Messy Surroundings: Calligrapher at Work
by Nancy Micklewright
In 1967 a Los Angeles photographer, Harold Van Pelt, took a series of photographs of Mohamed Zakariya in his garage workshop. Today, Zakariya is the foremost calligrapher of the Arabic language in the US and is renowned worldwide, but when these photographs were taken (Figures 1 and 2), he had just begun his journey in Islam and had been learning calligraphy for a short time. Commissioned by the antiquarian dealer Oscar Meyer, Zakariya’s employer, the photographs were primarily a record for Meyer of aspects of his business practice. Nearly 60 years later, they do different work.
Photographs of artists working in their studios, and of the studios themselves are a fascinating genre of photography. Think of the iconic 1949 image of Jackson Pollack creating one of his drip paintings, crouching over the canvas with a cigarette between his lips. The practice goes back to the very beginnings of photography as evidenced by the 1837 image, “The Artist’s Studio / Still Life with Plaster Casts”, created by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in his own studio and showing an arrangement of plaster casts and other objects that might have been found in the studio of an artist of this period. In the twentieth century artists, particularly if they were well-known, were frequent subjects for photographers such as the Canadian-Armenian portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler (1928-2018), and Albanian-American Gjon Milli (1904-1984), a photographer for Life magazine from 1939 until 1984. For these photographers, it was the artist, not their studio, that was of primary interest, but nonetheless, the studios did occasionally turn up in their work. For others, artists’ workplaces and work itself was at the center of their practice, as was the case for the photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender. From the late 1950s into the 1970s, they photographed artists, studios, exhibitions, happenings, and other events, eventually amassing an archive of over 200,000 objects. Forgotten for decades, their work was recovered in the early 2000s by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and in 2013 donated to a consortium of five art organizations, and has been described as “an extraordinary, absolutely amazing archive” Originally taken at the behest of artists and gallery owners to document work, events and happenings, Shunk and Kender’s work today is an invaluable record of the fast-moving art world of their time (Figure 3).
The 1967 garage photographs by Van Pelt fit squarely into a mid-century fascination with documenting creative work. In this case though, the artist whose workplace is caught by the camera belongs to a very different artistic tradition than painters, sculptors, and performance artists more typical of this genre. As a calligrapher working in the Arabic script, Zakariya is part of a global community of practice that stretches from the very beginnings of Islam in the seventh century CE until today. But despite the prominence of calligraphy in Islamic art and culture, and the fame of some calligraphers, images of calligraphers and their workplaces in the centuries before photography are not very numerous. Typically, these paintings show a few figures seated on the floor, perhaps working at low tables or with their work propped against their knee (Figure 4). There may be writing instruments or other tools pictured, and in some cases, wall niches are filled with beautifully bound manuscripts. These workplaces are always tidy, pervaded by an atmosphere of quiet work. We see none of the chaos or frenzy that must have accompanied the production of royal manuscripts for the demanding patrons (rulers, high-ranking court officials and others) for whom most calligraphers worked.
Even after the widespread adoption of photography in the Islamicate world, views of calligraphers’ workplaces are rare. More often we see images of calligraphers writing than of their studios, as in the compelling photograph of twentieth-century Turkish calligrapher Necmeddin Okyay (Figure 5). Okyay is pictured seated on a divan or on the floor, in a closely cropped image that focuses the viewer’s attention on the calligrapher in the act of writing. Because of the tight cropping, we cannot see exactly where he is seated, or even his ink, which must have been very close by. In this photograph, there is no workplace, just the figure of the calligrapher himself. It shows us the essence of calligraphic practice, but none of the messy paraphernalia of an active studio.
The 1967 garage photographs, on the other hand, are full of messy paraphernalia. In sharp contrast to the centrality of Okyay in Figure 5, in both garage photos Zakariya is at the margins of the space, in the back corner of Figure 1 and pushed to one side in Figure 2. The subject of these photographs is the space itself, crowded with workbenches, stools, machinery, supplies, tools, and more. The old cement floor is partially covered by two small, worn carpets or mats, while hanging electrical cords haphazardly strung through the space power a few lights and some of the machinery. Zakariya is shown working, not engaging directly with the camera, furthering the impression of the space as a place of activity. Yet for all of the evidence of work, none of the exquisitely made objets d’art or curiosities that Zakariya produced for Meyer are visible. The images show us only the workplace and how Zakariya worked.
