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Q&A: Firooz Zahedi captures Elizabeth Taylor in pre-revolution Iran

Firooz Zahedi's life was changed by an unofficial photo assignment for a Hollywood legend.

In 1976, Zahedi, a scion of an Iranian political family, had passed up a diplomatic career to try to break into the world of freelance photography. At the time, his cousin, Ardeshir Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador to the United States, happened to be consorting with Elizabeth Taylor and introduced the actress to the young photographer. Subsequently, Taylor was invited on a goodwill visit to Iran and she insisted on taking Firooz Zahedi as a travel companion and photographer.

In Iran, Zahedi shot Taylor amid the ruins of Persepolis, outside the entrance of a mosque in Shiraz and draped in scarves found in Isfahan bazaars. At this point, the two-time Academy Award winner eschewed the conservative Yves Saint Laurent dresses she had worn to state dinners with the shah in favor of T-shirts, peasant blouses and flared jeans. Taylor presaged the trends of today by layering her bazaar finds and chadors over contemporary fashion pieces.

After the trip, Zahedi, who was the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Andy Warhol's Interview, told the artist about the snapshots taken with Taylor in Iran. Warhol decided to plan a cover story on Taylor for Interview around the photos. Not expecting compensation, the budding photographer received a  check for $200 from the notoriously thrifty Warhol -- marking his first big professional break and the start of a successful career.

Since then, Zahedi, based in L.A. since 1978, has gone on to shoot celebrity covers for Vanity Fair, Time and InStyle. Most famously, he lensed the iconic poster for Pulp Fiction featuring Uma Thurman in a black bob, smoking a cigarette.

Zahedi’s photographs of Taylor on that trip are the subject of an exhibition, "Elizabeth Taylor in Iran," opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Saturday and scheduled to run through June 12. He invited All the Rage to drink Persian tea at his modern-art festooned Wilshire Corridor condo while chatting about his upcoming show.

All the Rage: How did the show come about?

Zahedi: I was meeting with the curator of the Middle East department at LACMA. We’re trying to form a committee to raise money to buy contemporary Iranian art from contemporary Iranian artists based in Iran. She said, "I’m looking for some photos of Iran in the ’70s, prior to the revolution." I told her I had been there with Elizabeth Taylor [in 1976]. I sent her these photos. She said, "Let’s do a show."

This was pre-revolution, so there wasn’t a strict dress code?

Elizabeth Taylor had come to Washington with a few suitcases and found out that she was going to go to Iran and meet the shah and the empress. And she had no clothes. Saint Laurent had a boutique across from Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. I went on her behalf and bought several conservative outfits for the trip like a blazer and some dresses.

ET-IRAN-010-20x24

She was more comfortable roaming around in jeans and a T-shirt but we were surrounded by all these society types. We waited for the official trip to be over and went back to all the sites privately in jeans. She loved all the fabrics and outfits that we saw in the bazaar. She created headpieces and outfits.
[For a photo shoot] she had that huge diamond on her forehead that Richard Burton had given her. We took the rest of the fabrics and taped them up on the wall and hung them over the sofas to create a "1,001 Arabian Nights," schlocky Hollywood 1950s look.

Ironic because "Arabian Nights" is from Iran?

We were in the Hilton Hotel with Danish furniture. The best thing was that it wasn’t an assignment -- no agenda behind the whole thing. She said, "Take some photos" and posed.

Did the session start your work in fashion photography?

I owe my career to her. She encouraged me when no one else would, when my family was pressuring me to go back to Iran. She was doing a movie in L.A. and said I could be her photographer on the set.
When the movie finished, I was supposed to back. But I decided to get married and [Taylor] was the matron of honor. Two months later, the Iranian regime fell.

Did you sense something was amiss?

I started sensing it in December [1977]. My brother came over for my wedding and said there was some unrest there. He said, "Oh, it’s just downtown." Next thing you know …

Similar to the protests going on now?

The shah’s regime was not as oppressive as this regime. It was not perfect, but women had so many rights. They could dress any way they wanted. It’s very suppressive now.

They have fashion police in the streets. If women are showing a little too much, they pull them over and they’re really rough. You could get thrown in jail.

How is Elizabeth Taylor [who was recently hospitalized with congestive heart failure]? Are you still close with her?

She’s doing much better; it was kinda scary for a bit. 

The problem is you bring up the name Elizabeth Taylor, people think of jewelry; they think of husbands; the la dolce vita lifestyle. I’m happy to have gotten to know her when I got  to know her. She was in her mid to late 40s and wasn’t doing too many movies at that point. Hollywood is nasty to women after a certain age. It’s easier now because there is so much television, but film actresses have so few roles after a certain age. They have to pay bills too.

-- Max Padilla

Photo credit: Firooz Zahedi

 
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