Ara Güler: The Man Who Shot Istanbul

The first time I came across the name Ara, literally meaning in-between, was in Istanbul.  Ara Cafe sits snuggled between a busy bustling high street and a quiet narrow street meandering towards the Bosphorus.  Little did I know that this exact building was where the world renowned photographer  Ara Güler grew up.

Ara was born in Istanbul to an Armenian family in 1928.  Growing up, his goal was to become a film director or a script writer.  Although he became Turkey’s most celebrated photographer, he did reach his goal in 1975 when he directed the surrealistic 18mm movie, End of a Hero.  He started working for newspapers as a photographer and as he became more known, in 1953 he met one of the founding members of Magnum Photos, Henri Cartier-Bresson.  This meeting became the pivotal moment in his career as he became the Turkish representative to the photographic agency.

His list of awards is endless and it includes Master of Leica in 1962 as well as being listed as the Top 7 Photographers of the World by The Photography Annual Anthology.  He is most renowned for his Lost Istanbul work where he stays faithful to his photojournalistic roots but this did not stop him from travelling the world and photographing people as famous as Sofia Loren, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

No matter which part of the world he may be photographing, people always feature in his works.  Whilst some of these maybe joyful or playful, Güler often portrays social issues.  He does not shy away from showing the uncomfortable or the sinister.  His Leica camera has captured Istanbul through decades of change and it would not be inaccurate to say that these hold an archival value.  The feeling of melancholia that resonates throughout his Lost Istanbul work could be traced to the photographer’s frustration with the loss of Istanbul’s aesthetic.  As the migration from Anatolian towns continue, the concrete jungle expands.  He states that the younger generation that live in the city are not aware the poetic or romantic aspect of the city.

He uses the banks of the Bosphorus often, the stretch of sea that separates Asia Minor from Europe, to use as a metaphor for separation.  The sea is what distances us from others as well as ourselves.  In his photograph Saying good-bye on the Galata quay taken in 1955,a woman with a headscarf is reaching towards the man inside the boat.  The framing makes use of the geometric shapes formed by the horizontal lines along the metallic ship and the vertical as well as slanting lines formed by ropes attaching to a pulley.  I initially assumed that the man and the woman were a couple and they were reaching out to each other to say good-bye one last time until the unforeseeable future.  Due to the fact that the ship is white in colour, it is not very obvious that the man is reaching towards a folded piece of paper that the woman is passing to him.  This changes the story of the photograph as we are left wondering what is written in that folded piece of paper.  Is it her feelings that she could not share with him?  Is it a letter from someone that he refuses to see in person or someone that just couldn’t be there?

Güler states that photography is not art although he accepts that masters such as Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson have visual education, this does not make them artists.  He believes “photography is reality above all else” and that it is his job to record what he sees.  To him, the dark room tricks are not acceptable as he hates the idea of becoming an artist.

Güler has a list of qualities to describe what makes a good photographer; “A photographer must be well equipped…  They need to know painting, know music, understand theatre, read a lot, decide in an instant and all in all be very intelligent”.  Whilst I would strive to possess all these qualities he describes, I do see myself as an artist and as a photographer I feel that I have to show my own reality.  Perhaps all artists are journalists since they share their version of ideas, concepts and occurrences.

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