The baroness who photographed 1950s Iran
A rare collection of color images by a European woman who traveled through Iran as modernization and political upheaval changed the country forever.
Here are just a few of the thousands of color slides of Iran, mostly made in the 1950s, by Baroness Marie-Thérèse Ullens de Schooten. The footage is now held by Harvard University.
Ullens was born in 1905 to Belgian and Austrian parents and traveled widely after marrying a Belgian diplomat in 1926.
Shortly after her husband’s death from a heart attack in 1950, Ullens returned to Iran, where she had close personal connections, for the first of what would become annual trips to the country. On some of these trips, the Baroness took her daughter Astrid.
In a telephone interview from her home in Belgium, Astrid Ullens told RFE/RL that her mother became determined to photograph her adventures through Iran because she realized that the country was “changing so quickly that she had to film”.
When Astrid was traveling through Iran with her mother, there were no highways covering the huge distances between cities.
“It was complicated to drive,” says Astrid. “There was a lot of dust and you couldn’t see much when you were behind a truck, so it was a matter of luck not having an accident.”
Astrid says her mother was a fiercely intelligent woman who “was never afraid. She would go anywhere alone, even at night – just curious to meet people and understand them”.
In 1953, when the Iranian capital, Tehran, was upset by a American and British coup who overthrew the country’s prime minister, Ullens headed for Iran’s remote tribal areas.
Ullens reportedly became the first foreigner to be allowed to photograph the Qashqai people.
The Qashqai are a group of largely nomadic tribes in southern and central Iran who speak their own Turkish language. The tribesmen are thought to have migrated from Central Asia around 1,000 years ago.
Ullens primarily used a Leica camera for his work. The expensive and rare Kodachrome color film she shot with was provided to her by diplomatic contacts.
Italian photographer and artist Federico Clavarino is working on a book about the Baroness and her historical images. He told RFE/RL that he became fascinated with her work largely because of the remarkable access she had to Iranian culture at the time.
“There’s probably very little other footage shot at that time and in that way – in color,” says Clavarino, adding that the Baroness “had access to places that weren’t easily accessible by other Europeans.” .
Clavarino finds it “astonishing” that Ullens could produce the images she did without speaking Persian or other Iranian languages.
Ullens made her last trip to Iran in 1977, when she described the country as “awfully spoiled in its quest for immediate and horrific modernization”.
Astrid Ullens says her favorite memory of her mother is when she turned 80. Feeling bad, the old baroness decided not to celebrate the monument, but Astrid secretly prepared a party of around 150 people. After entering the surprise, the Baroness demanded to know “who organized this madness”.
When she found out it was Astrid, she told her daughter, “You could have killed me.” Astrid replied, “I know, but you would have died happy.”
Ullens died in 1989. Two years later, the entire collection of her photographs, films and audio recordings was turned over to the Harvard Semitic Museum. More than 4,000 of his images can be viewed today on the Harvard Library website.