- Published on Saturday, 09 April 2011 10:19
- Category: Art
If you look at the poster for Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic from 1994, your mind may not directly associate the image of Uma Thurman lying on a bed smoking in a short black bobbed wig with Iran. Nor would you immediately guess that the man responsible for that iconic photograph also took some of the intimate, beautiful, and exotic images of late film icon Dame Elizabeth Taylor. That man is Iranian photographer Firooz Zahedi.
During a diplomatic tour Ms. Taylor took to Iran in 1976, Zahedi captured striking images of the star and humanitarian. Those images are now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California. In addition to being featured in the exhibition Elizabeth Taylor in Iran, the images will now call LACMA home, as they were recently acquired as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Born in Iran in 1949, Zahedi spent most of his adolescence in England. Upon entering university, Zahedi moved to the US and studied Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Selecting not to pursue a career in diplomacy, Zahedi began taking courses at the prestigious Corcoran School of Art instead.
His pursuit of Art lead him to a career photographing some of the world’s most known faces, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Cate Blanchett to Angelina Jolie. His work has been featured in Town & Style, Glamour and Vanity Fair. Aslan Media sat down with Firooz Zahedi and discussed his upbringing inside and outside of Iran, his first photography gig with Andy Warhol, and what life as a celebrated photographer of the Hollywood elite has been like:
AM: Tell us about your childhood in Iran.
FZ: I left Iran before I reached the age of ten over fifty years ago. My family moved to England and later on in 1969, I came to the States to go to college. Back in Iran, I came from a large family and had many cousins. We were very close and because family is such a prominent part of our culture, we were very supportive of each other. We roamed around like a gang! I was the youngest so I was like the mascot. It was a politically charged time in Iran but I was too young to be aware of what was really going on. My dad was in the military and whenever I was left in the care of the housekeeper I would sneak into my parents’ room and take his ceremonial cape and sword and pretend I was some swashbuckling hero and go whack a tree in the garden with the sword as if it was the bad guy in the movies. I loved Hollywood movies, Westerns and pirate movies. Whatever was in Technicolor and full of action and adventure; I wanted to grow up and somehow be involved in making films. I think my body was in Iran but my mind was in Hollywood.
AM: Were your parents involved in the arts or artistic in anyway?
FZ: There was no one in the arts. However my mother was very creative and had a great sense of style which I was fortunate to inherit. My father too had a great sense of style whether in his military uniform or civilian clothes he looked very dashing. They were a beautiful couple. Moreover my father could draw very well but he kept it kind of closeted because, I guess in the Iranian culture of half a century ago, it was not appropriate for a military man to be artistic. So I guess he secretly passed his talents to me! From a very young age I could draw well and spent hours with pencil and paper. My favorite subjects were people and horses.
AM: With or without influence from your family – what made you choose to pursue photography? What about it appealed to you?
FZ: I always wanted to be involved with either film making or painting. As for photography, like everyone else I thought of it as something you do to capture a moment in time to put into an album. I really never thought of photography as a career until much much later.
When I completed my studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service I bought myself a Nikon camera as a graduation present. I had been taking portraits for some years. Some were beautiful and some were funny, and I enjoyed it but did not think of it as a profession. Deep inside I wanted to go to art school but my family was fairly conservative, like most Iranian families, and I knew I would have a hard time convincing them that I could have a career as an artist.
I worked as a diplomat for a couple of years and did a pretty good job of it. Diplomacy itself is an art because you learn to be totally someone you really are not. You have to be constantly gracious and polite and know how to bulls**t. Well that training certainly helped me in Hollywood!! After two years as a diplomat in Washington DC I resigned. I had already applied to the Corcoran School of Art and had been accepted into the third year because I had minored in the Arts at Georgetown and had a ton of credits. It was the most exhilarating thing I had done in my life at that point. I had made a decision to do something I really wanted to do. I knew no one in the arts. Moreover I was starting an adventure in my life that I had no idea if it would lead to financial success. Yet I felt like I had grown wings and that I could fly and if I was going to crash I did not care. For once I was filled with passion for what I was doing. And that is what is the secret to happiness, I believe. My parents, though unsure of what the future may have in store for me, were supportive because they were loving parents. Also I was fortunate to get a partial scholarship from a publishing house in Iran. It was La Boheme! Little money but much fun.
AM: Who in your life really encouraged you and pushed you to go for it and make taking pictures your life?
FZ: In the beginning I just kept encouraging myself. Then a cousin who was a journalist in New York introduced me to Andy Warhol. We became friends and I started doing odd jobs in D.C. for him. I would find interesting people for him to put into Interview magazine, which he had recently started, or do PR work which came easy to me because of the diplomatic training. Later on, just before graduating from Art school I met Elizabeth Taylor and she became my guardian angel. We met at the Iranian Embassy. (My cousin was ambassador then.) I was asked to help make her stay in Washington as pleasant as possible whilst she was a guest at the embassy… I guess because of my knowledge of movies and the arts. One evening, I had dinner with her tete a tete. At first I was terribly nervous because I had no support team. But she broke the ice and treated me like an old friend although I was about twenty years her junior and a nobody art student.
After graduation I was asked to accompany her to Iran on a goodwill tour that Iran Air had organized. We both had an amazing time. This was back in 1976.I had only been back to Iran two times before that since leaving as a young boy. Everything was beautiful and exotic and because she could sense it and absorb it as someone who had never been to see that culture she made me apprecia
te it all the more. We took lots of snap shots and she encouraged me to take some portraits of her. When we got back to the States she encouraged me to have the photos published, which Andy Warhol did in Interview magazine. I got a check for $200 and I thought, “Wow! Maybe this is a career”. Intellectually I was a snob and wanted to still pursue painting or filmmaking. But I had the most amazing person as my muse so I began to pay more attention to photography as an art form.
