Contemplating the Photos of Abbas Kiarostami

A film still from The Wind Will Carry Us

Raj Lalwani soaks in the poetry that runs through the meditative photographs of Abbas Kiarostami, the legendary Iranian filmmaker, whose journey shares a significant link to the history of photography.

Abbas Kiarostami is a filmmaker who is articulately profound when he says nothing at all. It was the silence of his cinema that came to my mind, exactly a year ago, when I learnt of his passing. It was a rain-soaked evening. As the overworked wiper of my black-and-yellow taxi struggled to make sense of the droplets, I remembered the auteur’s still photos, contemplative frames that I had chanced upon, years after having experienced his cinema.

A few weeks after, I started to rediscover the various roads that Kiarostami had traversed. That said, there is a huge archive of insightful analysis on his cinema, which I did not feel equipped enough to add to. Instead, I chose to gaze at his gaze, looking at his photographs, trying to see what he saw.

It’s been a year. And in the silencing of Kiarostami’s voice, the world has only become noisier.

“A work of art does not exist outside the perception of the audience.” 

“When do we resort to dreaming? At times when we are unhappy with our circumstances. And how extraordinary is it that no dictatorship in
the world can control it?”

“Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life.” 

“We can never get close to the truth except through lying.” 

“It’s said that in the beginning was the word, but for me, the beginning is always an image. When I think about a conversation, it always starts with images. And what I love about photography is the inscription of a single moment: it’s completely ephemeral. You take the photograph, and one second later, everything has changed.”

– Abbas Kiarostami

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Nothing that is written about Abbas Kiarostami can do what one’s eyes can. It’s almost futile dissecting this legendary auteur’s whimsical ways of craft, for the beauty in any moment that’s Kiarostamiesque lies not in its meaning, or even its perception, but merely in the fact that it is.

So when the filmmaker, in the midst of showing us what happens to the imposter Sabzian in his seminal film Close-Up, chooses to hover his gaze on a green aerosol can, rolling down the street, the viewer is thrown off. The can continues to roll, with the camera almost insistent on showing us every idiosyncratic second of its downward trajectory. For almost an entire minute, the camera, and thus, we, gaze at the minutest detail that doesn’t seem to have any connection to the story. But Kiarostami’s storytelling, was always not as much about the story, as it was, of its telling, and even more, of its listening. The images he would show, weren’t as much what is seen, as they were on seeing.

That Kiarostami is one of the most defiantly individualistic voices in the history of cinema is no surprise. Often working with untrained actors whom he would encounter on location, his work tends to hinge on the ambiguity that lies between truth and fiction, documentary and staged. A lot of his cinema is also about cinema itself, raising questions of what’s real and what isn’t. Filmmakers are common characters in the world of a Kiarostami film, and sometimes, actors address the camera (and thus, the viewer) directly, identifying the fact that they are actors, playing a certain role. A film within the film, while acknowledging that it is a film.

At a time when a detailed, bound script is nigh sacrosanct in serious filmmaking, Kiarostami would work with a few scribbled lines. “I have too much respect for my audience to tell them complete stories. I want them to be involved in the narrative process, sharing the director’s chair with me, so I leave my films half made.” Three pages of a script would be all it would take for him to know that he can start filming. Unlike a Hitchcock, whose screenplays are intricate and exhaustive to an obsessive degree, Kiarostami’s process was more about discovery. Making a movie was a little like a series of what ifs.

It is this very exploratory sense that one sees in Abbas Kiarostami’s photographs, his images that actually stand still, not the ones where a video camera is taking a long, leisurely take. Having taken to photography as a cathartic form of expression at a time when he couldn’t make movies because of the Iranian revolution of 1979, his picturemaking mirrored his cinema, or is it the other way around, in that it was a serendipitous gathering of poetry and emotion. “Photography is the mother of cinema,” he had once said, in a comment that is not only a historical way of describing the relationship between the two art forms, but also perhaps, his assessment of his own art practice.

His photography is not just a cornerstone, but the very grounding of his cinema. Much like Dennis Hopper or Wim Wenders, Kiarostami was a practitioner who did not give up on the still camera while moving to the moving one. These are probably the most fascinating of artists, those who marry mediums, and it is this crosspollination of varying affections that resonates in all of Kiarostami’s work.

For it was the joy of wandering through long, winding roads, seeing something and making a picture. Bereft of agendas, just plain affection. “I wasn’t initially interested in landscape or nature photography. I was more interested in being outside, contemplating my surroundings and spending time by myself. But ever so often, I saw a view in exceptional light and it was so beautiful that I couldn’t bear to watch it alone.” Abbas Kiarostami was always on a long and lonely journey, his sole companions being art and heart. Over the years, he quietly engaged in the collecting of moments, without any rush of showing it to the world. Much like Leiter or Kertész, or some of the other greats of our time, he was in no great hurry.

His photographic practice was almost antithetical to the very idea of filmmaking, which is often goal-driven, with a preempted agenda. And it was this simplicity, eventually, that seeped into his moviemaking as well, where over time, he managed to dissolve the peripheries of genre. Fiction would meet reality, truth would meet another truth, just the way his art practice would drift seamlessly, between poetry, photography and cinema.

The subjects he would gravitate to, the visual leit motifs that punctuated his visual journey, are fascinating because they tell us so much about the person he was. His journey was almost always about the journey, about an internalisation of thought and emotion. It is exactly this quality that makes his cinema so universal. The characters are steeped within the sociological construct of Iranian society, but his movies were rarely political. Kiarostami was a humanist, whose portrayal of external journeys always intermingled with internal ones.

“I would drive in the rain with one hand on the wheel, and take pictures with the other,” he said. Snowclad pathways, winding roads, rainswept windshields, intriguing doors, his subject matter was always about the very act of wandering, traversing, unlocking secrets and making quiet discoveries.

At the same time, these are all subjects that only encourage us, as viewers, to look. When we look at these photos, our eye wanders, across pathways, through the entire frame, almost making sketches in our heads. We look, hoping to see beyond what we see, as we imagine sitting in that car and peering through the rain, or encountering that door and wondering what lies on the other side. Just like haiku, and much like his own written poetry, his photography places observation at the heart of its generative process.

That’s perhaps why his cinema, too, over time, became more about looking. Five, possibly his most experimental film, comprises of five long shots, of around sixteen minutes each. The camera position is fixed, there is no dialogue and sparse, intermittent movement within the frame. In stripping the stimulus to its bare minimum, he is forcing us to observe and notice all that there is within nothingness. “If an image is worth seeing, it takes concentration. And contemplation,” he said, when asked about his fondness for long, respectful shots that last several seconds, even minutes. “The reason why there is so much movement (in contemporary cinema and editing) is probably that nothing is worth being seen in what is actually shown.” The long takes are not restricted to the movies, his still photos, too, are carefully considered contemplations, born out of a meditative sense of melancholy, drawing the viewer to let the gaze linger, for just a little longer.

When a cartographer is at work, very few actually notice the joining of the dots, it is the final map that we usually look at. Kiarostami’s writings, short poems, haikus, aphorisms, and his photographs are the dots that eventually connect to form the map of his cinema.

The can stopped rolling on the fourth of July, 2016, but Abbas Kiarostami’s passing away does not halt the journeys that his photographs and his cinema continue to make. His moving images, so still, his stills, so moving.

Poet, photographer, auteur. Abbas Kiarostami is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. A major figure in the Iranian New Wave, his cinematic practice was often characterised by a notable degree of ambiguity that would tend to blur the lines between documentary and fiction.

Photographs courtesy Meem Gallery, Dubai. First published in Better Photography.

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