In the summer of 1970, a young Gabriele Basilico – “before he was Basilico”, according to the Italian journalist Luca Doninelli – along with his then-girlfriend, Giovanna Calvenzi, set out from his parent’s house in Caorle on the Venetian Riviera for Kabul: a far cry from his native Milan, where her was studying architecture and literature. Travelling in his father’s Fiat 124 and taking with them only the bare essentials – cans full of oil and water, sleeping bags, a tent for two, and a Michelin Guide – the plan was to join their friends in Dubrovnik before heading eastwards to Turkey and Iran, en route to Kabul and Samarkand, which the couple’s friends wanted to also visit. Slowly shifting from architecture to photography, which he was fast developing a passion for, Basilico had been inspired by a feature in National Geographic to visit the cave dwellings of Cappadocia in central Turkey, of which he wished to take pictures in the hopes of selling them to a local newspaper. Little did he know that the highlight of his trip wouldn’t be Cappadocia, and that he would never see either Kabul or Samarkand.
Shortly before reaching the Iranian capital of Tehran, the Citroen in which the artist’s friends were travelling broke down. Although the incident thwarted their plans to visit the eastern corners of the Persianate world and caused them to stay in Iran, it led the 24-year old photographer to take a sublime series of his signature black-and-white photographs, which, like the others that would later bring him renown, captured a sense of timelessness and poetic beauty. It was only after the artist’s death, nearly half a century later in 2013, that these photographs were seen by the public in the form of a slim volume published by Humboldt, simply titled Iran 1970 and fittingly furnished with a cover in Persian blue. Now, three years after their initial exposure, Basilico’s photographs have been given further attention in an exhibition at Verona’s Studio La Citta curated by the person who perhaps knew him best, and who accompanied him on his Iranian travels: Giovanna Calvenzi.
Taken a few years before before Pier Paolo Pasolini would visit the country to film parts of his epic Flower of the Thousand and One Nights – and nine years before a revolution that would rock Iran and the world at large – Basilico’s images provide a glimpse into an Iran caught between age-old traditions and the sprawl of capitalism and Westernisation (or, “Westoxification”, as the Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad famously called it). According to Calvenzi, Basilico deemed his Iranian images – nearly 40 in total, minimally edited in 24 x 36 ” and 6 x6 ” sizes, and taken with the Nikon and Hasselblad cameras ever on his neck and in his hands – “juvenile”, one can see in them themes and approaches that would come to define and characterise the photographer’s oeuvre.
Though he was shifting from architecture to photography, his education had given him an instinctive architectural “eye” and instilled in him a penchant for symmetry, patterns, and scale. Cities like Esfahan and Shiraz provided easy targets for the Italian photographer (like the English writer-cum-architecture enthusiast Robert Byron before him in the 1930s), who captured the grandeur of edifices such as the Shah Mosque, Chehel Sotoon Palace, Vakil Mosque, and the nearby ruins of Persepolis there, occasionally featuring human subjects in order to further illustrate their immensity – as he would also do in his later photographs. Basilico was far from being interested in only architectural marvels, however; in the 29 works on display, one sees dilapidated caravanserais, lonely passageways, storage rooms, and sleepy cisterns, into all of which he injected an aura of the extraordinary through piercing chiaroscuro, and which adumbrated, in a way, the famous Milan Factory Portraits series, with their focus on destruction and decay in the face of relentless progress.
As much as the Iranian photographs provide a link to the work that would make him a household name in the 80s and beyond, they also contain elements that present a “disconnect” of sorts. Later pieces would rarely feature human subjects (other than for the aforementioned purpose), but in those on display, people in abundance, most notably children. In one of the most striking pictures in the collection, a young girl clutches at the edges of her black chador, while in others, a boy endearingly poses with a pail in hand, and a ragamuffin is lovingly fondled by a group of schoolchildren with cropped hair.
His subjects were acutely aware of being thus, especially for a khareji (foreign) photographer, and their experiences – as well as Basilico’s – with the camera were visibly playful ones. That he would rarely capture humanity again makes the image of a young man with an outstretched tongue among a group of curious onlookers, and another of a boy snapped with a lump of food in his cheek beside an opium addict, even more poignant.
Describing Tehran as a “frenetic city”, the iconic artist wasn’t interested in images of swanky clubs, lewd film posters, and chic passers-by on Pahlavi Avenue, rather, he tried to translate into celluloid the Iranian “experience” and essence of the country in a heady era marred by rifts in social classes, a widening gap between the government and its subjects, and the very idea of what it meant to be Iranian. He may have considered these photographs to be “juvenile”, but one can see with clarity the facets that gave his name such weighting: a lust for knowing, a sympathy devoid of prejudice for the unknown, and – undeniably – a genius for freezing moments of haunting beauty in the unlikeliest places.
Iran, 1970 – Basilico Before Basilico, runs until 7 May at Studio La Citta, Verona, Italy.
1. Iran, 1970 – Basilico Before Basilico. Photographs courtesy of the curator at Studio La Citta.