Iran Issa Khan Captures the Beauty of Nature
By Cathy Leff
Standing more than six feet tall in heels and designer suits, the photographer Iran Issa-Khan cuts a distinct figure about town. And if there’s a gathering of interesting thinkers from around the globe, she’s probably there, which is why she has been an esteemed contributor to Ocean Drive for more than a decade, bringing the who’s who and where to our pages each month in her column, “Social Studies.” The world she’s captured in her 30-plus-year career is a rarefied one of supermodels such as Paulina Porizkova and royalty including Prince Egon von Furstenberg. Her work has graced the covers of magazines from Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue to Elle and W. In a word, “fabulous.”
In recent years, though, Issa-Khan has turned her eye to the minutiae of nature, a subject not as obviously stunning, but—she would argue—just as beautiful. By playing with tight close-ups, unusual angles, and large formats, Issa-Khan forces the viewer to recognize the grand scale of the natural world, and possibly the scale of the self.
Some 25 of these photos were recently purchased by Miami International Airport for its Art in Public Places program. Top art collectors such as Zaha Hadid, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and Paloma Picasso also own her work.
Here, Cathy Leff, her longtime friend and director of The Wolfsonian-FIU museum, sits down with Issa-Khan to discuss her latest book, Iran Issa-Khan (Whitehaus Media Group; $150), and explore the evolution of her vision.
CATHY LEFF: You were born in Tehran, and knowing you for about 30 years now, your Persian identity has always been a very big part of your life.
IRAN ISSA-KHAN: I was born in Tehran, and I’m very Middle Eastern, but I was brought up in Europe and the United States and lived in so many different worlds. So I’ve always chosen the best parts of what I saw. I’ve always picked the most fabulous and beautiful parts of everything and made them my own. But anybody who has been to Iran has always said that they’ve never, ever, anywhere in the world seen such generosity of spirit, even from the poorest person. There would always be an extra plate at the dinner table. And there was always a feeling of living in the past and the present and the future all at once. I think that’s how I see the world.
With your early portraiture, the idea was to make people look beautiful. You wanted to reveal the inner beauty. Do you think that’s part of the generosity of your culture?
I think so. Also it has to do with how old we are as a nation. We’re talking about thousands of years living in this unbelievable part of the world where poetry and real life are mixed, and you have a new, modern way of putting it together. When you have all of this around you, no matter who you look at, you look at the inside of what makes that person. Even the ugliest person is going to become beautiful unless they’re horrible to begin with. But usually I don’t know those kinds of people. I only know fabulous people.
Why did you transition from this glamorous world of portraiture to the work seen in this book?
[Wolfsonian-FIU founder] Micky Wolfson is a part of how I eventually really got into showing my nature photography. I met the artist Michele Oka Doner at a party in Miami given by socialite George Campbell in 1999. I had stopped shooting fashion, and she saw me and said to me, “I understand you’re a very famous photographer. Why did you give it up?” I said, “My makeup artist died of AIDS, and I just couldn’t shoot beauty anymore. It was just getting to be too much.” Then I moved to Miami and I looked at life differently. She said, “Have you shot any nature?” I said no. But I did seven black-and-whites for her and shot the cover for her book, Natural Seduction. Then Micky’s cousin, Michael Wolfson—a famous architect/designer who was living in London—saw them and gave me a show in London in 2001. Because of that, I made the cover of The Independent Magazine, Sunday Review, which launched my career.
Watch our behind-the-scenes footage from Brazilian bombshell Alessandra Ambrosio's Ocean Drive photo shoot.