Photographs are unstable documents at best. While they purport to show a certain reality, which may or may not have been contrived, the value of the image as a source of information, and even the information it reveals, changes as the material object moves through time and space. These two photographs are no different. What began as a relatively straightforward documentation of business practice now operates on at least two levels, as a record of an artist at an early stage of his career, and as a record of working modes in a specific time and place.
The garage photographs show us a workshop on La Cienega Boulevard somewhere between Melrose and Sunset in 1960s Los Angeles. On the edge of West Hollywood, La Cienega today is still home to a variety of small businesses: interior decorators, car dealerships, restaurants, and offices, but there is no place on this busy commercial thoroughfare for a ramshackle, one-story garage workshop whose doors opened to the street. The workshop had electricity, but no water and the wiring would certainly not have satisfied building code regulations, even by the more relaxed standards of the 1960s. These photographs mark a different moment in the commercial history of Los Angeles and of this neighborhood.
Trained as a machinist after leaving high school, Zakariya worked in the fledging California aerospace industry as a young man. His garage workshop is full of the tools which still defined most small-scale industrial production in the mid-twentieth century: a number of lathes (electric or human driven), a drill press, chisels, mallets, hammers, saws, and so on. While makers in a variety of media may still use some of these tools, many would be described today as vintage. The work of a mid-century machinist has long since been automated and, by now, mostly computerized. Just as the garage workshop photos mark a certain moment in the commercial geography of Los Angeles, they also document production modes that have largely disappeared.
In the late 1960s, Zakariya had already made several trips to Morocco, converted to Islam, and had been immersing himself in the study of Arabic texts and manuscripts. He had been practicing calligraphy for a number of years, learning by copying pieces of well-known masters. The large calligraphic piece on the back wall of the workshop in Figure 1 is Zakariya’s copy of a popular Moroccan work by a nineteenth-century calligrapher, and Zakariya was also making smaller pieces. He supported himself in these years primarily through his work for Oscar Meyer, though Zakariya also sold some of his calligraphy. In 1972, giving away his workshop tools, he moved to Washington, DC., eventually settling in a Virginia suburb. Once there, he slowly assembled a new workshop. Zakariya continued his calligraphic practice and in 1982 traveled to Istanbul where he began intensive study with two Turkish masters, Hasan Çelebi and Ali Alparslan. Zakariya received diplomas from them in the sülüs, nesih, and taliq scripts. Over time his Virginia studio became a gathering place for friends, his students, and others interested in learning more about calligraphy.
Copies of Van Pelt’s garage photographs have remained in Zakariya’s possession. He also has a small collection, taken over the years, of his Virginia studio and himself at work in it. Looking at these together with the garage photos offers intriguing insights into the working habits of an artist/craftsman over the long span of his career. For example, in one photograph (Figure 6), Zakariya is working at a vise, sharpening a knife used for making pens. His early familiarity with a wide range of tools and machinery, amply illustrated in the garage photographs, continued to be a defining aspect of his practice. Throughout his career, he has made all of his own calligraphy and illumination tools in the garage workshop that he set up in his Virginia studio, and has taught his students to do the same. Even as he developed his calligraphic practice, Zakariya continued to make complex pieces in other media, especially wood and metal, using the same kinds of tools and machinery seen in the 1967 garage photos.
A second image, Figure 7, reveals another consistent aspect of his workshop practice from the early days in Los Angeles until now. There is a certain level of creative chaos in the benches, desks, shelves, and tables of the garage workshop. Likewise, his studio today is crowded with tools, pens, works in progress, miscellanea, and the other accoutrements of a working artist. In a conversation for this essay, Mohamed Zakariya quoted the revered eighteenth-century Ottoman poet and mystic, Şeyh Galib as follows: “Pleasure is his who finds his composure in his messy surroundings.” This is an appropriate statement for his own working mode, and a text he has shared with his students in the past, which suggests a certain intentionality in the condition of his studio.
