Antoin Sevruguin’s camera captured royalty and farm workers, landscapes and industrial scenes, architectural views and artworks, as well as events—official ceremonies, executions, funerals, harvests, and bustling marketplaces. There are now 695 negatives and 358 original prints by Antoin Sevruguin in the archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. These well represent the wide scope of the production of Sevruguin’s commercial studio in Tehran from the 1870s to the 1930s. The style of his photographs is as varied as their subject matter. There are formal studio portraits, blurred travel snapshots, straightforward renditions of objects and architectural monuments, and posed genre scenes, all intended for a market comprising archaeologists, ethnographers, indigenous peoples, and tourists. Many photographs, in their balanced compositions and tonal contrasts, lend themselves to the categorization of fine art.

The bulk of the collection was first assembled by an American scholar of Islamic architecture, Myron Bement Smith, beginning in 1934. In 1953, Joseph Upton, an Islamic specialist trained at Harvard University and for many years on the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, added sixty-six prints to the archives established by Smith. In 1973 Smith’s widow, Katharine, donated the collection to the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian. Four years later the collection was transferred to the Freer Gallery Archives, also under the auspices of the Smithsonian. In 1985, Jay Bisno, an archaeologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, added eighteen more Sevruguin prints to the collection.

Myron Bement Smith

From 1919, the year he first became involved in Islamic studies, Myron Bement Smith (1897–1970) envisaged a research archive of photographic material. His idea came to fruition ten years later as the Islamic Archives. Its defining purpose was to be a depository of primarily photographic materials for scholars and government agencies operating in Islamic countries. The archives eventually included more than eighty-seven thousand items—negatives, photographs, transparencies, and their supporting files, papers, and pertinent correspondence—the majority related to Iran but also encompassing the Islamic world from Spain to India, from the seventh to the twentieth century.

By all accounts Smith was eccentric, but it is also likely that the consuming work of the Islamic Archives grew increasingly important to him. He became a skilled photographer, producing over half of the images in the archives. The rest were donated by private individuals—scholars, diplomats, and tourists. The declared intent of the Islamic Archives was “to place unexploited research material at the disposition of scholars.1

Although of little monetary value until recently—Sevruguin’s photographs could be had for a pittance from the 1930s to the 1980s when Smith, Upton, the Islamic Archives, and Bisno purchased them—they were nonetheless objects to be bought and sold. To Smith, their value was in their potential for historical information, their “unexploited” qualities. Yet, at the same time as the meanings of the photographs remained open to a range of interpretive possibilities, the people, events, and sites they represent became transformed into discrete material elements to be gathered and redistributed.

Fig. 1

Seventy-four Sevruguin photographic prints purchased by Smith in 1934, five years before the actualization of the Islamic Archives, were among his earliest Islamic acquisitions. Most are depictions of architecture, but not necessarily monuments that Smith was studying. Some have proven more valuable for posterity than others, such as that of the Shrine of Fatima al-ma’suma at Qum (Fig. 1), a monument that no longer exists.

Among these photographs of architectural monuments are many in which architecture is not the primary focus. Many, in fact, are devoid of any architectural elements, one of street performers, another of an ice vendor (Fig. 2). Others depict pilgrims and religious dignitaries—the ulama as the latter were collectively known—in front of and within Islamic shrines (Fig. 3, Fig. 4).

Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

These exceptions would not be unusual were it not for the circumstances surrounding them. One was the attempt by Riza Shah (reigned 1925–41) to eliminate all photographs that he believed to show “unfavorable” aspects of Iranian life.2 Having ascended to the throne in 1925, nine years before Smith’s arrival, Riza Shah sought to erase all signs of the past in order to build a new, modem Iranian nation. At some point, perhaps in 1937, the year Smith left Iran, Riza Shah confiscated the estimated two thousand glass plates of Sevruguin’s that had survived the bombing of his shop during the constitutional crisis of 1908.3

From the time of his arrival in Iran in 1934, Smith was well aware of the shah’s attempts to censor certain photographs and was working under the agreement that he make “only scientific photographs.”4 Donald Wilber, also photographing in Iran in the 1930s, wrote that “all film had to be processed and inspected before it was allowed to leave the country. So we carried developing tanks, chemicals, printing paper and a darkroom tent.”5 Unlike Wilber, however, Smith appears to have had his negatives developed and printed by others, perhaps at Sevruguin’s shop, as a friend had suggested to him.6

The absence of the Sevruguin photographs from Smith’s inventories leads one to wonder if he had to smuggle them out of the country and, if so, of their importance to him that he should take such a risk. This assumption is somewhat contradicted by a letter by Smith’s wife in which she says she is sending some genre photographs of Iranian life and more could probably be obtained at Sevruguin’s shop, then run by his daughter after his death.7 While it seems unlikely that prints that could be purchased and mailed would have been clandestine goods, it may well be that the shah’s censorship of photographs had not yet extended to the Sevruguins, but was put into effect by the time of the Smiths’ departure later that year.

