The Earliest Surviving Photos of Iran: Photos from 1850s-60s Capture Everything from Grand Palaces to the Ruins of Persepolis

The tech­nol­o­gy and art of pho­tog­ra­phy emerged in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe. And so, when a part of the world out­side Europe was well-pho­tographed in those days, it tend­ed to be a trav­el­ing Euro­pean behind the cam­era. Take John Thom­son, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, for his pho­tos of Chi­na in the eigh­teen-sev­en­ties. Even before that, an Ital­ian colonel and pho­tog­ra­ph­er named Lui­gi Pesce was hard at work doc­u­ment­ing a land geo­graph­i­cal­ly clos­er to Europe, but hard­ly less exot­ic in the Euro­pean world­view of the time: Per­sia, or what we would today call Iran.

“Accord­ing to schol­ars and his­to­ri­ans, the first pho­tog­ra­ph­er in Iran was Jules Richard, a French­man who, as stat­ed in his diaries, arrived in Tehran in 1844,” says the web site of the Nation­al Muse­um of Asian Art.

“He served as the French lan­guage tutor of the Gul­saz fam­i­ly and took daguerreo­types of Moham­mad Shah (reigned 1834–48) and his son, the crown prince, Nasir al-Din Mirza.” Alas, these pho­tographs seem to be lost, much like most oth­ers tak­en before Pesce’s arrival in the coun­try in 1848, “dur­ing the reign of Nas­er al-Din Shah Qajar, to train Iran­ian infantry units.”

Pesce’s pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects includ­ed Nas­er al-Din him­self, pic­tures of whom appear in the online col­lec­tion of Pesce’s work at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. It was the Met that received a copy of the pho­to col­lec­tion Pesce pro­duced of Iran’s ancient mon­u­ments — prob­a­bly the very same copy that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er had orig­i­nal­ly sent to Prince William I, King of Prus­sia.

In those days, even such exalt­ed fig­ures had a great deal of curios­i­ty about far-flung realms, and before pho­tog­ra­phy, they had no eas­i­er way of see­ing what those realms real­ly looked like than mak­ing the ardu­ous jour­ney them­selves.

The sites cap­tured in this col­lec­tion include Toghrol Tow­er, the Tomb of Seeh‑i Mumin, and the Mosque of Nass­er-eddin Shah — as well as Pasar­gadae, Naqsh‑e Rus­tam, and Perse­po­lis, the famed cer­e­mo­ni­al cap­i­tal com­plex of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, which Pesce was the first to pho­to­graph. Or at least he was the first to suc­ceed in doing so, Nas­er al-Din hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly sent Richard off to make some daguerreo­types of Perse­po­lis that nev­er came out.

But even Pesce’s pho­tographs, ful­ly exe­cut­ed using just about the height of the tech­nol­o­gy at the time, no longer have the imme­di­a­cy they would have when Prince William gazed upon them; more than a cen­tu­ry and a half lat­er, they have a pati­na of his­tor­i­cal dis­tance that shades into unre­al­i­ty, mak­ing them feel not unlike ruins them­selves. You can also view more pho­tos on Google Arts and Cul­ture.

Relat­ed con­tent:

New Archive of Mid­dle East­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy Fea­tures 9,000 Dig­i­tized Images

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

Behold the World’s Old­est Ani­ma­tion Made on a Vase in Iran 5,200 Years Ago

The Old­est Known Pho­tographs of Rome (1841–1871)

700 Years of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized & Free Online

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (25)
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  • Avishak says:

    Like to dis­cuss the Esfa­hani and yaz­di cul­tures.

  • A thought says:

    Could be they turn in ruins for realz with the way Iran runs itself.

  • Parviz says:

    Iran is a fab­u­lous place to explore and con­sid­er the cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion.
    One of ten coun­tries with such a great cul­ture.
    We should bypass pol­i­tics and do not miss out for vis­it­ing this coun­try.

  • Alina Santos says:

    thank you,for a beau­ti­ful arti­cle and a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­ture.

