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Tehran museum’s historic photography collection emerges from the shadows

Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell and Steichen’s portrait of Rodin among images collected before the Iranian revolution

Western museums have worked hard to secure loans from Iran’s collection of Modern art works, including major pieces by Picasso, Warhol and Pollock that have not been shown outside the country for 40 years.  But the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art also houses a historic photography collection that has been largely overlooked by the media.

“It’s extraordinary, about 100 objects,” says Donna Stein, an art historian and curator who worked at the Tehran museum in the last years of the Shah’s rule, advised on buying and staged an inaugural show from its photography holdings.

The earliest piece is a Fox Talbot alongside an early calotype by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and one of Lewis Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell, as well as a picture by James Robertson of Constantinople.  

The museum’s photography collection also includes portraits by Edward Steichen of Auguste Rodin and Pierre Bonnard—works by both artists can be found in the museum. Other classics include the San Francisco earthquake by Arnold Genthe, and Man Ray’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas surrounded by their art collection.  

Art purchases under the former Shah of Iran stepped into high gear in the mid-1970s, when the oil shock had depressed Western economies and art market prices but handed producing countries a huge windfall.  “The cost of photographs was minimal compared to today,” Donna Stein says.  

Experts will also be curious about the Hyperrealist works in the Tehran museum—with around 30 pieces purchased in the 1970s when their work was seen as the art of the future, but faring relatively poorly since.