A different dimension: Iranian-American photographer Hadi Salehi – interview

Photographer’s multilayered “broken narratives” demand subtle and nuanced contemplation. 

Art Radar catches up with Hadi Salehi to find out more about the artist’s early influences and his entry into American counterculture. 

Hadi Salehi, '4JB', 2016, inkjet print, 24 x 31 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘4JB’, 2016, inkjet print, 24 x 31 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Los Angeles-based photographer Hadi Salehi uses deconstruction, layering and reconstruction of images to allow the audience to imagine their own story within the multilayered photograph. In addition to his two-dimensional images, Salehi has a long history of documenting the punk scene and surfing culture.

Hadi Salehi (b. 1951, Chasavar, Iran) holds a BA in Photography from the ArtCenter College of Design (1991) and a BA in Library Science with a Minor in Education from Tehran University (1977). His work has been exhibited throughout the world. Currently, Salehi’s photographic essay featuring what was Keith Haring’s “last mural he completed directly associated with the AIDS epidemic” opened on 25 August 2016 at the Guerilla Atelier in Los Angeles.

Hadi Salehi, 'Iran-dught: Memory', 2016, mixed media, film, & digital inkjet print, 34 x 24 in, ed.1:2. Image courtesy the artist and ADVOCARTSY.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Iran-dught: Memory’, 2016, mixed media, film, & digital inkjet print, 34 x 24 in, ed.1:2. Image courtesy the artist and ADVOCARTSY.

How did you first become interested in photography as a medium? 

I started being interested in photography around the age of fifteen. I bought my first camera, a Russian Lubitel medium format, when I was sixteen. I have been in love ever since!

Bollywood movies had a huge influence on me. I especially liked that these movies had happy endings. I would leave the theatre feeling very happy. I wanted to do works like that.

 Was your family supportive of your decision to become an artist?

Definitely no! However, my mother was always supportive and told me to do whatever I want, just as long as I was healthy.

Hadi Salehi, 'Brother One', 1995, polaroid 55mm film, 40 x 60 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Brother One’, 1995, polaroid 55mm film, 40 x 60 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Any photographers at the time who inspired you and your work?

Henri Cartier-Bresson is a man who will always be in my heart. Of course, works from Iranian artists like Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Jalali were also influential. In my homeland, the late sixties to mid seventies were an amazing time for the Iran cultural movement, with a lot of photography, painting and poetry. In one particular instance, I remember the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey which opened in Tehran with extremely long lines to get into the theatre.

You came to the United States to study film in 1978. How did your experience during this challenging time shape your career?

In 1978, America was like “WOW!” to me. I was amazed at the long lines for fast foods. I was learning English, working for minimum wage (USD3.25 per hour) at a photo lab loading film in the dark, eight hours a day. I was so in love with learning my craft and American culture that working that hard seemed to be part of the journey. Then, the hostage situation in Iran made life in America for an Iranian immigrant extremely hard. I became very attuned to the plight of the immigrant and racism in the United States.

Hadi Salehi, 'Eva Tan', 2007, C-print, 30 x 40 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Eva Tan’, 2007, C-print, 30 x 40 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Looking back at that time, are there similarities today that remind you of that time? Do you record these similarities in your work? How? 

I am still working hard and am still seen first as an immigrant. I use these experiences to fuel my work.

Any interesting stories behind capturing members/moments of the LA Punk Rock scene or the surfing community on film?

The punk rock scene was just like a sugar cube – energy wise – and it interested me a lot.  I can still hear the music in my ears even today. In the early 1980s, music was something special and you could hear a few great bands at the Raymond Theatre in Pasadena for a cheap price. Back then, nobody was checking your bags or taking your film! I would bring my camera into the shows, but sometimes the crowd was just too wild to get a good shot. I was at the Black Flags/Ramones concert when the riots happened in Los Angeles. That night, I did not have my camera, but on other nights I was able to capture moments of some amazing bands like the Dead Kennedys and 50/50.

The surf culture was different and represented another group of outsiders, but had a similar attitude towards life. I worked for the surf industry most of the 1990s. I was paid to photograph them by clothing lines such as Billabong, Gotcha, MCD. I travelled with them, ate with them, and slept with them to capture their lifestyle – not just their surfing. For a few years in a row, I spent the month of December in Hawaii just photographing. Getting a surfer to cooperate was quite a challenge! For ten years, I worked with one art director and one creative director. Eventually, I lost my art director to heroin and I left the surf world for good. My images from that period are still fresh and timeless.

Hadi Salehi, 'Gotcha', 1993, C-print, 11 x 14". Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Gotcha’, 1993, C-print, 11 x 14″. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you find it easier to manipulate images through the digital medium available the past few years or do you prefer to use more traditional photography techniques?

I do prefer more traditional photography techniques. I do not know which is easier. It’s just a different approach to your medium. As for the quality of the colours you can get by using analogue, there is no way you can get them digitally unless you write an app for it. In my opinion, it’s not a “fight” between digital and analogue, it is just personal preference.

You have said that photography includes aspects of both “art and science”. Please explain how you bring these two aspects together to produce work that is “diverse and recognisably your own”.

Analogue photography requires some basic tools and knowledge about geometry, physics and chemistry. Each brand of film has their own characteristic natures. With this knowledge, you can manipulate the film. Colour in photography is based on a unit of temperatures called Kelvin temperatures. In this process, light and temperature have a reciprocal relationship. To arrive at the right colour you visualised, you need to work differently than the original, manufacturer’s recipe.

Black and White photography is based on the Zone System, formulated by Ansel Adams and works on a gray scale. This system is a pure science. I am not saying it is rocket science but you need to be aware of what you are doing and not let the camera do it for you. In order to learn this technique properly, you have to be patient and get to know how to work with it. Some of my favorite images came by accident and I learned from them.

Hadi Salehi, 'Rima', 1997, inkjet print, 34 x 50 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Rima’, 1997, inkjet print, 34 x 50 in. Image courtesy the artist.

According to your profile on the Advocartsy website, it states that your work “pieces together broken narratives and creates a two-dimensional image collaboration to tell a story” – please explain. 

I often use two or three layers to make one image. The final image is independent of the incorporated layers. My images have zero depth, which makes it hard to tell the story. The layers help us stay longer on the image and hopefully allow us to make up our own story.   Each layer brings a different narrative to a particular image.

Tell us more about your upcoming show in Los Angeles and what you are working on at the moment. 

I just finished printing for my Keith Haring show. I spent two days with him back in 1989 when I was a student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I took snapshots while he was painting and also a short Super 8mm film of him working.

In addition to that show, I am currently making images while listening to Sun Ra’s music, which have lots of visual elements. It’s been a year since I’ve been trying to create a bridge between his music and my images. He has been my inspiration for my work in particular and music itself as my main inspiration.

Hadi Salehi, 'Sherin', 2011, inkjet print, 24 x 35 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Hadi Salehi, ‘Sherin’, 2011, inkjet print, 24 x 35 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Have your returned to Iran since you immigrated to the United States? Any series of work that have come from those trips?

Yes. Between 1989-2012 I went to Iran every year for six weeks. Since 2012, I have not been back. I am currently planning to go back this Fall to capture the lifestyle of Turkmenistan.

On your website, it states that you “want to create a collective awareness and be a cultural messenger”…

I want to show Iran as it is, a beautiful country with friendly people who are much like everybody else. Moreover, I hope that by showing these images, I can bring awareness throughout the world. Would this make me a cultural messenger? If so, those are big shoes to fill!

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Iranian artistsphotographyidentity artinterviews, art as meditation

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