Like almost everybody else whose roots are not in the deserts and mountains and sprawling cities of ancient Persia, Ron Kelley knew little about the Iranians of Los Angeles when he set out to portray this large, prosperous, fractured and insular group.
After five years of taking pictures at political demonstrations, nightclubs, testimonial dinners, religious services and upscale shopping venues, he found himself with mixed feelings about a community that has largely flourished despite the travails of exile.
Although moved by the warmth, passions, hospitality, grief, melancholy and sensuality that he saw in their culture, Kelley said he was put off by "conspicuous materialism, obsession with status and pretense."
These attitudes are reflected in more than 100 images that make up the core of "Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles," one of two upcoming exhibits at UCLA that offer a rare look at what is believed to be among the largest concentration of Iranians outside their home country.
"The vast majority are exiles, mostly self-imposed," said Mehdi Bozorgmehr, an Iranian-born UCLA sociologist who has been studying the community since 1985. "Because of that, they're much more oriented (than other immigrants) to the country of origin, like Cubans and their preoccupation with Cuba."
Kelley's current photo exhibit at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History west of Royce Hall will run through Nov. 13. The pictures have been published as a book by the University of California Press, along with essays by several UCLA researchers and interviews conducted by Kelley, who trained as an anthropologist.
Kelley's black-and-white photos document Iranian immigrants at play and prayer and practicing political activism in Los Angeles, where educational opportunities and good weather served as lures during the 1960s and 1970s. Immigration also increased for a time after the political turmoil that led to the ouster of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1980.
The second show, "Labyrinth of Exile," serves as a counterpoint to "Irangeles." It comprises the work of young immigrants who came of age in the United States and includes haunting multimedia images of women's hands, feet and chador-draped faces; passages of poetry silk-screened onto rocks, and other works. It is scheduled to run at the Fowler from June 25 to Sept. 18.
Both shows speak to a community that is a mix of largely secular Muslims and smaller, more religious ethnic groups--Jews, Armenian Christians, Bahais, Assyrians, Zoroastrians and Kurds.
Most bypassed the historical immigrant pattern of settling in slums and working their way out. Instead, these refugees have thronged to Beverly Hills--where their children make up nearly a fourth of the students in the public schools--Westwood, West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
Glendale, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and parts of the western San Fernando Valley also have sizable Iranian populations.
The number of people in Los Angeles County claiming Iranian ancestry totaled 79,310 in 1990, according to the U.S. Census. Some in the community believe their numbers are much higher.
UCLA is an appropriate venue for the exhibits. With several hundred members, the Iranian Student Group is one of the largest ethnic organizations on campus. Dozens of Iran-born scholars and researchers dot the faculty roster.
The campus sits at the northern end of Westwood Boulevard, whose southern reaches are lined by storefronts festooned with cursive Farsi script and draped with flags for the Iranian springtime New Year holiday.
But despite the existence of this commercial center and the prosperity of professionals and self-employed business people, there are no high-profile organizations that speak for the Iranian immigrants and no cultural center.
Religion--or the lack of it--has made for a splintered reality.
"When it comes to friendship, social ties, economic and political ties, the most important difference is between Muslims and the religious minorities," Bozorgmehr said. "These sub-communities are much more cohesive."
Iranians tend to mix with compatriots of common religious backgrounds, though Muslims who fled after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the establishment of an Islamic republic lack the glue of religion to hold them together. Raised in the worldly decades of the Shah's westward-looking regime, most of them have little in common with more devout Muslims.
"If they were religious, they would have stayed back home," Bozorgmehr said. "The revolution uprooted the secular people, but a very strong sense of nationalism is there."
Culture clash, intergenerational conflict and differences over the role of women, together with a drop-off of immigration, are all factors that sociologists would expect to lead to a loss of identity among the Iranians.
But overall, many have yet to dissolve into the great American melting pot.
"If you look at the characteristics--educated, modern, professional--you'd think they'd assimilate, but they haven't," Bozorgmehr said. "It's remarkable how ethnic this population is."
The two UCLA shows, arranged so that visitors will be able to stroll between the exhibitions, bear that out.
To make "Irangeles," Kelley spent much of five years getting to know the lifestyle of Iranians in exile.
He photographed so many discos and demonstrations that Iraj Gorgin, a Farsi-language TV personality, said Iranians who live a quieter life may be underrepresented.
Mainstream Iranians are not political activists and do not spend all their time in cabarets, Gorgin said. The photo exhibit and the accompanying book are "a good big step to introduce Iranians to American society," he said, "but they do not tell the complete story."
Kelley replied that he never meant to catalogue the Iranian community. Instead, he said, he used the artistic techniques of "street photography" to express his own reactions to what he saw.
"The more I explored the community, the more I fell in love, the more I came to understand the . . . dilemma" of immigrants from a land with a history of foreign invasions, political repression and disillusionment, most recently with Western culture. "It's about suffering on a profound scale," he said.
Kelley and co-editor Jonathan Friedlander said they sought to make their points through an often startling juxtaposition of images.
One picture records a march through Westwood of women in modest Muslim headdresses, long dresses and pantsuits. One pushes a baby carriage, another carries a sign reading "God is the Greatest" and the third hefts a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
It is matched with a scene from a "Persian Night" Halloween party at a West Hollywood disco, where girls in low-cut dresses smirk behind veils as they pose with a man in a Khomeini costume, complete with mask and turban.
"Americans think of Iranians in terms of the Ayatollah, but here's someone, who had to flee because of the Ayatollah, making fun of it too," said Steven Gold, a Whittier College sociologist who also uses photography in his work.
Some of the artists in the second show, "Labyrinth of Exile," while praising the photographs of the displaced older generation, said they felt left out of Kelley's photographic record.
"I was missing from that depiction of Iranian culture in this country," said Taraneh Hemami, 34, who mixes old pictures of herself and her family with traditional motifs from carpet designs and Iranian architecture.
"Maybe we're not as easily recognized," said Hemami, who came to this country in 1978. "Maybe we (young people) blend in more."
Payam Farrahi, 27, who immigrated at the age of 10, said he consciously clings to "my awful accent" in order to stay in touch with his Iranian side.
Farrahi, whose verses are being silk-screened onto granite blocks for the show, makes his living as a chef at an Iranian-owned Italian restaurant in Studio City.
"Ron (Kelley) has captured a society that was defeated in the revolution and moved across the world, but is trying to preserve its illusions, its old ways of thinking," he said. "His camera has captured that decadence, and then you come into our exhibit. I'm not saying we're not decadent, but we're looking for new ways."
His English-language poem, "Reality," begins: "i am a child/of the thick atmosphere/and corrupt altitudes/of the violent paradise/of this mechanical century;/which the core of it/is not honour/but murder. . . ."
Other artists in the "Labyrinth" show include Ali Reza Dadgar, 32, who projects photographs onto aluminum, sheet metal, wood or paper, stapled together with nails, screws or bolts, "in a rough, abrupt way, because the truth of the process is important and I don't want to fake it," he said.
"If I was living in Iran, I think I would have been way out in left field," said Dadgar, who came to the United States in 1977.
The work of Shirin Neshat examines women's life in modern Iran, where the chador, or body veil, is required, yet women are sent to military service.
She adorns her photographs of faces, hands and feet with guns and poetry from the works of Taherah Saffarzadeh, who called for women to take part in the revolution along with their brothers.
"I was one of those 'Irangeles' people," said Neshat, 37, who lives in New York and returns to Iran occasionally to visit her family.
"The idea of just living in memories is tragic," she said. "I can't bear it."