  • Nao says:

    No lol thanks I’m gay and I don’t wan­na risk my life get­ting killed for being myself, I pre­fer the pho­tos

  • Chieko Miami says:

    Fab­u­lous ancient relics of Iran. Are they still in exis­tence? Can a US cit­i­zen trav­el to Iran as a tourist to see some of those ancient relics? Thanks.

  • Laura Oaks says:

    To see the Mid­dle East is on my Buck­et List. Sad­ly I don’t have the $$$ to trav­el. And being a elder woman,safety would be an issue.I long to see Petra,Constantinople, Jerusalem,etc. Every­where I’ve
    read and stud­ied about. Alas, maybe in my next life.…

  • Mark Alfieri says:

    Great his­to­ry and pho­tos

  • Roossi Talati says:

    Being a Par­si, I toured Iran twice. It was like recharg­ing my spir­i­tu­al bat­tery. These pho­tos have made me very very hap­py & proud. Thanks a lot

  • Daisy Y says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing pic­tures.

  • Hello says:

    Hell yeah.. why not??
    Don’t lis­ten to what they say about Iran. Believe me my friend, u will be sur­prised. You are more than wel­come here. Every­one will respect and help you total­ly.
    So„ come and get sur­prised ;))

  • Hello says:

    Hell yeah.. why not??
    Don’t lis­ten to what they say about Iran. Believe me my friend, u will be sur­prised. You are more than wel­come here. Every­one will respect and help you total­ly.
    So„ come and get sur­prised ;)

  • Miad says:

    If we run our­selves bad­ly, why do you care? Let us be destroy by our­selves and you’ve got no ene­my and noth­ing to wor­ry. Fir that rea­son stop med­dling and dis­rupt­ing Iran.
    Peace out ✌🏾

  • Antonio says:

    Yeah, they are still in exis­tence but the glob­al­ists and left­ists led by US govt has been changed all the real­i­ty of Iran since 1979! The time those lunatic politi­cians tend­ed to put a pup­pet govt in Iran and replaced the monar­chy sys­tem by fu**king repub­lic govt just in order to facil­i­tate loot­ing the coun­try’s crude oil, gas and min­er­al resources for con­sum­ing in their fac­to­ries in F.china!
    That’s it. If you wan­na blame, you should blame the F.US govt and their fu**king glob­al­ist poli­cies only!!!

  • مهدی says:

    You can trav­el to Iran as a tourist tour

  • Zahra rad says:

    Way to encour­age tourism bro!! Stu­pid peo­ple like you are the main rea­son that tourists are afraid to trav­el to our beau­ti­ful coun­try

  • Mhd says:

    Don’t wor­ry. You wont be tress­passed if you respect the peo­ple.

  • احمد says:

    Those leg­endary ancient works you say, if you mean Perse­po­lis, Pasar­gad and the tomb of Cyrus, I must say that they are fakes and were lat­er forged by Reza Palani and Moham­mad Reza Palani and attrib­uted to the Achaemenidians.If you research the fakes about the Achaemenids, you will find shock­ing infor­ma­tion about the his­tor­i­cal fakes in Iran. All the real works in Iran are relat­ed to the Turks.

  • Biserka says:

    I live in Ser­bia, and have been to all those places in my 50ies and 60ies, with groups, and nev­er felt threat­ened in any way.
    My sug­ges­tion is for you to try to come and live in Europe for a few months in some cheap­er coun­try like Alba­nia, and check how much your desired trips cost from here. It would take some plan­ing, but could be very reward­ing.

  • nancy says:

    Thank you! I loved the pho­tos
    and the sto­ry very much.

  • Cyrus says:

    Ira­ni­ans gained more than 20 years in lifes­pan alone after top­pling the US rein­stalled Shah in 1979 and is today on the verge of becom­ing a Very High­lyD Devel­oped Nation accord­ing to the UND­P’s Human Devel­op­ment Index (which was flat and not ris­ing before the rev­o­lu­tion)

  • says:

    Love you

  • Billyplemmons says:

    You love me??

  • Dennis says:

    Fuck you id rather not be the next hostage.…

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