Iranians he was a Westerner. All that was Russian was in Iran at that time associated with the West. But Westerners who visited him in his photo studio in Teheran saw him as a real Eastern photographer.
Early tourists bought photographs for their travel albums. In addition to Italy and Egypt, because of its archaeological monuments Iran was also included in the 'grand tour' well-heeled European young people made as part of their education. As well as photographs of the monuments, he offered pictures of diverse groups and people from the surrounding population. He invited Armenians, Kurds, Jews and people from the various social strata to his studio to pose for him. The subjects often play a very active role in the images; through their poses and expressions they are more actors than unwilling vic tims of a commercial photographer. Dervishes were among his favourite subjects. With their reverent appearance, austere clothing and long hair and beards, these devout Muslims who had opted for a wandering existence could have walked out of a Biblical painting by Rembrandt.
He used a local military drill field next door to his home, or the inner courtyard of his own house for photographs with more suggestion of local colour. To fulfil Western erotic fantasies about Eastern women he also produced photographs of nude and partly nude women in harem scenes. Yet we would not be doing justice to Sevruguin if we were to label him as a photographer chiefly oriented to commercial interests. He was the first photographer in Iran who could live from his photography, but the way in which he photographed many groups in the population on location, outside the studio bears witness to his interest and involvement in the country and culture of Iran. Sevruguin also travelled around the country to make a visual catalogue of the ethnic groups, landscapes and everyday life of Iran.
This ethnographic aspect of his work did not go unnoticed. Anthropologists bought his photographs, and they were to be seen at the World Exhibitions at Brussels (1897) and Paris (1900), regularly winning prizes. Although Sevruguin was a celebrated photographer in Teheran, he remained largely unknown in Europe. Many of his photographs purchased by Europeans were published in scientific or quasi-scientific publications, but the photographer's name did not accompany them - something which aggravated Sevruguin considerably, although it was a fate which befell many photographers in that day. Dr. C.H. Stratz also used Sevruguin's photographs in his Die Rassenschönheit des Weibes without giving him credit. He did note the source for the photographs, though: they were borrowed from the Museum in Leiden.
It is known that Sevruguin made more than 7000 images, on glass plates. Not much of this collection is left. In 1908 Iran entered a constitutional crisis. Soldiers of Muhammed Ali Shah set the houses of opponents aflame, and plundered their belongings. Sevruguin's neighbour was a wanted man, and his home was destroyed - and part of Sevruguin's with it. Sevruguin's archive suffered major damage; with difficulty 2000 glass plates were saved. He scarcely recovered from this emotional and financial blow.
After Reza Shah came to power in 1925 Sevruguin had to endure a new attack. The Shah wanted to modernise the country, and therefore felt it necessary to destroy everything that did not fit with the image of modernity. The remaining collection of glass plates was seized. Apparently it was Sevruguin's daughter Mary who, through her connections, succeeded in obtaining the return of 696 of them. After Sevruguin's death she presented these to the American Presbyterian Mission in Teheran, and ultimately they ended up in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the archive of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. This is the largest Sevruguin collection that remains. In addition to several dozen prints in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian, as far as is known work by Sevruguin is found only in the Netherlands: in the collection of the University of Leiden and over 170 glass plates and prints in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
In the Museum's annual report for 1899/1900, under 'Acquisitions' there is mention of 'A large collection of very instructive photographs of landscape views and natives from various sections of Persia. Long-term loan from Mr. W.L. Bosschart, Consul General of the Netherlands in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.' In the following annual report the same series appears under 'Losses'. Bosschart asked for the return of his photographs. Because the Museum still wanted to retain the images, before their return the prints were tacked to a wooden board with drawing pins and rephotogaphed on glass plates. Subsequently prints were made again from these glass plate negatives. Although this collection thus contains no original glass plates or prints, thanks to these reproductions images by Sevruguin have been preserved, the original glass negatives of which have been lost. It is unknown what Bosschart did with the original photographs, or where they are now.
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