- What’s On
The grainy black and white images of Ara Güler evoke the vanished world of post-war Istanbul like no others, says Andrew Finkel, and the stories they tell never leave us
There can’t be many who recall with fondness the whirs and clicks of those telephone answering machines that worked with twin cassettes of magnetic tape. But decades later I cannot get out of my head the welcoming message of one number I used to call. “This is press photographer Ara Güler,” it began, in an accent so gnarled even a Henry Higgins-trained linguist might have had been flummoxed trying to tease out its roots. The voice was as distinctive as the photographs of the man himself.
Or at least I think that’s what it said. Memory is an unreliable authority. I also recall Ara’s name coming up in conversation with another news photographer. This was 1994 and I had been commissioned to do a piece with Ara about the Ottoman Archives for the US Library of Congress magazine. I imagine I was trying to impress this other colleague with how I was working with Turkey’s greatest talent, a man who rubbed shoulders with Henri Cartier Bresson in the Magnum consortium. The very opposite proved true. “Ara Güler!” he nearly spat out the words, and with a sneer forged, I suspect, by envy, declared every picture the man ever took was “flu”, ie out of focus.
Thinking back, it is not the photographs that are blurry – though some, of course, like the dolmuş rank on the Galata Bridge on a snowy night in 1958 (right), are deliberately so – but the world of memory they invoke. If you close your eyes and try to recreate a post-war Istanbul (his first solo exhibition was in 1966), it is the photographs of Ara Güler that come to mind. His images occupy our imagination. A man walks down a cobbled street. In a minute he will disappear. But it is not just the man who will be gone but the cobbles themselves, along with the imposing, if dilapidated façades of the street down which he walks. It is as if Ara already knew the reflections in his viewfinder would vanish – but of course he couldn’t have.
He took portraits of Maria Callas and Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, and the young Dustin Hoffman. And here, too, he takes one step back to point his Leica not so much at facial contours, the cheekbones or furrowed brows, as at the person within. His real celebrities, however, are the working men and women of Istanbul, their grainy features melding seamlessly into a grainy cityscape that no longer exists. These photos are operatic, in the sense that we are looking down from the gods, and though we see the people who are performing, what holds our attention is a greater spectacle.
Yet, by the authority of the message on his answering machine, Ara Güler thinks of himself not as an artist, the keeper of memory, but as a working hack, trying to tell a story. Fictive or not, my own memory of the first time we met was in 1989 at a refugee camp by the Bulgarian border. Tens of thousands of ethnic Turks were being forced from their homes by a Bulgarian regime destined to collapse a few months later. He approached with the bow-legged gait of a cowboy just descended from a horse, the Leica hanging awkwardly from a strap on his neck like a bit of extraneous matter of whose purpose he wasn’t sure. He was just a bloke taking pictures. As he stabbed away at the shutter, there was no sign of that inner demon telling him exactly which ones to take.
Later, I visited him at his studio. I was then working for a Turkish newspaper and we were doing a spread of his work for the Sunday supplement. The rooms were at the top of a building above what I learned was the family pharmacy – years later converted into the affable Ara Café. The rooms were chaotic, even by the lax standards of someone whose own study is perpetually in need of a serious spring clean. Yet he knew exactly where to find the prints of the photos he was most proud of. Some of those images have resurfaced in John Freely’s posthumous memoir, Stamboul Ghosts. This is no coincidence. Ara goes by the sobriquet “the Eye of Istanbul”. John became known as “Istanbul’s Memory” and knowingly writes about a city that is no longer there. And it is fitting too that the Güler collection will emerge from boxes and in-trays full of negatives into a museum in the Bomonti part of town.
It might be fanciful, but I wonder if growing up surrounded by chemicals and apothecary solutions hadn’t forced Ara Güler’s choice of profession; if it wasn’t so much the act of taking the photo that first attracted him but the magic of the darkroom as the black and white images emerged. If so, it should come as no surprise that what attracts us is how those same images threaten at any moment to disappear back into the darkness.
The Ara Güler Museum opens in Bomontiada,Istanbul, on the photographer’s 90th birthday, August 16, 2018.
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