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Silent Witness

The photographs of Metehan Özcan

These empty homes on Istanbul’s Asian shore were once full of life, hopes and dreams. Maureen Freely studies the haunting photographs of Metehan Özcan

  • A room once fit for a king in Erenköy, by Metehan Özcan (2007)

There are no people in Metehan Özcan’s photographs. There are only spirits. They inhabit spaces that have outlived their usefulness, but they refuse to let go.

For those of us who knew Istanbul in the 1960s and 1970s, every detail is heart-rending. Here are the door handles without which no modern dwelling was complete. Here are the diamond floor tiles, the iron bed frames, the striped brown curtains and the panes of frosted glass. Though the wives and servants who once kept these rooms gleaming are nowhere to be seen, we share their shock and dismay as we survey the gaping windows and the gashes in the walls, the dust and the mould, the cracked concrete and the seedlings growing out of the mounds of dirt. But then, very slowly, we notice how the light plays on the pockmarked walls of the ruined bedroom, blurring the pillow against the bed’s hard lines and curves. We see a hint of Visconti in the artful curves of the curtain thrown so carelessly over the huddled but still golden Louis XV chairs. We forget the wall that once was home to this flaking, cracking paint and instead we see an abstract marriage of colour and texture. We look out into the night to contemplate a row of leafless trees recoiling behind a constellation of street lamps whose misty funnels of light cannot penetrate the blackness of the earth below. We admire the odd tilt of the chandelier that would once have announced the wealth of its westward-looking owners, and we recall the many evenings we spent in rooms just like this, assuming like everyone around us that these walls were here to stay.

Metehan Özcan was born in 1975, at the height of Turkey’s love affair with modernity. An old house was an embarrassment, best replaced with an apartment building. Concrete was good. A good home would have fine carpets and gleaming parquet floors and sitting rooms fit for a French king, but in the homes of the nouveaux riches there was also a lot of chipboard and Naugahyde and harsh overhead lighting. Such things were emblematic of a modern, European outlook. But by the mid-1990s, when Metehan set out to study first architecture and then visual and interior design, a different sensibility had come into play. There was a renewed interest in antiques and antiquities, old houses and traditional artefacts. The modernist dreams of the mid-20th century had begun to tarnish.

By now Metehan was working as an architectural photographer. His father, formerly a traffic policeman, and his mother, formerly a nurse, had set up as estate agents on the Asian side of Istanbul. They got into the habit of sending Metehan to photograph vacated properties before putting them on the market. But as he was soon to discover, their former owners had left their traces everywhere. He felt their presence so keenly he was reluctant even to shift a chair. He found solace in the silence he found in these abandoned spaces. Especially after dark, their crumbling walls suggested a city more truthful and accepting than the one he was forced to inhabit by day. During his long nightly walks along the Asian shore, he would sometimes convince himself that he had entered a ghost world that only he could see.

As it turned out, he was right. Viewed conventionally, these spaces would speak only of loss. They would prompt facile repudiations of an age when an entire nation seemed eager to embrace modernity without question. But when Metehan Özcan turns his camera on these desecrated homes, he sees human defences weakening. He shows man-made spaces finally relenting to accept the natural world in all its force and beauty.

In much the same spirit, he welcomes in the viewer. As in the work of Zafer and Barbara Baran, whom he cites as his artistic mentors, his images undo any attempt at detachment. As our eyes wander into these darkened spaces, our minds conjure up the people who once lived here, dusting and polishing their dreams. Slowly their voices penetrate the silence. Soft and comforting, they waft through the walls that pain builds around the past, reminding us that even here, amidst the chipped paint, there is beauty.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 44

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Issue 44, 2010 Classics with a Twist
£8.00 / $10.13 / €9.45
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 44
  • Sea of Blooms

    The magic of southwest Turkey can still catch you unawares, especially if you sail. Botanist Ro FitzGerald boards a fine ketch and plots a course for that stunningly beautiful corner where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean.

  • The Bottle-Top Mansion

    An architectural extravaganza built in America’s Gilded Age for the man who invented the bottle top, the Everett House in Washington DC has a long and colourful connection with Turkey. Thomas Roueché charts its history. Photographs by Jürgen Frank.

  • On the Road to Ruins

    John Henry Haynes was the father of American archaeological photography. Many of his images are the only record of a vanished Anatolian heritage. On the centenary of his death, Robert Ousterhout pays tribute.

  • Plum Perfect

    Only Kastamonu in the hinterland of the Black Sea, boasts the naked plum (üryani erik). In Daday, a valley just outside the town, a handful of villages have been encouraged to keep cultivating this plump, purplish-blue variety. When it is ripe and oozing with fragrance and sweetness, the delicate skin peels off easily to expose the amber-coloured flesh.
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  • Adventures in Istanbul

    There was never a dull moment growing up in the British Consulate in Sixties Istanbul. Griselda Warr selects photographs from her mother Gillian’s album and tells tales of shooting stars, benign espionage and a call girl wronged

  • Queen of the Wild Frontier

    She may be unconvinced by Noah’s Ark, but Min Hogg finds plenty to feast on as she journeys across the vast borderlands where Turkey approaches Armenia and Iran. From Kars to Van, from Silk Road to honeycombs and colossal breakfasts, she brings a wry, painterly eye to her lively account

Buy the issue
Issue 44, 2010 Classics with a Twist
£8.00 / $10.13 / 331.55 TL
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