"I'm listening to Istanbul..."

A Closer Look at the Work of Ara Güler

By Irem Sezer Kalyoncu

Title from a poem by Orhan Veli Kanık

Old Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 1957 © Photograph: Ara Güler / Copyright: Ara Güler Museum

The title of the exhibition at Foam, A Play of Light and Shadow poetically introduces the black and white photography style of Ara Güler to the visitors even before seeing his works. However, in my opinion, the title refers not just to the black and white aspect in his works, but also to Güler’s mastery of depicting simple, less visible, moments of everyday life in Istanbul especially when compared to existing popular and spectacular images of the city. The latter are the images that the Western gaze expects to see of Istanbul, either through the eyes of a curious tourist, or through an orientalist lens, or through a self-orientalising perspective of an expat, like myself, that is influenced by nostalgia. Despite all these possible approaches, Ara Güler always chooses to stay a true "Istanbulite", and he constantly captures what really is there without putting any particular social or political message into the light. Istanbul in this sense has been a great source of inspiration not only to Ara Güler but to many artists like Orhan Pamuk or Orhan Veli Kanık who chased the peacefulness of simplicity in the chaos of Istanbul through different mediums such as literature, music and visual arts.

While these thoughts were buzzing in my head, I found the perfect example of a play of light and shadow in the exhibition. In this photo (Old Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 1957) we see a man walking on Galata Bridge on a gloomy night in Istanbul, where I imagine him going back home from work. There is some sort of melancholy, exhaustion but fascination for life in the air. To a foreign eye, the mosque in the background might be the most eye-catching object, giving a mystic and spiritual atmosphere to the scene. But for me, the mosque is just an element in the background that is embedded in the cityscape, a part of daily life in Istanbul. Instead, what makes this image special are the two metal carafes that the man is carrying. I immediately understand that he is a vendor on the street and I have an idea what might be inside of it
—I can even smell it in the exhibition space: sahlep. Sahlep is a warm drink made of the tuberous roots of orchids, mostly flavored with cinnamon powder, which gives its particular smell. Because of its rich and intense flavor, it is specifically consumed during winters in Turkey.

Looking at the image, I can't help but think about Orhan Pamuk’s novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, where he tells the story of a “boza” seller. Boza is a fermented drink made of wheat and consumed with roasted chickpeas, also unique to the Middle East. Men would walk around the streets and sell boza in similar carafes while shouting loudly out its name to mark their presence in the neighborhood.
Booo-zaa!”, followed by a melodic echo. Orhan Pamuk, just like Ara Güler, discovers the transformation of the city, its changing social and political dynamics through the eyes of a particular individual while paying a subtle ode to being "Istanbulite". For that reason, I was not surprised to find out that in the last years of Ara Güler, Orhan Pamuk and the artist were close and exchanged ideas about the city. Pamuk talks about their encounters and Güler’s works in his essay in The New York Times:

"The crucial, defining characteristic of an Ara Güler photograph is the emotional correlation he draws between cityscapes and individuals. ‎His photographs also made me discover how much more fragile and poor the people of Istanbul appeared when captured alongside the city’s monumental Ottoman architecture, its majestic mosques and magnificent fountains."

Sahlep or boza sellers on the street barely exist anymore, but its idea is still so "Istanbul". In Ara Güler’s work, the relation between an individual and the city—through their occupations unique to this region—forms the authentic narrative and shows genuine aspects of Turkish identity. In contrast to the 19th century orientalist and often fictional (or exoticised) professions depicted in, for example, The Tortoise Trainer by Osman Hamdi Bey, Ara Güler captured what actually existed: sahlep sellers, coffee makers, tellals in hammams and music bands in meyhanes—the real humans of Istanbul.

Listen to Irem's music suggestion for the exhibition below.

About Irem Sezer Kalyoncu

Irem Sezer Kalyoncu is a cultural professional and independent curator living in Amsterdam since 2016. Her journey in the Netherlands started at the University of Amsterdam to obtain her masters degree in Museum Studies. Over the past years she worked in various arts and cultural organisations both in Turkey and the Netherlands including The Museum of Innocence, Prince Claus Fund and Framer Framed. Currently she is working as a project manager in exhibitions at CODA Museum Apeldoorn. She is also the chair of board of ArtsMap, a digital platform establishing connections in an international arts and culture network.

About the artist

Ara Güler (1928-2018) was a prominent photojournalist and a driving force in Turkish photography. Celebrated as ‘The Eye of Istanbul’, his poignant black and white images of this city’s inhabitants, streets and docks remain his most celebrated works. Ara Güler immortalized numerous famous artists and political figures throughout his illustrious career.

About Kısmet

This article was created in light of the multi-year project Kısmet, an initiative created and developed in close collaboration between Studio Polat and Foam. The project is inspired by longstanding cultural, diplomatic and economic ties between Turkey and the Netherlands. Kısmet delves into the diverse and intricate facets of Turkish visual culture, as seen through the lens of different generations of image makers.

This article is part of a series under the name A Closer Look, where a selection of creative professionals, with an affinity for visual culture from Turkey, reflect on an image from one of the Kısmet exhibitions.

Kısmet has been made possible by the generous support of the Mondriaan Fund.

I'm listening to Istanbul... A Closer Look at the Work of Ara Güler - Article | Foam: All about photography As part of Kısmet, Foam invited several professionals from the cultural and creative sector to refle [...]
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A Closer Look — Ara Güler