AM: What are your thoughts on Art and Politics in this post-Revolution Iran?
FZ: I have not been back to Iran since that visit in 1976. I know there is turmoil there but I cannot be a judge of that from afar. The truth is I am not a political artist. I try to seek all that is beautiful in this world and capture as much as I can on camera and share with others. Life is too short and my system does not apply itself to negativity. I have been fortunate and am grateful for the life I have had. I am truly blessed. My son is a musician here in LA and the music business has become so tough. He has a band but he also writes music for commercials and TV shows to pay the bills. I wish so much for him to have the opportunities that launched my career.
But first and foremost one has to have an undying passion for one’s craft. That will sustain you thru thick and thin. I know there are so many artists emerging out of post revolution Iran. It’s amazing. I am helping LACMA form a council to gather funds to buy contemporary Iranian art for the museum. I am so excited by this project. I am discovering all these amazing Iranian artists. Can it be that the political pressure put upon them is responsible for the wealth of creativity that is exploding over there? I cannot be certain but I would love to go there and photograph the country and the people and observe the environment for myself.
I find the art and photography that we are subjected to here in the States or most parts of the Western world to be lacking in much substance. We are so spoilt here that it’s hard to get passionate about things. Art has become a calculated business by gallery owners and auction houses and curators. In the past you had a Van Gogh who would kill himself because he was not valued as an artist. Today you have gallery people cultivating artists as business ventures so that the millions of dollars come to them whilst they are still alive. Poor Vincent.
AM: What made you choose to primarily focus on fashion and celebrity photographs and portraits? What about that drew you in?
FZ: I love taking portraits. I get revved up by the challenge of photographing someone I don’t personally know and getting to discover their essence in a period of a few hours so I can portray them as whom they are. I love photographing women because most women love being photographed. I enjoy all sorts of photography. Photographing flowers and architectural subjects. I am passionate about aesthetics. I find such beauty and grace in a flower. The very simple elegance of its shape and color. That says to me there is a force bigger than us that are in charge of all things created on this planet. We are so disrespectful towards nature. Without it we are doomed. Things are out of control. We need to get our priorities right.
AM: Do you feel that the way you take pictures, the aesthetics you chose to embrace when approaching an image, are influenced at all by your Iranian heritage?
FZ: I have great pride being from Iran. I think when we leave Iran there is someone with a bottle of fragrance at the airport and they squirt some of the fragrance on us before we depart. The fragrance is called L’Essence D’Iran. The scent never leaves you! So I guess that shows in my photos.
AM: How do you feel it show up in your photos?
FZ: Iran is an ancient land of poetry, wine, beautiful music and paintings. All the things that are a result of a rich culture dating back thousands of years. You cannot erase that from our souls. We are rich in ways that many other cultures are not. I draw from that deep well of my heritage when I am being creative.
AM: Have you had a favorite photograph over the years – a most loved image that you just felt really embodied what you wanted to capture when you took the photo?
FZ: One image that I love is the one of Elizabeth Taylor I did in Iran where she is stretched out on a sofa covered in Persian silk fabrics and she is wearing a tribal costume. Her lazy gaze into my lens says “life is good” and there is no rush to get anywhere. She looks absolutely beautiful though she was in her mid forties at the time. It was the first time I was photographing someone so famous. But we were just two friends having fun and there was no agenda to exploit the photo.
I am glad that I was able to have an exhibition at a museum with that photo thirty-five years later. I could at last pay proper tribute to her before she passed away. My other favorite photo is the one I shot for the poster of the movie Pulp Fiction. I have shot many movie posters but usually there is a huge marketing force involved which waters down the image to something that they feel the majority can comprehend. Those marketing people underestimate the intelligence of the average Joe. I created the set and the concept for that poster and it was a huge hit. Quentin Tarantino told me it was so appropriate for the film and he really loved it.
AM: If you hadn’t experienced all this success would you still be a photographer? Meaning, if you were the only person who ever saw your images would you still feel compelled to take pictures?
FZ: I am blessed because not only can I take photos but also I can draw, paint, create sets, design furniture and renovate homes. I will be creative till the day I go. So, if I had not been a commercially successful photographer I would have found another creative field to make money in; but, would have continued to take photos. I could live in one room and make it look beautiful and be happy. It’s all in my blood.
AM: Now that you have experienced such a vigorous career – how does your family feel about it? Have their opinions changed/remained the same?
FZ: I am fortunate as my parents lived to see my commercial success. They were very proud of me. Whenever I showed them a magazine cover that I had shot they would search to see where I was credited for the photo. They took great pride in seeing the name up in lights so to speak. I am eternally grateful that thru thick and thin they supported me. I am thrilled to be able to dedicate my exhibition at LACMA to them as the museum has acquired it for their permanent collection.
AM: What are some upcoming projects you are working on? Anything exciting we should know about?
FZ: I have several projects in the works that I won’t jinx by discussing but I am set to photograph Jane Fonda in a couple of weeks for an ad campaign. I have worked with her on and off for the last 15 years or so. She is an admirable woman. Bright and beautiful, very positive outlook despite hip and knee replacements and cancer, very cheerful. I hope I am like that when I am 72!By Erin Joyce, Aslan Media Art Editor
*All images courtesy of Firooz Zahedi
Elizabeth Taylor in Iran (pictured above) is on view at LACMA now through June 12, 2011. For more detailed information the exhibition please visit www.lacma.org . To view more images by Firooz Zahedi please visit http://firoozzahedi.com