Friday, September 27, 2013

Pictures of Persia: henna in the photography of Antoin Sevruguin

While looking for documentation of Persian Jewish henna, I came across the photographs of Antoin Sevruguin, and they were so wonderful that I wanted to share this resource. I realized that my intention in starting this blog was to share things that I find as I go along my research, not to go out of my way to research new posts (which is what the last few posts have been). So here’s a short(er) post with some awesome photos! Enjoy!

Antoin Sevruguin was a Georgian-Iranian who operated a photography studio first in Tabriz, and then in Tehran, from the 1870s until his death in 1933. He also traveled around the country on various expeditions taking photographs of monuments, archaeological sites, and the various peoples and cultures of Iran. He was a celebrated photographer in his day both in Iran and abroad, although many of his photographs were distributed without attribution (for example, in the 1921 National Geographic issue on Persia), and unfortunately thousands of his negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1908. For more information see the biographies here and here.

The Smithsonian collections in the Freer Sackler Museum of Asian Art contains about a thousand photographs attributed to Sevruguin, including glass plate negatives and albumen photoprints. They have all been digitized and you can sort through them here by searching “Sevruguin”. This is an amazing resource for visualizing 19th and 20th century Iran!

I trawled through them myself and found lots of interesting instances of henna, including several photographs that were identified as Jews — there is sometimes a discrepancy between Sevruguin’s handwritten notes on the negatives and the curator’s identification; in those cases I went with Sevruguin’s notes, since the museum’s identifications often seem problematic (a issue also noted by Armstrong-Ingram, pg. 412). Now onto the photographs! And please check out the archives yourselves!
Jewish village girl, ca. 1875

This photograph was already familiar to me, but I didn’t realize it was by Sevruguin, so it was a delight to come across it again. It shows a Jewish village girl bedecked with elaborate silver jewelry, a large floral wrap ('abayye), and hennaed fingernails. 

Her large disk and sheath amulets suggest that she is from the western part of Iran, perhaps near Kermanshah, Tabriz, or Hamadan, all areas with large Jewish communities. Sevruguin's first studio was in Tabriz; did he photograph her there? Or was this picture taken on one of his photographic expeditions? 

It is likely, because of her threaded eyebrows and forehead ornament (mu-band), that she is a newlywed bride; her hennaed nails suggest that it is about a month after her wedding (Sahim's description says that she is "dressed up for her wedding," 2002, pg. 180, but given her hennaed nails it seems likely that the photo was taken a few weeks after the ceremony). 

Marrying children, while not common, was practiced in Jewish communities until the mid-20th century. In Iran it was often done to prevent Muslim men from marrying Jewish girls, since they had already been promised to another man. Another photograph shows a child bride with hennaed fingertips before her wedding in Hamadan in 1910 (Sahim, 2002, pg. 192). According to Jewish law, the young girl would remain in her parents' house until she reached the age of majority. This photo has always been very striking for me — something about her pose and the way she stares directly into the camera — and when I use it in my presentations on Jewish henna traditions it always gets strong reactions.

Jewish (Kurdish?) girls, ca. 1880
This photograph is also fascinating. The handwritten note simply reads ‘Juives’ [Jewish women]; the curator titles this photo ‘Portrait of Two Women in Elaborate Costume’. They appear to be young, in their preteens or teens. They are wearing coin headdresses (raziyat) with dangling silver pendants (zar damese), strings of beads and silver amulets, and silver rings with gemstones; they are dressed in padded silk jackets (arkhaloq) over their long-sleeved shirts (pirahan). From what we can see of their hands, they have both had their fingernails hennaed. Most interestingly, they both have the lower face covered by a thin black kerchief, a style that is very unusual in Jewish communities.

