A blue period with a difference
The Iranian-born, London-based photographer and author MARYAM EISLER tells us about her forthcoming exhibition ‘Once upon a Turquoise Past’, in which she takes a colourful, pictorial trip back to her roots, inspired by a much-loved building close to home
Rising from the Ashes
From sneaking off to photograph a prima ballerina in central London late at night to dabbling in painting, Maryam Eisler’s lockdown experiences have been anything but dull, although the first major project she embarked on when the Covid-19 pandemic hit embraced several themes we can all relate to, from its home-based location to keeping connected.
“Having to stay at home last spring-summer was certainly made much more bearable by my garden and the wonderful weather, but before long, I was trying to think how I could work within the limitations imposed on us,” the London-based photographer and author explained. “Then it occurred to me that almost everyone working in my field and related industries was going through the same process. From that thought, I had the idea of interviewing visual artists on Facetime across the globe about their lockdown experience and then ‘photographing’ them on FaceTime.”
Once she began making contact with her prospective subjects, Maryam was delighted at the response she received, with the number of personalities interviewed rising from an initial target of 30 to more than 160 over a three-month period. “Almost everyone was in the same position – at home and available – which made this a truly unique time for cooperation and collaboration,” she noted. The picture and interview gallery were posted on LUX magazine’s online platform.
The result is a far-reaching, intriguing photographic collection of visual artists captured in an intimate home setting at a historic moment in time. The participants featured also span a diverse mix of genres and styles, with George Condo, Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, Shirin Neshat and Mary McCartney just a few of those that took part. “I like to think of the project as a snapshot of collective artistic memory,” said Maryam, adding that she now hopes to put the photos into book form.
Aside from increasing uptake of Zoom and WhatsApp, lockdown also provided opportunities for many of us to ‘pause and reflect’, perhaps mulling on the future or the past, or both. In Maryam’s case, she found her thoughts at times drifting back to her Iranian roots in a way that would inevitably eventually find its way into her work.
“I left Iran aged 10 and have never been back, although I’ve always had a yearning to dive deeper into my heritage,” she said. “Somehow, in the middle of the pandemic, those feelings became more urgent.”
'The home we seek is in eternity; The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea'
Keen to find a vehicle or venue that would enable her to photographically explore her ‘yearning for the East’, Maryam found herself increasingly drawn to Leighton House Museum, located in Holland Park, near her Kensington home, and long one of her favourite spots. “I love its Middle Eastern-inspired interiors - the bold, brightly coloured tiles in all shades of blue, from Lapis to Turquoise, its connection to the ‘Orient’ directly rooted in Lord Leighton’s personal style, collection and travels to the Middle East and North Africa in the late nineteenth century, and the way in which the house recalls the splendour of the East,” she said.
Maryam found further inspiration in the photoshoots of the American fashion photographer Henry Clarke, particularly one undertaken for an American 1969 Vogue issue on location in Iran, featuring iconic models Lauren Hutton and Marisa Berenson, set against a backdrop of Isfahan’s enchanting turquoise tiled domes. “I love the geometric patterns and other iconic architectural landmarks, which really showcased the beauty and grandeur of my birthplace alongside its rich culture,” she said. “Inspired by his work, and unable to travel, I thought maybe I could recreate some of this aesthetics using a venue that happened to be located just around the corner!”
Her subject for the project was the talented ballet dancer Sarah Lovegrove, with the day in question being one that Maryam describes as “a little like being set loose in a playground, where time had stopped”, adding: “At times, with the help of fashion designer Melissa Odabash’s beautiful 1970s-inspired creations, stylist extraordinaire, Anne Sophie Cochevelou and make-up artist Jessica Cheetham, I felt like we were all reliving scenes from Alice in Wonderland!”
“It was an afternoon of joy and creative spontaneity, full of the wonderful body dynamics that dance produces, but with the solo performance having a poignant aspect to it, reminding us of just how much time we had spent alone in recent months,” she said. “The confluence of East and West in the project meant so much to me on a personal level too. It was a form of ‘Invitation au Voyage’, one of my favourite Baudelaire poems.”*
A selection of the photos will soon be showcased in an exhibition which opens at Linley in London on November 3, 2021, aptly named ‘Once upon a Turquoise Past’, in a nod to the bold and beautiful blue so prevalent in Persian architecture and its azure-like skies.
Maryam explained that the use of colour in the photos for this latest project marks a major shift in style, as does the decision to create and frame the images in a Persian miniature-style size and frame. “I usually opt for large-sized black and white photos, but that all changed in lockdown, maybe because I felt that the pandemic had squeezed the colour and energy out of our lives,” she said. “Somehow, colour seemed essential to survive creatively, as did doing things differently.”
The fact that the show will be an in-person event suggests a return to something akin to normal, perhaps drawing a line under the somewhat exceptional projects that will be associated with the pandemic well into the future. Maryam recalls, with a smile, other ventures or adventures of the past year, such as the time when the police moved her on while photographing the prima ballerina Michela Meazza in the magical, starlit setting of a deserted Piccadilly or the project that may have served as a precursor to her Leighton House series …. a set of childhood favourite Barbie dolls, which she photographed in front of a collection of delightful Roloff Beny photographs from his 1975 ‘Persia: Bridge of Turquoise’ tome.
“It started off as a silly afternoon in the garden but then became more serious, a sketch that turned into a dancer, against wonderful backdrops of huge significance for me personally - the seeds for something more – which has so often proved to be the case in these strange times,” she said.
‘Once upon a Turquoise Past’, curated by London- based curator Carrie Scott, opens on November 3, 2021 at Linley and runs until the end of the month.