Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Iran (Captured by Firooz Zahedi)

Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation of an Oriental Odalisque seen through the lens of Firooz Zahedi.
A chador-clad Elizabeth Taylor captured outside the Shah Chirag Shrine in Shiraz.
About a year and half ago I was researching a piece on Tehran’s contemporary art scene before the revolution. Many of the people I contacted were somewhat intrigued by my interest in bringing to life a period that had fallen through the cracks of time. Yet they were all very generous and willing to dig deep into their memories. Over the next few months I hope to share with you some of their recollections.

The late 70’s was a time when several major contemporary artists were making trips to the Iranian capital; having been commissioned by the Shahbanou Farah Diba to create works for the new museum of modern art. Amongst them was Andy Warhol, whose Factory and Interview crowd in New York included several Iranians: Fereydoun Hoveyda the art collector and Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Nima Farmanfarmaian (the writer and daughter of artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian), and gallery owner Tony Shafrazi. Nima would go on to organize and accompany Warhol on his trip to Iran.

For their first photo shoot, Taylor and Zahedi covered the wood-paneled walls and mid-century Danish furniture of her Tehran Hilton hotel room with colorful fabrics purchased at the bazaar.

As I got deeper into the story I began to interview people as varied as Bob Colacello, who worked with Warhol at the Factory and Interview Magazine, as well as art gallery owner, Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller, who remembered first meeting Warhol during a party at Halston’s home in the late 70’s. Through those contacts I was introduced to Firooz Zahedi, who for a time as a young man, had also worked with Warhol at Interview Magazine. Today Zahedi has made a name for himself as a prominent Hollywood photographer, creating the iconic image of Uma Thurman lounging on a motel bed for Pulp Fiction. His work has also appeared in Vogue, Town & Country, Vanity Fair and Elle Décor, amongst many other publications.

Playing Tourist: Elizabeth Taylor taking snapshots during a visit to the ruins of Persepolis.

I thought of Zahedi today on the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as well as the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, who shared a close friendship with Firooz for over 5 decades. The day I spoke to him about his recollections of Iran, the conversation inevitably shifted to his visit with Taylor in the summer of 1976. It was not only the actress’ first and only trip to the country, but also a kind of homecoming for Zahedi, who had left Iran at the age of nine to live in England. “It was an absolute thrill for me to see my own country through her eyes,” recalled Zahedi, who at the time was an aspiring young artist and a recent graduate of Washington's Corcoran School of Art.

Coming from a family of diplomats, Zahedi began a similar career path, finally deciding to follow his dreams and go back to school to become an artist. It was an unusual decision at the time for a young man from a prominent Iranian family. Yet Zahedi was encouraged early on by Taylor.

While in Isfahan, Taylor stayed at the Shah Abbas hotel, a converted royal palace. Here, Zahedi captures Taylor applying makeup.

The pair were first introduced to each other through Firooz’s cousin, Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s ambassador to the United States in the mid-1970s, (who at the time was also Ms. Taylor’s companion). “I was calling into art school saying, ‘I’m sick,’” recalled the photographer. “Then I took Elizabeth to the National Gallery, and as we were leaving there were all these photographers. The next day it was on the cover of The Washington Post, and I had to make an explanation at school. I passed all my exams anyway.”
An opportunity to photograph his new friend soon followed not long after. “My cousin wanted her to go to Iran for this inaugural flight on Iran Air, and he invited a lot of society people. Elizabeth said she would go if I went with her,” Zahedi remembered.

“We were like a couple of tourists,” he continued. “There was no pressure, just lots of fun. No one recognized her.” Together they explored the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the intricately glazed minarets of Esfahan and the colorful bazaars of Shiraz. It was on one such visit to a souk in Esfahan that Taylor was attracted to and purchased several embroidered fabrics and a tribal outfit, which inspired Zahedi to do his first impromptu photo-shoot with the actress.

Taylor in Shiraz, at the tomb of Hafez, the much-loved 14th-century poet.

“We went back to the hotel room and hung fabrics all over the walls and furniture to create a campy Hollywood sultan set,” says Zahedi. A few minutes later Taylor emerged in full make-up dressed in a traditional Iranian costume, with the addition of a heart shaped diamond pendent dangling at her forehead (a gift from former husband Richard Burton). “I didn’t have to do anything,” Zahedi explained. “She took over, created the poses and I just clicked the camera.”

That particular session gave way to several others during their two-week trip, including one that yielded an image of Taylor’s piercing eyes poking through the slit of a chador outside a mosque in Esfahan. “You’ll notice in the background a man and a tribeswoman entering the mosque at the same time. That is no longer possible under the Islamic regime—women have to enter through a separate door and sit in a separate section,” explained Firooz.

Elizabeth Taylor in an ancient teahouse in Isfahan, once the capital of Persia. “I remember looking at her while sipping tea with these Bulgari jewels around her neck,” said Zahedi. “I honestly didn’t know what a big deal that was. For me, it was just taking snapshots of a friend, who happened to be a famous movie star.”
After being filed away for close to 5 decades, this intimate and personal collection of images has reemerged in an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. More than a catalogue of a memorable trip, the exhibit presents 32 vivid color and black and white images; many of which have never been shown in public until now. It is a candid and personal testament to a 35-year friendship that transcended religious, cultural and national boundaries.

Taylor stands in profile amongst the intricate tile-work of the poet Sa’di’s tomb.

Taylor seated outside a mosque in Shiraz.

Firooz Zahedi at the LACMA exhibit.

“Elizabeth Taylor in Iran: Photographs by Firooz Zahedi,” February 26–June 12, 2011; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles;

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