Looking at the workshop of a different calligrapher (Figure 8), makes the continuity of setting in Zakariya’s workplaces all the more striking. Hassan Masoody is a classically trained Iraqi calligrapher and illustrator, now living in Paris, who works with water-based pigments on paper to produce relatively large-scale pieces for wall display. Apart from the significant disparities in the writing styles and work formats of the two calligraphers, the photographs reveal other differences. Masoody is working on the floor and his tools are quite distinct from those used by Zakariya. Masoody’s paints and pigments are stored in tidy shelves along one wall of the studio, canvasses are stacked on a table, and work rests on the wall or in a rack against one corner. The photographs are instructive in terms of how different kinds of calligraphic work are produced, but also in illustrating the very individual, personal preferences that studios express regarding their inhabitants. Perhaps it is this potential insight into artistic personality that has made workshop photography such an enduring genre.
Bills, training manuals, contracts and other archival documents, photographs, tools, uniforms, trade-specific clothing, and more are all part of the historiography of labor. Photographs occupy a privileged place in this array because they allow us to visualize workers and their work. And as the garage photographs discussed in this essay have shown, there can be a tension between seeing the images as general documents of a time, place, or working mode, and as biographical documents of a specific actor. In the case of these images, it is tempting to privilege their biographical role since we so rarely have the chance to see images that span the career of a single person or to see a working calligraphy studio, as opposed to the carefully staged studio views more commonly seen on Instagram and elsewhere. But no matter how we choose to use these images, they give us insights into working modes from a time and place we can no longer visit in person.
 I am very grateful to Mohamed Zakariya for graciously sharing his photographs and memories of the LA garage workshop with me, for our conversations which have informed this piece, and for his review of this text.
 In the 1960s, Harold Van Pelt was a successful commercial photographer. Today, he is better known as a master carver of gemstones whose pieces have been exhibited at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA.
 For more on Zakariya, see Nancy Micklewright, ed., Mohamed Zakariya, A 21st century Master Calligrapher, Fons Vitae, 2022.
 For Mohamed Zakariya’s auto/biography see, “My Story” at https://mohamedzakariya.org/pages/my-story, and Nancy Micklewright, “Mohamed Zakariya, A Life in Pictures”, in Micklewright, 2022, 43-64, among others.
 See “Peek Inside the Studios of Famous Artists” on Google Arts and Culture for this photograph, taken by Martha Holmes. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/peek-inside-the-studios-of-famous-artists/MAXhJLKkuWbyIg?hl=en
 This image can be seen here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daguerreotype_Daguerre_Atelier_1837.jpg
 Yusuf Karsh and Ara Güler are well-known figures in the history of photography in the twentieth century and have extensive bibliographies. Gjon Milli is perhaps less known; basic biographical information can be found here https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/gjon-mili?all/all/all/all/0, and in his New York Times obituary, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/16/obituaries/gjon-mili-life-magazine-photographer-dies.html.
 For Shunk and Kender, see https://hyperallergic.com/99460/two-photographers-emerge-from-the-shadows-with-over-400-artist-portraits/, https://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/shunk_kender.html, and https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/arts/design/roy-lichtenstein-foundation-donates-shunk-kender-photo-trove.html.
 As quoted in the December 18, 2013 New York Times article noted above.
 Translation from the Ottoman by Mohamed Zakariya; conversation November 23, 2022.
Nancy Micklewright writes about the history of photography and fashion history in the Ottoman Empire with a focus on gender. Most recently she was Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 2019 she was Head of Public and Scholarly Engagement at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. Her edited volume, Mohamed Zakariya, a 21st century Master Calligrapher, was published in 2022 by Fons Vitae.
Further articles in the TRAFO series Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor:
Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, 05 April 2022
Rick Halpern, The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary, 14 June 2022
Zehra Betül Atasoy, Ever-Present Tobacco Dust: Women’s Labor Conditions at the Cibali Tobacco Factory, 19 July 2022
Nurçin İleri, Picturing the Labor Landscape: The Silahtarağa Power Plant and Istanbul’s Electrical Infrastructure, 26 October 2022
Nazlı Özkan, Envisioning Domestic Labor on Instagram: Changing Parameters of Visibility under Neoliberal Digital Capitalism, 8 December 2022
Citation: Nancy Micklewright, Messy Surroundings: Calligrapher at Work, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.12.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/43906