When we walk into a beautiful, ornate cathedral or mosque our necks reflexively whip upward. The body senses the eeriness of a vast indoor space, and the eyes are rewarded with intricate and gorgeous architecture. But our gaze can only see part of the artwork at a time, and the blood rushing from our heads puts a time limit on the gawking.
Iranian photographer Mohammad Reza Domiri offers us an opportunity to see the entirety of these incredible spaces all at once. His fully panoramic and expansive photographs of centuries-old mosques display the genius of their geometries and complexity in a whole new way. The effect is dizzying and intoxicating, like some kind of fractalized religious hallucination.
These images are distinct from the experience of standing in the mosque in their ability to present the totality of the architecture and artwork. By flattening and connecting what is only visible in segments due to the limits of the breadth of eyesight, we’re presented with a new perspective on an age-old tradition of artistry, architecture and design.
“In my opinion, symmetry, repetition, controlling the light and tiling are the most important characteristic of this type of architecture,” he says. “The interesting part is that almost all of the mosques that are intact are being used to this day.”
That fact is especially impressive given the age of some of these buildings. Several are relatively modern—like those from the Qajar Dynasty, which date back to the 1700s. By contrast, architectural remnants from the Achaemenid Empire are as old as 550 BCE.
Key elements shared among the eras are symmetrical and repeating patterns, columns and colonnades, arches and vaulted ceilings, colorful tiling, and ornate stained glass. Seeing all of that combined in one all-encompassing photograph makes for an arresting image.
Domiri’s approach, which he says is inspired in part by virtual reality, painstakingly merges several images together into one glorious omnipotent image. Shooting with wide-angle and fish-eyes lenses, he also uses a tripod, which requires special permits. The buildings are often closed for prayers or packed with visitors, so he must time his visits (and the shots themselves) to catch the right light and avoid the throngs.
“I have tried to use artistic tools as much as possible to improve the aesthetic of my work. But to be created, this artwork requires a beautiful historical building,” he says. “It’s not an easy process and there have been times when, even with a permit, I didn’t receive the appropriate reception from the people in charge. Therefore, I left the location without taking any photographs.”
Domiri was initially inspired by photos he’d seen taken of the insides of the pyramids at Giza. He has since developed a preference for well-known or culturally relevant sites, like the Shah (or ‘Emam’) Mosque in Isfahan, or the Vakil Mosque in Shiraz. He aims to expand the project beyond the Islamic realm that he’s documented almost exclusively so far, and expand his work into Christian and Jewish places of worship.
“I realized there are a lot of great opportunities and historical places in Iran for this sort of photography,” he says. “I will continue my work as long as I can … and produce a rather thorough collection.”