Jesse’s book review, Images Still and Moving by Abbas Kiarostami
In a step away from Japanese photography books, Jesse reviews the work of Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian movie director. If you are not familiar with his work then you will be after this excellent review.
Internationally among living film directors, I would say there are about a handful that will live on and be remembered in the way we remember a Bergman, a Kurosawa, or an Antonioni. In a short list, there are two auteurs that always come straight to mind in Wong Kar-wai and Abbas Kiarostami. The former of whom most are familiar with, most notably for his films Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, the latter sadly still remains a bit of an unknown (Contax T2 shooting hipsters still haven’t caught on to him) but is highly regarded none the less as THE Iranian film director in the way Bergman is to Sweden.
Even among those who do know of his films very few know of his photography that more often than not inspires his films. Images, Still and Moving is a book based on an exhibition he had in Germany exploring two of his photography sets, with some of his short films, and installation works. However, I will focus primarily on his photography here, while relating them to the films they influence.
The first I will start with is his series Snow White, shot between 1978-2004. This began with Sunday drives to the country side outside of Tehran in which he begin to take photos of the landscape. Partly location scouting, and partly to escape the chaos of the revolution in 79’, the photos began to take on a life of their own.
Classically trained as a painter and out of college working as a graphic designer his photos exhibit the best of both mediums. One of the introductions to the books harps on the painting correlation to his photography, however the graphic design I would argue takes more of a precedent.
His choice of stark black and white film over color abstracts images to an almost unrecognizable graphic design element. Tree trunks are no more than black lines amongst the whiteness of the snow. Many forget that snow shot in color can actually produce a subtle range of color due to the diverse light reflections, so I believe the graphic side demanded the series to be in black and white…while a painter would embrace this dynamic range of color. The result are landscapes that become clever minimal plays on line and form that with each page become more than just landscape photos.
Serving as more than just a great photo series these locations and images can then be recognized in so many of his films. With the exception of some early releases and a more recent release in 10 on Ten and his last two that take place outside of Iran all of his films are shot in the country side.
Beginning with the Koker trilogy and thru some his greatest films in Close-Up, the Wind Will Carry Us, and Taste of Cherry.
Taste of Cherry even uses his minimal landscapes as the visual motif for the film that is often shot from afar in long takes with no camera movement of the main character driving around. The main character is looking for someone to help him with a job which of course will be paid.
The job is to simply throw dirt over his remains as he plans to kill himself in a grave he already dug. Each person he picks up has their reasons for not accepting the job and if you are really looking into the film can see the symbolism as each person represents a class of Iranian society. The main point being this film was entirely conceived from driving around looking for suitable photographs that progressed to the story here. Roads of Kiarostami more directly adapts his photographs into film in a short that I will provide the link for below.
Carrying on this motif, his second photo series is titled Rain and Wind that see the photographer never even getting out of his car. Instead he shoots the rain on the windshield that abstracts what is on the outside. Our gaze alternates between the internal (the windshield itself and either dots or streams of water) and the external (the slightly discernable trees, cars, house, etc.).
This dualism here is in context of the exhibition that makes even more sense when comparing the open landscapes of Snow White to the closed windshield view driving to them here in rain and Wind. The effect of the two sets are however quite different. One becomes a bit more sensitive to the Rain and Wind looking for slight variances since our gaze is so controlled by the photographer`s limited view of a car windshield.
It is comparable to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascape series that is essentially a book of the same view that can only be appreciated in its subtlety. Our gaze through the windshield can’t help but attempt to make out what is beyond and unlike the snow series the need for color becomes evident when glares from various traffic/car lights merge with the rain creating subtle points of interest!
The experience alone is quite worth it and is a similar experience to going to a museum and observing an impressionist painting up close. Which then is interesting because this series would more relate to his painterly background. More over when contrasting this two sets, its title Images, Still and Moving makes more sense. Snow White feels permanent, still, while Rain and Wind simply moves…from the the streaming rain drops to the objects outside of the car.
Again relating to his films, car interiors make up a lot of his stories. In the film I described above in Taste of Cherry to his most recent in 10 on Ten, Certified Copy, and even a bit in his Japanese film Like Someone in Love. Of which, 10 on Ten is the most obvious comparison since it is about ten short stories that all take place in the interior of taxis. It is important to note that this series is significantly newer shot between 2006-2007, accounting for its more recent impact it has had on his films.
Of the three, the one I will discuss is probably the most known in Certified Copy. The film begins with a still shot of a podium in which a writer gives a lecture on a book he has written on the relationship between an original and copy in regards to painting, taking the stance that a better copy can be superior to a poor original.
This discussion sets in place the romance between him and a woman in the audience over the course of a date in which they end up driving around aimlessly in the countryside. They bizarrely began to speak in different languages and their attitude toward each other change to a point where we start to wonder if this a first date or rather this is a couple that has been married for 15 years as their arguments and resentment over a past that may or may not have existed take over.
Which relationship is the original and which is the copy is something we never know but are made to intuitively feel. This story was of course shot on film, film in its own nature is a copy. The layers of meaning stemming from drives on country sides alternating between interior and exterior are explored throughout his art.
In all, this book can be had for about 60 dollars on Amazon, guess in a change of piece this is one of the more readily available photobooks I have shared. Its worth is not only in the photos but the various essays included that require over a few hours’ time to get through and offer certainly more than what I did here. Check it out.
Thanks for sharing this review with us, Jesse. It is always an education and this is no exception.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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