Transcript Staff Writer

Firouz Ardestani is a native of Iran and a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. So what is the subject of his first photographic exhibition? Why Russia, of course.

"Russia ? The Heart of Europe" will open today at the Norman Public Library and run through late August. A reception with the photographer is scheduled 3 to 5 p.m. today at the library.

Ardestani took about 1,000 photographs in several Russian cities while teaching in recent years at Pomor State University in far northwestern Russia. The exhibition will feature 41 of the best.

"While I walked, my eyes saw the magic in how people moved and faced the challenges of everyday life," Ardestani said. "It became my passion and the result is this exhibition."

Ardestani took many of his photos while walking four miles each way between his home and the university in Arkhangelsk ? Russian for "archangel." He also snapped pictures in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Vyborg.

It's been three years since OU art instructor Sharon Burchett looked at some of Ardestani's previous work and, after having some colleagues check it out, suggested he have a photo exhibit.

But not long after that, Ardestani was invited to give a lecture in northwest Russia. He was asked to do it again and again ? and again ? until he agreed to become a faculty member at Pomor State.

He came to love and respect Russian culture, calling it a rare, moderate blend of European Western and Asian Eastern thinking. Centuries ago, Peter the Great transformed Arkhangelsk, a 24-hour train ride north of Moscow, into a major early port linking Europe with eastern Russia.

The region's climate, though, wasn't nearly as sunny and bright as Ardestani's opinion of its culture.

"It was freezing cold. At one point, I couldn't move my shoulder," he said. "... For eight months, you don't see the sun. It's no wonder they didn't smile."

Ardestani and university officials worked out a deal that allowed him to return to the States to complete a doctorate, provided he goes back during warmer weather beginning next summer. So in November, Ardestani came back to OU, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1986.

This time, he is working with religious studies professor Tom Boyd toward an interdisciplinary Ph.D. comprised mainly of sociology and philosophy with a little history and anthropology thrown in. His studies are part of an ongoing life quest.

"I have traveled throughout the Middle East, Europe and Russia to get a better understanding of cultures," he said. "In society you can have healthy individuals and a healthy collectivity, and I am looking for a culture that perfectly combines the two."

Ardestani arrived in the United States from Tehran, Iran, shortly before his 16th birthday to attend college in Berkeley, Calif. That was in 1977, two years before the Shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The nation came under strict Shiite Muslim rule, which brought persecution for his Baha'i family.

With funds cut off from home, Ardestani found a more affordable education at OU. That didn't mean cheap, though, so he worked full-time while attending school full-time and supporting an older brother who arrived later at OU.

Ardestani studied computer science and landed a job right away with Texas Instruments, but he always had an artistic side. He found painting too time-consuming, whereas photography was both immediate and poignant.

He found his subjects in Russia even more fascinating and worth documenting.

"I tried to capture the soul of Russians," he said of his photographs. "I want them to feel they are there so they can empathize with the challenges these poor people face."

James S. Tyree 366-3539 jtyree@normantranscript.com

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