Best shot in the Guardian today features the Iranian film director and photographer Abbas Kiarostami, whose exhibition ‘Roads and Rain’ opens in London. Kiarostami explains:
I never really learned photography. During the revolution of 1979, it was impossible to make films, and I escaped from the city and found shelter in the countryside. I started making pictures, and they became like gifts to take back to people in the city. I could share the landscape with them through photography. I prefer the countryside to cities. This is also true of my films: I have made more films in rural societies, and villages, than in towns.
The idea for this series of “rain” pictures is one I had a long time ago. I had spent years looking through my car windscreen, admiring the rural landscape, admiring the raindrops and the effect of light on them. I tried taking photographs through the windscreen, but at that time I was using film, and I could hardly ever get the right light effect to make the pictures work.
It was only when digital cameras arrived that I thought: now I can go back to this idea. I could work with very little light, and while I was driving. I drove with one hand on the wheel, and used my other hand to take pictures. But maybe I shouldn’t say that – I wouldn’t want to promote bad driving.
I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame. So I took my car windscreen as a frame, and I turned off the windscreen wipers so as not to wipe off the rain – I wanted the raindrops to remain on the glass. Everything we can see in the photographs – the yellow-brown, the green, the black – we owe to the light. It’s the reflection of the light on the raindrops that gives the pictures these subtleties and nuances.
The world viewed through the lens of Abbas Kiarostami’s stationary film camera consists of long, protracted shots interrupted by staccato incidents: the passing of a loud car, for example, or a moving pedestrian eclipsed by distance. His still photographs are also punctuated by the appearance of a single shrub, bird, car, or bicycle—each important annotations on the study of expansive landscapes.
Bordering on abstraction, shadows play against untouched snow and evoke chiaroscuro contrasts, and veils of pouring rain obscure our surroundings. His series Roads and Trees (1978-2003) and the new body of work Rain (2006) become pages from an anonymous travelogue, contemplative and melancholy.
Contemplating the cloudy sky and the massive trunk of a tree under a magical light is difficult when one is alone. Not being able to feel the pleasure of seeing a magnificent landscape with someone else is a form of torture. That is why I started taking photographs. I wanted somehow to eternalize those moments of passion and pain.
– Abbas Kiarostami
The Trees in Snow series is borne out of Kiarostami’s long, solitary walks to search for film locations, sometimes covering thousands of miles in the Iranian landscape. Photographing this terrain allowed him a spontaneous immersion in nature.
The selection reveals the concentrated vision of the artist exploring the repeated motif of trees in snow. Shadows and snowdrifts contribute to the breakdown of a sense of scale and perspective. An atmosphere of solitude and meditation is evoked. The images become the equivalent of emotional states and the trees almost human, echoing the saying of the Islamic mystic Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (born 1165 – died 1240): ‘the tree is the sister of man’.
I’ve enjoyed Kiarostami’s films, too. In the summer of 2006 BBC4 showed a season of films from the Iranian New Wave, including his Ten, about which the BBC4 page comments:
Director Abbas Kiarostami creates movies which tend to engage and enrage in equal measure. He avoids any ornateness in the composition of his work and if he holds any regard for traditional cause-and-effect narrative, he doesn’t let it show. Yet his fascination with his characters and the slow, sly way in which he reveals their motivations and madness ensure his dramas are compelling and unpredictable.
Ten is typical of Kiarostami’s technique and comprises a series of car journeys through the noisy, steaming streets of Tehran: one vehicle, one driver, a succession of passengers and a gradual understanding of the woman behind the wheel. The anonymous driver is pristine and self-conscious – gleaming teeth, a touch too much make-up and eyebrows plucked with a surgeon’s precision combine to suggest an underconfident egotist. This strangely likeable lady remains in control of her car but of very little else in her life, and through conversations with passengers – including her son, her sister and a local whore – we learn about her history, her hopes, Iranian culture and the nightmare of finding a place to park in downtown Tehran.
I’ve also enjoyed his earlier Earthquake Trilogy, consisting of Where is the Friend’s House in 1987, And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). In 1997 at the Cannes Film Festival Taste of Cherry was awarded the grand prize, Kiarostami thus becoming the first Iranian director ever to win the Palme d’Or.