Since the architectural photographs should have easily qualified as “scientific” material, it is the exceptions that might have come under scrutiny. Why would photographs of people, especially the ulama, have been potentially censurable? Many of the clergy did not support aspects of the shah’s modernization efforts, but, in the 1930s, while Smith was in Iran, there was no major political movement on their part. Nonetheless, the ulama had succeeded in mobilizing mass support on important political matters in the past and remained a powerful group, as later demonstrated by the uprisings in 1963. The United States was not yet deeply engaged in the political life of Iran, but several foundations for the involvement that would escalate during and after World War II were already in place. For one, an American legation had been operating in Tehran since 1883.

That Smith may have seen these photographs as potentially informative in terms of international politics is speculative, but his desire to become involved in Iranian-American relations, not just as a scholar but as someone connected to the government, is not. It is a desire Smith expressed at the time, and he later lamented the fact that “in Persia, in 1933–37 an American archaeologist was treated tolerantly by our Foreign Service but no effort was made to capitalize on his presence and activities.”8

This relationship was to change with the onset of World War II, when Smith was recruited by U.S. intelligence services along with others knowledgeable about Iran—“archaeologists, research scholars, oil men, and a scattering of businessmen, including missionaries whose possible scruples about serving other than the Lord gave way before patriotism,” as Donald Wilber has written.9 Smith’s main contribution was to provide maps from his personal library with locations of railways, roads, and bridges. His papers contain several references to this intelligence work and his “many conferences in the Pentagon,” all of which he was clearly very proud.10

Smith’s affiliation with the government carried over to the newly established Islamic Archives. Between June 1942 and June 1943, 768 items from the Islamic Archives had been “exploited”—Smith’s term, intended in its most positive sense—by eleven U.S. government agencies directly concerned with the prosecution of the war.11 After the war, the archives continued its ties with the government, providing visual and audio material to be used in training Americans working abroad for such agencies as the Foreign Institute, Peace Corps, and Agency for International Development.

The Islamic Archives acquired the 695 Sevruguin glass plate negatives in 1951–52, purchased for two hundred dollars from the American Presbyterian Mission in Tehran. The minutes note that the negatives had been donated to the Presbyterian Mission by Sevruguin’s heiress, to be sold for its benefit.12 This heiress may have been Sevruguin’s daughter Mary, who ran the shop after his retirement. It was she who had been successful in retrieving the plates that the shah had confiscated in the late 1930s, perhaps through her friendship with his son, Muhammed Riza, who became shah in 1941.13

How the Sevruguin material was used by Smith is not fully understood. It seems likely that he made copy prints, given that the images were valued at the time as “precious records of a fast-disappearing way of life”14 and were situated in a context that fostered a variety of uses by both scholars and government agencies. Whatever the details of their use, they served to inform, objectify, and thus domesticate a foreign, often threatening country. Contrarily, they also served Smith to reposition the familiar and familial in a foreign context.

Joseph Upton

When Joseph Upton (1901–1981) donated his sixty-six Sevruguin prints to the Islamic Archives in October 1953, he was probably prompted by the archives’ purchase of Sevruguin negatives the preceding year. Almost overnight these archives had become a unique repository of what remained of Sevruguin’s work.

Unlike Smith, whose only extended sojourn in Iran was in the mid-1930s, Upton spent fourteen years of intermittent residence there, through 1958, working on archaeological digs sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Like Smith, Upton was also recruited for intelligence work at the outbreak of World War II, but while Smith, by then back in Washington, seems to have supplied mainly geographical information to the government, Upton, in Tehran, working for the Office of Strategic Services, concentrated on the local social and political scene. He worked closely with Donald Wilber, who claims to have masterminded the Central Intelligence Agency’s Operation Ajax, which helped to reinstate the shah in 1953.15 That Upton’s donation of his Sevruguin prints to the archives occurred two months after the shah’s reinstatement in 1953 may or may not be coincidental. Together they produced profiles of individuals and studies of political parties. After the war, they were asked to remain in Iran to monitor the Soviet presence. Upton’s cover for staying on was to look after the Metropolitan Museum’s property at Nishapur, and Wilber’s was his continuing studies of Islamic monuments.

Upton’s original purchase of Sevruguin’s prints occurred in 1928, long before his intelligence work began. Bought from the photographer himself, they are mainly of people and their activities—portraits of ethnic types and royalty, people dancing and working in the fields, and more (Fig. 5, Fig. 6). In contrast to Smith’s selections, only four are of architectural monuments.

Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Donald Wilber, who describes Smith as a “determined eccentric,” paints a very different picture of Upton as “unperturbable, totally reliable, apparently never seriously depressed, and never argumentative or difficult… He also entertained a great deal, and he was an excellent cook who enjoyed cooking”—in short, a bon vivant.16 Upton’s selection of Sevruguin’s photographs is clearly in accord with his sociable nature and his belief that “personalities play a crucial role” in Iranian politics.17 The intelligence work that he would perform later is foreshadowed in his selective focus on people and their activities. Likewise, Smith’s primary focus on monuments, their locations and the traveling time to reach them, foreshadowed the geographical information he would eventually provide the U.S. government.

Jay Bisno

Fig. 7

Of the eighteen Sevruguin prints of shahs, sultans, dervishes, and groups of people that Jay Bisno (born 1939) donated to the Freer and Sackler Archives in 1985, eight are related to criminals and their punishments (Fig. 7).

Four photographs construct a narrative around the assassination of Nasir al-din Shah in 1896: the shah, his assassin, the public hanging of this assassin, and the shah’s funeral (Fig. 8; Fig. 9; Fig. 10; Fig. 11). As a whole, Bisno’s collection renders history as drama, a spectacle with an assassination plot at its center.

Fig. 8
Fig. 9

Fig. 10
Fig. 11

As it turns out, this “drama” was not of Bisno’s making. He found the photographs in a “junk/book/antiquities (artifakes)” shop in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1969. “They were cheap and interesting and that was all the dealer had… I’m sure I didn’t pay more than ten dollars for the lot.”18 Bisno speaks about this and other acquisitions at that time with all the enthusiasm of the California “swap meet” aficionado that he is.

Fig. 12

Bisno’s donation of the Sevruguin photographs to the Freer|Sackler Archives was equally serendipitous. When, in 1983, some of them were published in the journal History of Photography (vol. 7, no. 4), “Someone from the Sackler asked if I would make copies for them. I just figured that they had more use for them than I did so I passed them on.” In exchange, Bisno asked for an enlarged copy of one of his favorites, which he hung in his office at the Natural History Museum (Fig. 12). He likes this photograph simply because “the prisoners looked so pathetic, and the guards look really nasty.” The museum’s administration felt otherwise, seeing it as a statement of Bisno’s opinion of his job. “Why did they think I was using it? Because I react poorly to authority.”

It is not known who assembled these photographs before Bisno acquired them, but Bisno offers these observations: “After the Six-Day War, the West Bank and especially the Old City of Jerusalem opened up to Israelis. There were a lot of arab [sic] artifacts and the Israelis bought them up like crazy.” On this basis alone, many stories might be constructed around the previous social life of these Sevruguin photographs as a group, a life that Bisno had no part in shaping but one that he kept intact for posterity by chance. His happenstance acquisitional habits are radically different from those of Smith, Upton, and the Islamic Archives, yet it is precisely impetuous, unsystematic purchases such as Bisno’s that make up a great part of many scholarly collections, especially those of photographs, which are portable and were, until recently, inexpensive.

Excerpted from Julia Ballerini, “Passages: Studio to Archive to Exhibition,” in Sevruguin and the Persian Image: Photographs of Iran, 1870–1930, edited by Frederick N. Bohrer (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1999).


1. “Brief Statement of Purpose and Method of Operation of the Islamic Archives,” as revised April 3, 1950, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

2. Donald N. Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 39.

3. The estimation is that of the photographer’s grandson, Dr. Emanuel Sevrugian, in a letter to Susie Nemazee of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, February 21, 1991.

4. Katharine Smith to Mrs. Richard T. Merrick, January 26, 1937.

5. Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East, pp. 50–51.

6. F. R. Wulsin to Smith, January 31, 1933.

7. K. Smith to Merrick, January 26, 1937.

8. Myron B. Smith, “American Institutes for the Near East,” April 7, 1958, memorandum of conversation with Keith E. Adamson, officer at U.S. Consulate General, Istanbul, Turkey.

9. Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East, p. 101.

10. Myron B. Smith, “War Work,” four-page unpaginated and undated typescript.

11. Ibid.

12. Minutes, Committee for Islamic Culture (the umbrella association of the Islamic Archives), September 15, 1951. This committee, headed by Smith, made all decisions regarding the archives’ acquisitions.

13. See Corien J. M. Vuurman and Theo H. Martens, “Early Iranian Photography and the Career of Antoin Sevruguin,” in Perzië en Hotz: Beelden uit fotocollectie-Hotz in de Leidse Universiteitsbibliotheek (Leiden: Library of the State University of Leiden, 1995), p. 30.

14. Minutes of the meeting of the Committee for Islamic Culture, September 15, 1951.

15. Wilber, Adventures in the Middle East, pp. 187–95.

16. Ibid., p. 133.

17. Joseph M. Upton, preface to The History of Modern Iran: An Interpretation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. iii.

18. All Jay Bisno’s statements are taken from communications with the author, May 1998.