Istanbul: Gateway to Happiness

Photographs by Paul Veysseyre

Text by Paul Veysseyre and Jeanine Riegel,
translated by Patrick Creber

Photographs by Paul Veysseyre
Published by Editions Djahânnâma
£39.50

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Hardback, 120 black and white plates
Book Review | Cornucopia 48

Muted World

By Maggie Quigley-Pınar


MUTED WORLD By Maggie Quigley-Pınar

This handsome volume consists of 120 black-and-white photographs of Istanbul taken between 1972 and 1991 by the French photographer Paul Veysseyre. For those who have lived in Istanbul, or who passed through during that era, or for first-time visitors seeking an unusual memoir of Istanbul, Veysseyre’s photographs invest the city with an unexpected dignity, presence and detachment. For lovers of photography and urban history, they are a mysterious treasure trove of views and characters.

These are images of a city teetering, accidentally or intentionally, on the brink of social and political change. Colour comes by way of the artist’s accounts of the grand old city under pressure from the daily transactions of a burgeoning population, and from a complementary “insider’s view” by his colleague, the writer Jeanine Riegel, a longtime resident of Istanbul. Born in Lyon in 1947, Veysseyre had a boyhood fascination with photography that became a passion. He learnt his craft while studying maths, economics and history of art at Lyon University. It was the black-and-white photography of the American Magnum photographer Constantine Manos (in particular his Suite Grecque), which Veysseyre first saw in 1972, that would inspire a “similar style of work on Istanbul”.

His early fascination with Turkey saw him returning again and again over three decades to a city in constant flux and always full of surprises – first as traveller, later as a resident of the city while he worked as a teacher and an archaeological photographer at the Institut Français d’Etudes Anatoliennes in the late 1970s and 1980s. It is Veysseyre’s vision of the incongruities and harmonies of the changing city that can be seen in this book.

Veysseyre has held the post of specialist photographer at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Saint-Romain-en-Gal since 1987, and has taught photography at Lyon 3 University. He has been responsible for several publications and exhibitions devoted to archaeology and art conservation, among them L’Usure du temps (1998) and Sauvé des eaux (2007). His photographs of Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia have also been the subject of numerous exhibitions.

I first met Paul at Istanbul University in the 1970s. We regularly escaped together from the lecture rooms into the “real world” of the second-hand book stalls of Beyazıt’s Sahaflar market and the unfailingly surprising streets of Kalenderhane and Vefa. I well remember the delight of watching him in a Balat alley – behind his Leica lens, with an icy November drizzle running off the end of his nose – as he focused (seeing but unseen) on a cat emerging from behind bars, while I and his other companions speculated from the dry haven of a nearby portico what lasting image might evolve from this unlikely encounter: the cat clearly a symbol of resilience and adaptability in the urban jungle.

In this volume, he sets his personal observations of everyday folk against the enquiring documentarist’s search for time-defying images. We see flame-brittle timber houses and ephemeral street objects, views inevitably destined for oblivion, and ancient stone alleys and billboards that even now remain defiantly indestructible. He guides the viewer through lost and forgotten districts, taking us on a journey as much through time as through a neglected city, which perhaps will soon have entirely disappeared.

He shows us iron barges long gone from the city’s waters but here still bearing coal for the ferryboats. Waterside mosques stand wrapped in sea mists, houses are reoccupied by urban latecomers, Ottoman hans house impromptu foundries. Such are the textures and tones of the urban landscape suspended in this fascinating visual documentary.

Decades of work, travel and exploration inform Veysseyre’s photography. The key is his skill in so positioning himself as to render the unseen visible – against all odds. Picture him, camera in hand, during the Iran–Iraq war, on the hills outside Tabriz and you will see a photographer seeking the high ground even at moments of extreme duress. Like James Joyce ensconced on the balcony of Bewley’s coffee shop in Dublin, fleshing out characters from the passing throngs below, you know that Veysseyre is always, whatever the risk, prepared to share his vantage point.

Veysseyre’s chosen metaphor for this encounter is that Islamic terrace suspended, sometimes precariously, over the street, from which the viewer sees what would doubtless go unnoticed at ground level. So attached is Veysseyre to this image that he gave its name, cihannüma, transliterated the French way, to the publishing house founded specially for his series of photographic publications on Turkey, Éditions Djahânnâma.

Some of these images have been previously exhibited; many more are being seen for the first time. Ironically, for one so enamoured of such a metaphor, heights and climbing were never Veysseyre’s strong suit – which makes his determination to climb the minaret of the Süleymaniye in 1982 in pursuit of an unusual viewpoint seem all the braver, if not decidedly reckless. “To get permission for this daunting task was an unending trek from this government office to that,” he recalls. “I’d be told: ‘It’s not under the jurisdiction of this department. Try the ministry of culture… try the municipality… try the müftülük…’”

Finally acquiring some form of authorisation, the photographer sets off on his daunting climb up the rickety stone steps, emerging from pitch-blackness into sunlight on the first şerefe (balcony), only to find the railings dangerously loose. After several moments, too terrified to move, he looks around: “The view was so extraordinary that I soon forgot my vertigo and became totally absorbed in taking pictures.”

Unaware of the passing of time, he is so startled by the sudden sound of the muezzin’s voice from round the other side of the balcony that he almost drops the camera. Of course at prayer time back in 1986 the priest would still have had to climb the minaret.

At an early exhibition of his Istanbul images in a Lyon suburb in 1984, Veysseyre noticed one particular visitor staring intently at each photo. It was the Turkish consul in Lyon, Özcan Davaz, freshly arrived in his new post from Tehran. A native of Bostancı, Mr Davaz thanked the artist for his fresh renderings of the city he knew and loved. “Such pictures are rarely to be seen,” he said. Davaz has remained one of the photographer’s most ardent admirers.

Maggie Quigley-Pinar is an art historian living in Istanbul.
The second volume of Paul Veysseyre’s three-part series of photographs of Turkey, ‘Anatoliques’, is due to be published in 2013

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