Close-up of above image.
Where are they from? Who are they? Haideh Sahim identifies them as Kurdish (2002, pg. 179) and this seems accurate, based on their clothing and jewelry. It's probable Sevruguin took this picture on one of his photographic expeditions in western Iran; another photograph by Sevruguin, currently in the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, shows these girls standing next to two older men who, interestingly, also have hennaed nails (see Vogelsang-Eastwood, 2008, pg. 174). Perhaps they had just been married? I wonder if the two girls were sisters. They were likely from a rural community, where conservative standards of modesty were more common. Perhaps they felt especially shy being photographed (likely for the first time)?
Iranian Jews, ca. 1880
Photo from the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, no. 3221

Equally mysterious are these two women, identified again simply in the notes as ‘Juives’ [Jewish women] and labelled by the curator as Kurdish. They are wearing beautiful dyed head wraps (posiya), silver or gold chin straps ('eqd-e ru), chunky bracelets (hel-tala), and large patterned skirts; their eyebrows are dyed with indigo (vasmeh) to form a single curving stroke, as was popular, and their fingers are hennaed. It looks like they are posed in Sevruguin's studio; were they models? Their poses indicate that this photo's aim (unlike the photos discussed above, for example) was Orientalist rather than ethnographic, marketed at a Western European audience looking for pictures of the sensual East (see, for example, the analysis of Sahim, 2002, pg. 191, and González, 2012, esp. pp. 127-128).

Jewish (Kurdish?) women, ca. 1880

Many of Sevruguin's studio portraits of Persian (Muslim) women also show hennaed fingernails and toenails, although I have yet to find a photograph from Iran showing patterned henna, or in fact any kind of henna not on the fingertips or toes (the elaborate patterned henna depicted in Persian miniatures appears to have gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and while manuscript illustrations from the 19th century show solidly hennaed hands I have yet to see this in a photograph). This posed photo shows two women and a young girl (are they a family?); interestingly the oldest woman has clearly hennaed fingernails. I also really like the girl's braids — I wonder what other hairstyles the women might have worn under their scarves.

Muslim women, ca. 1880

Close-up of above image

Nasser al-Din Shah and his dentist, ca. 1890
One thing that was fascinating to me was to find a few pictures of men with henna! We know from written sources that Persian men regularly used henna on their beard, hair, and nails, and several of Sevruguin’s pictures show this clearly. I got very excited when I found one photo, captioned by the curator as "Barber Dyeing Nasir Al-Din Shah's Mustache." A photo of henna being applied! But unfortunately, the two handwritten notes accompanying the photo identify this as his dentist. Indeed, a closer look shows that they look like they’re holding dentist’s tools, and I don’t see a bowl of henna anywhere, so I think we’ll have to keep looking for a photo of Persian henna in action.

Close-up of above image

Persian men, ca. 1880
But the results are visible in many other places! This photo depicts a well-to-do man (notice his nice felt hat and trimmed beard) with hennaed nails standing next to a wild-looking dervish (is he giving him money? It looks almost as if he's holding a cigarette).

Close-up of above image

Cotton worker, ca. 1880
Here we have a cotton worker (hallaj) with hennaed nails, which may have helped keep his fingertips healthy.

Close-up of above image

Money trader, ca. 1880
And here we have a money trader (sarraf) with hennaed nails recording his accounts, with a pile of coins at his feet (it looks like he’s wearing warm felt booties too!).

Close-up of above image

And this photo depicts a bath attendent (tellak) giving a client a massage, and it looks like his fingertips (not just his nails!) have been solidly dipped in henna.

Bath attendant posed in studio, ca. 1900

Close-up of above image

Those are just a few of the photos that popped out at me, so I thought I’d share this resource. Enjoy looking through them, and see if you can spot any more henna!


Armstrong-Ingram, R. Jackson. 2000 Review: Sevruguin and the Persian Image: Photographs of Iran, 1870-1930. Iranian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3/4, pp. 411-413.
González, Carmen Pérez. 2012 Local Portraiture: through the lens of the 19th-century Iranian photographers. Leiden University Press.
Sahim, Haideh. 2002 Clothing and Makeup. In Esther’s Children: a portrait of Iranian Jewry, ed. Houman Sarshar. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, pp. 176-195.

1 comment:

Flavia said...

I am always interested in your blog, the photos are a wonderful addition to the written blog and bring the past to life for me.