The eye in the picture is distracting, alarming, demanding all at once. It's presumably female-the lashes mascaraed, the eyelids lined, the brows sculpted-and it's open very wide, as if startled. Her face is no help in reading that emotion: It's hidden in a dark shadow, the eye spotlighted in a bright circle of light. And then your own eye drifts around the rest of Ahmad Nateghi's untitled black-and-white photograph and encounters new disorientations. A sliver of a woman's face smiles in the lower-right corner of a frame, as if she's peeking through a barely opened door. In the lower-left quadrant, a woman stands with her back to the camera; in front of her, a sign reads "THE PROFESSIONAL CHOICE."
Standing before the photograph, it's difficult to discern what exactly is going on-a street scene of a woman standing in front of a large advertisement? A book cover? Something else entirely?-and that elusive search for context is part of this exhibition's sneaky charm. Persian Visions showcases 58 works-predominantly photographs, with a few single-channel videos-from 20 contemporary photographers who explore a wide range of approaches: posed portraiture, self-portraits, abstract, documentary, and more. As put together by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Minnesota Department of Art, it's a celebration of Persian art. But what you might take away from it is a rewarding reminder that the ways of looking don't bow to geopolitical boundaries or political agendas.
The 20 artists here share a country of origin, Iran, and the photographic images we usually associate with it are loaded: seas of people surrounding Tehran's Azadi Tower; an orange jumpsuit-clad Robert Levinson holding a sign that reads, "Why you can not help me"; veiled women; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some of the 58 images here fit into that news-media narrative of conflict: Mohammad Farnood's "Myth of War" captures young uniformed men clutching rifles; his "Survival," a man whose face and shirt darkened with what looks like dried blood. For the most part, though, the imagery here moves through more mundane, familiar concerns: anxiety, identity, beauty, loss.
They're not all as visually striking as Nateghi's images, but many deliver their own emotional power. Saeed Sadeghi's black-and-white photos focus on the expressive content of hands-the way one forlornly holds up a photo of a man, a woman's fingers the only part of her visible under her modest attire, a hand's ability blot out the rectangle of face seen beneath a hijab. Shokoufeh Alidousti's three self-portraits creatively mingle past and present.
The show's most indelible images come from Ebrahim Khadem Bayat. His untitled black-and-white photos have this distressed quality to them, as if light spread like Spanish moss over parts of his subjects during exposure. A chair in one photo looks submerged in aqueous light. A veiled woman in another becomes a Ringu wraith. The images date from the late 1990s, but they nail a vibe similar to one explored by Michelangelo Antonioni in his 1960s films, Gregory Crewdson in his 2000s photography, and the UK's Channel 4 miniseries Utopia earlier this year: The ordinary world is sometimes an uncomfortably lonely place to live.
Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran At UMBC's Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery through March 24.