It’s obvious when someone points it out. Why some art touches our hearts whilst some leaves us cold…. It takes the opportunity of meeting Rahi Rezvani, artist and photographer, to show the way. A perceptive stream of consciousness around art, life and old souls.

Some art we feel in our being, as part of us. It has an energy that sings. It may lie in a sketchbook, hang on the wall or sit watchfully in a gallery. Wherever it is, it takes us by the hand and runs, until we can say we’ve seen more than simply ‘it’. Rahi Rezvani’s work is like this, and what follows is a little of why.

“I’m not a photographer. I’d rather people called me an artist, an image-maker. Anyone nowadays can be a photographer.”

The interview consists of many statements like this, intelligent to the degree a thousand questions could arise. But what he says is so interesting, there’s not much motivation to interrupt.

And it’s not only about what he says. Looking at Rahi’s images, there’s something very different about his work. Although hard to describe what ‘it’ is, his distinct style includes dark backgrounds, other worldly characters and black glances. Images are softly focussed instead of sharp, and lighting is diffused rather than flash. It harks back to a romanticism of the 1920s-40s, a time he obviously admires.

It’s clear that all of what Rahi does is for himself, by himself, as well. This seems a strange thing to say until he explains that in photography, 80% of the work can be by someone else: the lighting expert, the set designer, the digital graphic artist. Rahi knows how to work digitally in post, ‘painting’ in graphic techniques, as used to be the case in dark rooms. It’s ironic that while he favours many techniques from past photography, he uses modern-day digital artistry himself. He could be compared to a renaissance painter, using the things available to him to push boundaries and innovate. And he likes to control everything. If you want to be called a true artist/photographer you need to know these skills. We only have to look at the way the media, and Instagram, function to see he’s right.

In fact honing and gathering skills some take for granted is not easy, just as it’s not easy to be an artist. There is a crazy amount of drive involved.

“It’s costing your life if you’re talented, seriously.”

The story he tells of another artist illustrates this point best. In front of us, on a coffee table strewn with various forms of paper paraphernalia, lies a book about Gerard Fieret. And there is a poignant tale attached; this artist used to wander around Rahi’s old art academy feeding the birds. An interesting old man, it later became clear it had been the extremely skilled photographer Gerard Fieret. He was someone totally overlooked by the Netherlands art world. After he died, his work was discovered being sold in the States at a very high price. Although Rahi does not compare himself to any artists, or look to others for inspiration, there is an obvious parallel in art-world views. Also in academies that don’t embrace change or difference and choose to ignore those who do things differently.

“I could teach technical skills in four days. All of them. Other skills I can’t teach. Important ones. Artists must learn first to connect with themselves, that’s hardest.”

If Rahi Rezvani did teach he would only take on a talented few students. He would help them figure out their own unique way of connecting with themselves and their subjects. He knows there’s no real way to teach how to express true art’s energy, although academies do try by the hundreds every year. Luckily for us, it’s something he’s always been able to do.

Rahi Rezvani, who has been heatedly talking up to here, pauses, and pets one of his two dogs. Then he sends it over to the dog basket without words. He has a mastery of the conversation and atmosphere, and here we could be glimpsing how he handles his shoots. He often gets a shot before his subject even knows it. He sees 50 images in his head instantly, and goes to work, changing the lighting or setting up around his models while shooting at the same time. He doesn’t say much to his assistant. They communicate silently and capture quickly.

“The first twenty-five minutes are most valuable. Then the model is most natural, not a piece of meat. Beauty is not posed.”

But how he achieves his imagery almost doesn’t matter. Rahi does things his way and this holds universal appeal. He moves on to talk about the commerciality of art. It’s clear, as with many artists, he’s struggled to come to terms with brand collaborations.

 

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“Don’t ask me who I’ve worked for,” he picks up a leaflet from the table, and flicks through it nonchalantly: it’s something for a client. 

“It’s not about who you’ve worked for. I don’t care. All the work I care about is my art. Look at my site, there’s nothing from brands there.”

He has some big clients, they often want to work with him. And if he does the project, his way is such that he doesn’t want to be valued in terms of the time it took:

“It’s not about time, it’s about the shot. I always get the shot.”

It makes a refreshing change from those who cite famous brands they’ve worked for as some benchmark to talent. He’ll give clients something that lies between art and commerciality, if they’re open to it. He wants autonomy, not art direction. He wants artistry not dictation.

In contrast, commercial art often ends up being all about the concept, which according to Rahi is a ridiculous thing. The precise thing about art is it doesn’t need a concept to be amazing. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. It only needs to touch us, turn our heads and reach our hearts.

“Anyway…brains are not for art. Concept is not for art. You have to use something else for art. Your heart, your hand, your belly.” 

From the way Rahi talks, we can tell he doesn’t question his talent or his skill. He also doesn’t question where it comes from, although perhaps he has an idea:

“I don’t know, it could be my old soul,” Rahi gives a small smile. “I know I’m older than I am…I’ve been here longer.”

An old soul may help him to see beyond the subject into a world most of us cannot. When we feel the energy, as we look at his imagery, it’s like he connects with the same world lying within us. It takes someone who can feel darkness as well as light to be able to portray it in others. What’s created is a negative mixed with a positive image of his subjects; a darkness and light that’s a little like the photographic process itself.

In the photograph Rahi Rezvani now places on the table, this mix is clearly visible. An image of his mother taken when he was 15, there’s a maturity visible that would be hard to capture at such an early age. She stares out with an intensity that’s tangible. Printed on textured and thick paper, it’s slightly orange with age. We can see her beauty and something a lot more. It’s captivating.

Travel to a few years later and Rahi Rezvani was becoming a well-known photographer in his native Iran. But then he suddenly had to leave at nineteen, being flown to the Netherlands for photographing something he shouldn’t have. He didn’t see his any of his family for over ten years, it was a hard time, but then:

“We are not here to be happy, we’re here for something else.”

He goes on to make it clear we can be happy, but not the happiness defined by society, it’s deeper than that. Different opportunities became available to him from living and studying in the Netherlands, even if he doesn’t always agree with the way its society works. His struggle to find his place has meant he became the artist he is today.

If we look at a later portrait, one of Albert Watson, it provokes the same feeling as that early shot of his mother. Albert was in Amsterdam to open an exhibition; one eye closed and covered by his hat, the black and white print shows how much has changed in skill from his portrait of before. As Rahi puts it, artists must continually change. But there is a connection visible that remains exactly the same.

“I asked him to take his glasses off, says Rahi Rezvani ‘his eyes had so much energy and I wanted to see them. 

This last story seems to sum Rahi up. He thinks about art, life and photography differently. He breathes an ancient art, a liberation of mind and soul in his work—something that’s often missing nowadays. Meeting him is like meeting an ancient folk-tale, a person who may have been reborn from a distant time, yet is expert capturing that time in others today.

For him art acts the same as life–it’s fickle who will make it and who’ll die destitute. There are layers within it, as within us, both complex and touching. There is also something that connects deeply, bringing out an older part of ourselves that more usually lies dormant.

In the end, some art is life taken from this most ancient, tangible, soul.

www.rahirezvani.com

Images: © Rahi Rezvani

Interview: Myscha Oréo & Sarah-Jane Threipland

Words: Sarah-Jane Threipland

 

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