Paradise Lost: Persia from Above

Photographs by Georg Gerster
Phaidon 2009

Reviewed by Joshua Spees

Issue 6

Iran is a country with a long history of science and culture, settlement, and like most places, a history of conflict. Known officially as Persia until 1935, Iran’s borders contain many different tribes and geographical differences. Goerg Gerster’s story in Iran began in the mid-seventies when he hand delivered a letter to the Imperial Court in Tehran. From 1976 through 1978, he flew 100 separate flights, totaling 300 hours to photograph Persia from above. With the permission from and help of the Iranian government, he captured photos in all seasons and in all areas. As the conflicts in Iran grew in the late seventies, Gerster had to end his project and consequently wait thirty years before he could finally publish the photos. Paradise Lost, Persia from Above is the fruit of those labors.

 Photographing a place that most of us know very little about, Gerster gives us a different take on the land. Being a pioneer in aerial photography and having spent the last forty years flying all over the globe, he sees his work as a ‘philosophical instrument’ in that: “Distance creates an overview, and an overview creates insight.” Aerial photography has often made its way into the art world spotlight. Emmit Gowin and his Changing the Earth, David Maisel with his Black Maps and Oblivion, Taiji Matsui’s JP22, and one of my personal favorites, Terry Evan’s and his Inhabited Prairie series, have all taken this same route to change the way we see the landscape and our impact upon it. Gerster’s effort is none the less enthralling and makes for a great book.

The focus of the images range from modern cities to the eroded landscape and cover what seem to be centuries of tradition all happening at the same time. Modern ski areas mingle with ancient methods of farming all with in the same country, terraced rice fields reflect the light from above, walled compounds form geometric patterns, and oil fields burn off in the late afternoon light. Gerster seems to capture the many complexities that all form what was Iran in the seventies.

The photos, all taken in the seventies and on Kodachrome film have a nostalgic feel to them. In contrast to the ever-increasing popularity of the digital world and the look of the digital image, these photos have the look and feel of a time when you could actually determine the film type by the color cast inherent in each different film.

The book is divided into geographic sections and each one is prefaced in the beginning of the book with a short history and description. Also included is a short section of poems from historical Persian poets selected by Maryam Sachs, an Iranian born writer who worked closely with Gerster in the production of the book.

My one complaint with this book is my usual complaint about printing over the gutter of the book, which is too distracting from the images. This seems to be commonplace these days and for the life of me I cannot figure out the logic behind this decision.

The book is due out in April from Phaidon Press and well worth a look. At a time when we are so intimately involved with Iran, yet so many have very little knowledge of the area, maybe Gerster’s ‘philosophical instrument’ into Iran can provide us with more of the necessary insight we need to achieve something greater.