The Istanbul Photography and Cinema Amateurs Association (İstanbul Fotoğraf ve Sinema Amatörleri Derneği – IFSAK) has mined its archives to organise a group exhibition featuring some of the most important names in Turkish photography. Housed in the front rooms of an elegant apartment in one of the stately older buildings off Istiklal Caddesi, the small exhibition is at once accessible and tantalising.
With one original black-and-white photographic print from each artist, this show provides a wide sampling of Turkish photography and succeeds in piquing your interest. The big names like Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ara Güler are on display, but it is the work of less familiar names that really shines. When portraying Turkey’s landscapes, architecture and people, these photographers turn to the vernacular rather than the nostalgic.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The most dynamic photographs are the portraits, both of individuals and groups, that radiate a sense of tension. Yılmaz Kaini’s photograph of four boys standing in front of a doorway and barred window is particularly engaging. The beam above the window connects to the top of the doorway, creating a frame for these posing boys. One is crossing his legs, another has his hands on the back of his head, with his elbows out, while the other two are leaning against the structure; yet all their faces broadcast a playfulness that captivates the viewer.
Where Kaini’s photo captures a moment of idleness, Selahattin Giz’s picture of workers with chains around their necks being escorted by men in policemen's hats is full of strife. The defiant men, centered in the photo, seem immune to the attempts of the authority figures – located on the peripheries – to rein them in. It’s no wonder that Giz’s photographs of the early Republic, illustrating the lives of all kinds of individuals in this period of colossal change, were one of the major inspirations for Charles King's latest history book Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul.
There are also a number of formal portraits, of which Ersin Alok’s photograph of a woman in a turtleneck sweater is the most compelling. The older woman, adorned with big baubles and her grey hair disheveled, gives a sidelong glance with a bemused and slightly surprised expression.
In addition to the photographs of individuals and groups, many of the prints on display have a strong sense of place; the architecture and landscapes of Istanbul and greater Turkey are emphasised in stark silhouettes.
For instance, Hüsnü Gürsel's photograph of a modern Yenikapı tea house in the international style of architecture looks futuristic. It demonstrates the ways in which the old and the new of Turkey commingled in the second half of the 20th century.
Some of the most fascinating landscape photographs, though, rely on silhouettes to illustrate the ways in which the environment influences and shapes society. Gültekin Çizgen’s shot of what looks to be a promenade alongside the Marmara Sea – judging by the fishing boats and tankers – is one example. The composition, with the sea in the background and some sort of waterway in the foreground, and a path full of people separating the two, creates an interesting play of light and shadow. Salim Okumuş’s photograph of miners working at night – they are hunched at the edge of a pool of water with a plume of smoke illuminated behind them – has the same balance and dramatic effect seen in Çizge’s work.
The work of the photographers with whom I was most familiar were some of my least favourites – though not for any lack of skill. Rather that because their work is so widespread and so often displayed as a collection, the presentation of only one or two photographs provides an incomplete picture. The two photographs of Ara Güler, displayed side by side, are individually compelling but seem disjointed when placed next to one another. One is a shot of Istiklal Caddesi in the wintertime, with a man leading a horse-drawn cart in front of a waiting tram. The second features a wall – presumably in a mosque – with the word ‘Allah’ written on it and the silhouettes of two covered women seated in front of it. Meanwhile, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s portrait of a woman lacks the depth that makes his landscapes so impressive.
While the exhibition doesn’t probe the depths of Turkish photography or display the original photographs in a particularly analytical light, it does give the viewer a base from which they can further explore the many illustrious but lesser-known photographers to come out of Turkey. For this reason it’s a wonderful introduction to those itching to dig a bit deeper and learn more about this particular field of Turkish art.
The first image featured in this post is by İbraham Akyürek.