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Eye of the Beholder

The visionary photographs of Yıldız Moran

Yildiz Moran abandoned photography for lexicography at the age of 30. But her decade behind the lens left an astonishing body of work, celebrated this year at Istanbul Modern. By Jamie Leptien

The iconic image of Yıldız Moran (1932–95), Turkey’s first professionally trained female photographer, is a self-portrait from 1955. Taken in the year she opened her first studio in Istanbul, it shows Moran with what looks like a framed print of a modern painting behind her. The artwork was most likely borrowed from Adalet Cimcoz, Turkey’s first female gallerist, whose Maya Gallery was located on the ground floor of the same building as Moran’s studio. As well as cannily foreshadowing the photograph’s future presentation, framed and hung on a gallery wall, the artwork seems to tell us in no uncertain terms the context in which Moran wishes to be seen. As for Moran herself, there is something calmly imperious about her pose – looking down past her nose and holding her chin – that is heightened by the sight of two male hands holding up the artwork behind her: Yıldız is the star, and the man is reduced to an anonymous role as prop support. The subtle but deliberate symbolic empowerment of the image is all the more impressive when we think that Moran was only 22 or 23 when it was taken.

Despite the self-assurance evidenced by the photograph, Moran could hardly have imagined that it would adorn posters all over Istanbul in the winter of 2018–19, advertising the latest in a series of exhibitions drawing fruitfully on the archive completed by her family in 2008, 13 years after her death. Occupying the top floor of Istanbul Modern’s temporary location this spring, Yıldız Moran: A Mountain Tale combined some of Moran’s best-loved photographs with never-before-seen work from an archive of almost 14,000 negatives. According to her son, the film director Olgun Arun, the exhibition represents only “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of her work.

Having wanted to be a painter since childhood, Moran had not considered photography as a career until she was 18. While in her final year at Robert College, a prestigious American bilingual school overlooking the Bosphorus, Moran was having tea with her uncle when he suggested she become a photographer. As she put it later, “Any uncle could say this to their niece, but when that uncle is [the Turkish art historian] Mazhar Şevket İpşiroğlu, that changes things.” As if seeing her destiny loom suddenly into view, she moved to London to study photography that same year. (Like any great photographer, Moran had an intuition for what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”.)

When she arrived in London in 1951, the matron who welcomed her at the Bloomsbury Technical College for Women feigned dismay, telling Moran that London would swallow up a young foreign girl like her. The reverse turned out to be true. After Bloomsbury, Moran completed her training at the Ealing Technical College & School of Art and soon found work as an apprentice to some of England’s best-known portraitists: Baron (full name Sterling Henry Nahum), one-time court photographer to the Royal Family, and John Vickers, photographer in residence at London’s Old Vic theatre.

Stepping into a lineage of great British society photographers (Vickers was an apprentice to the surrealist-inspired Angus McBean and would himself apprentice the fashion photographer Mario Testino), Moran mastered the techniques of studio portraiture and acquired a fondness for the inky blacks and celestial whites so typical of 1950s glamour. These tones – seen in unexpected places, like a beachscape in Portugal or a man chasing a cart into a limestone gulley in Cappadocia – are part of what takes her work out of the realm of documentation into a more personal, impressionistic idiom. By 1953 she was renting her own space at the Camera Club on Manchester Square in London and selling portraits for £7 each. After travels in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Austria and South Africa, she held her first exhibition at Trinity College, Cambridge, and sold all 25 works on the opening day. Success was slow to come on her return to Istanbul. Speaking to a journalist in her studio on Kallavi Sokağı in 1955, where the walls hosted a permanent, constantly changing exhibition, she noted: “Even at 25 to 30 lira each I haven’t sold a single one.” Gradually the photos exhibited from her travels in Europe and South Africa began to be replaced by photos from Anatolia and elsewhere in Turkey. Moran’s best images from this time are inhabited by a spirit of wonder: Anatolia, she said in 1957, was a “brand-new, untouched subject”. At the same time, her curiosity is a quiet and deferent one: she rarely shoots face on, her gaze seeming poignantly to index the social distance between her and her subjects.

Like a Bildungsroman without a sequel, the story of Moran’s career all but ended in 1963. Aged 30, she married the poet Özdemir Asaf and had three sons in the space of four years. For ten years, she said, she harboured hopes of returning to photography. “But after a break, it’s a very difficult, pitiless field. To maintain your level requires great effort. Like every art, it can’t be done by halves. Better not to do it at all.”

At a time when examples of successful female photographers were extremely rare, Moran may also have sensed that she was ahead of her time. In 1959, she had sent her work to Edward Steichen, one of the world’s best-known photographers and then director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Steichen’s response included the presumptuous recommendation that her photographs acquire “a deeper, more penetrating understanding of the land and the people of Turkey”. He ended by advising her: “You have a long, hard, hard road ahead of you to reach achievement.”

Although there is something disturbing about her abrupt break with photography, it did lend her body of work an extraordinary coherence. Like an image given just the right exposure, the vision she articulated over 12 years appears to us with remarkable clarity.

Between 1963 and her death in 1995, while raising a family, Moran channelled her creative energies into a second career as a lexicographer and translator. Putting her near-bilingual command of English to use, she completed the second, third and fourth editions of A Turkish-English Dictionary, compiled by her father, A Vahid Moran, in 1924, as well as publishing a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms.

For those interested in seeing a forgotten site in Turkey’s feminist history, the building occupied by Moran and Adalet Cimcoz’s gallery in 1955 still stands at No 20 Kallavi Sokağı. A stone’s throw from the Grand Hotel de Londres in Pera on Istanbul’s European side, it looked disused when I found it on a windswept day in March.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 59

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Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
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Buy the issue
Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
£12.00 / $15.25 / 498.57 TL
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