Words by Maya Asha McDonald

During the Bubonic plague, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear and outlined the plots for future triumphs like Antony and Cleopatra and his eventual masterpiece Macbeth.

Perhaps something can be said for imposed solitude and introspection to make the creative embers within a person ignite, producing an everlasting flame that will burn bright long after they’re gone.

For Cyrus Mahboubian, the London-based photographer, who in recent years has become a hot commodity, the isolation caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic has amplified his ingenuity and broadened his oeuvre.

With works previously displayed at the likes of Tristan Hoare Gallery (London,) Ekavart Gallery at the Ritz Carlton Hotel (Istanbul,) and Pitt Rivers Museum (University of Oxford,) one can expect that Post-Corona Mahboubian will resume his meteoric rise. Mahboubian, known for his sultry black and white polaroids that whisper of a deep reverence for both the human form and rugged landscapes has made use of his time in lockdown by experimenting with ways to make his practice more tactile. With the act of touching now so limited and often prohibited, the idea is both topical and erotic. As an emphasis on texture is already prevalent in his work, the smooth skin of a woman’s lower back, or the jagged, sea-worn edge of a rock face. His inclination to add another layer of touch seem to be a natural evolution.

With a sharp blade, steady hands, and a well-trained eye, Mahboubian cuts his atmospheric polaroids, often harvested from his archives, and joins them meticulously with another. Shadows fuse, lines bind, and a surreal dreamscape emerges. A ritual that results in a heady juxtaposition between soft and hard – warm and cold – feminine and masculine; composites in quarantine. While his foray with composites officially began in 2018, his time in lockdown has been a distinctly fruitful period, with Mahboubian honing this variation of his craft and releasing new composites with speed and conviction previously unseen.

A true bon vivant, Mahboubian is known in social circles to be elegantly dressed, quick-witted, and the keeper of a quizzical brow (details that while may seem trivial) also betray elements of his personality and potentially inform the reception of his work. The cult of personality is alive and well and can often dictate the trajectory of a talented career. While Mahboubian is regularly spotted at London’s glamorous exhibition openings and invitation only events, his personality has been largely unknown to his audience until the UK lockdown. Instead of retreating inwards, as many of us have done during the lockdown, Mahboubian has become more open by sharing intimate pieces of his life on Instagram.

Videos of his meditative solitary strolls through the Oxfordshire countryside, pictures of his beloved espresso machine, and most intriguingly new composite works, are all being shared with uncharacteristic regularity.

One piece in particular, unveiled for the first time last week on his Instagram story, was a composite in jewel toned colours. A bewitching departure from his customary black and white. To the delight of his devoted social media followers, Mahboubian even produced a self-narrated video Cyrus Mahboubian, Studio Tour with Projects On Walls, a fine-art curating and advisory platform for both residential and commercial interiors, founded by Scarlett Colicci (née Bowman,) where he melodically explains and demonstrates the core elements of his composite-making practice.

Another evolution, born entirely out of home-bound circumstances, and one that has been shared exclusively with Unpolished Magazine, is Mahboubian recently exploring the practice of collage. However, instead of manipulating his photographic work as he does with the composites, a clinical form of collage, he’s been creating more traditional looking collages utilising found imagery. I use the word ‘traditional’ loosely as these works are still infused with his quintessential devotion to black and white. And his respect for clean lines and the foreboding longing that permeates Mahboubian’s previously established visual language. Featuring skulls, cheetahs, mountain peaks and marbled skies, his collages, much like his composites, harness archetypal motifs that often carry dueling connotations and therefore endlessly beguile.

With this devastating pandemic bringing the global community to its knees and political uncertainty increasing in even the most advanced democracies, Mahboubian’s work provides much- needed relief and calm from the endless drumbeat of discord that threatens to consume us daily. Photography as a medium is more precious now than ever, with the very concepts of truth, self- expression, sexuality, and freedom being questioned in a manner unrivaled since the first half of the last century.

Like Shakespeare, Mahboubian has consciously decided to channel the extreme isolation brought on by the waves of illness that continue to wash over society with impunity and make art that reflects the restless tone of the day. During the lockdown, people have returned to nature and nature has begun to heal itself. We are stuck in place whilst the world keeps turning at a dizzying pace. Mahboubian’s new work reflects these realities. Some connections are conspicuous, specific polaroids deliberately obscure a nude woman’s breast from our gaze; an echo of unsatisfied hungers. More subtle, are the detailed compositions of his composites that speak to our need to regain order in small ways when surrounded by chaos on an existential scale. Mahboubian stands as a prime contemporary example of how pressure like our current circumstances truly does form diamonds in terms of poignant creative output.


Images courtesy of Cyrus Mahboubian

Feature Image: Unique Composite from the series ‘Murmur (Composites)’, 2020

Image 1: Unique Composite from the series ‘Murmur (Composites)’, 2018

Image 2: Unique Composite from the series ‘Murmur (Composites)’, 2020

Image 3: ‘Minotaur,’ 2020. Courtesy of Cyrus Mahboubian

Image 4: ‘Music,’ 2020. Courtesy of Cyrus Mahboubian

Image 5: Unique Composite from the series ‘Murmur (Composites)’, 2018

Image 6: Unique Composite from the series ‘Murmur (Composites)’, 2020