A Critical Look At Turkish Photography

Seyit Ali AK
This article printed in "Refo Fotograf Sanatư Dergisi , October 1989, p: 22-37"  under the title "Fotografciligimiz" is electronically published in interactive museum of turkey by the permission of the author.


It is necessary to evaluate the Ottoman photography in the systematic of social and economic structure of the time by going beyond the narrow frame of biographic texts. Which subjects did the photographers take for what purposes? In what ways were their thinking structure, their evaluation of the social and physical surroundings projected to the photographs? What kind of photographs were they forced to take within the general conditions of the time they lived? For this reason we should think the Ottoman Period photography in two periods of Tanzimat / Reforms (1839 to 1876, Abdulmecid I / Abdulaziz) and Abdulhamid II (1876 to 1909). We have located about 150 studios of non-muslim photographers during the Ottoman period. Besides these, we could mention photographers coming from the West carried away by an exotic Eastern image and some native military-clerk photographers. Muslims would be inclined to photography only towards the beginning of the 20th century. Tanzimat is an awakening of a society which had lived for centuries on horseback with a concept of conquest under a central authority, hitting against the "technical and geographic" wall. Because of the distance to the administrative center, the lands conquered became less profitable yielding a lack of authority. In consequence, instead of a consciousness predicting a planned development of cultural and economic factors which are the basis of civilization, a "document of rights" protecting the minorities came forth. It is not possible to talk about a healthy development other than traditional arts during this period. Photography was generally a field where a small group of people with a western background were working at. Their aims were usually photographs of landscapes including ceremonial market places, streets, religious and civilian architectural examples reflecting the superficial texture of life in large cities. The most mature examples of this kind are albums that studio photographers prepared aiming at the foreign market. The exhibition titled "Istanbul Landscapes and Historical Turkish Weapons by Photographs" prepared by Abdullah Brothers for the International Paris Fair in 1867, the album including photographs of Abdulaziz watching the drills of bridge builders by the Danube River in Austria while returning from the Paris Exhibition, the albums named "Usul-i Mimari-yi Osman / Ottoman Architecture" and "Elbise-yi Osmaniyye / Ottoman Costumes" prepared by Foto Sabah / Photo Morning with contributions of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha and his son Osman Hamdi Bey for the International Vienna Exhibition in 1873, the albums in the archives of Yildiz of Iran (1962), Jerusalem (1865), Mount Lebanon, Egypt-Syria (1866) and the portrait of Abdulaziz in a hunting pavilion at Izmit by Abdullah Brothers, the series of Edirne taken by Kargopulo are the outstanding works of the Tanzimat Period. E. Caranza, Robertson, Beato and Berggren should not be forgotten along with the other foreigners taking photographs and publishing them during their eastern journeys to our country after 1850.

Daguerreotyping which does not allow reproduction of images, the liquid collodion plate technique, are the first functional rings of the chain of the development in physics and chemistry of photography. Talbot finds the negative-positive technique in 1841, Madox obtains dry photography using gelatin and bromine in 1871; camera sizes get smaller for practical reasons after the 1880's. During the crawling period of the discovery of photography, studies advancing slowly because of technical insufficiency play an important role from the point of stopping and documenting the period. The period of dim documentary photographs ends in a short time; sincere, warm, realist street landscapes of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) the forerunner of snapshots brings to the art of photography a new vision. Fastman Kodak Company has produced the first film roll in 1888, and has brought out on the market a portable camera easy to use for amateurs the same year. Research for color photography has begun in the 1860's. The Abdulhamit II Period (1876 to 1908) is one where photography has developed in all aspects in the West. Other than studio researches, photography in Turkey has been mostly private informing for Abdulhamit. Works of photographers were controlled. According to a document, taking photographs at the Bosphorus was by permission of the palace. The amount of albums presented to the palace in various periods are approximately 800, with about 35000 photographs. One group of albums are documenting USA, Japan and Far East countries. Three of the albums being in color, one of these is from Istanbul, the two other are from Egypt. There are no photographer, arranger and volume names in some of the albums. Dated ones are rare. The photographs are not carefully kept in archives. Another important collection of the period are the albums consisting of the official opinions about the country that Abdulhamit II has sent to the Library of the American Congress (1893) and the British Museum (1894). There are more than 1200 photographs in 36 albums at the Library of the Congress. Photography has not been an aim for Abdulhamit II but rather means to contact the outer world of his palace where he has confined after the Ciragan Raid (1878) that Ali Suavi had arranged to bring out Murat V to throne. The photographers of the period have had knowledge of this private situation of the Sultan. There is a document registered in the imperial title note-book at the Prime-Ministry Archives, Konstantin Rumallis from Athens expressing his wishes to receive a title from Sultan, in return for the three photography albums he has sent to the palace (1880). The leading photographers of the Ottoman Period have been non-Muslims. Basil Kargapulo, Abdullah Brothers (Kevork, Hovsen, Vincen), Nikolai Andreomenos, Gulmez Brothers, Asil Samanci and Bogos Tarkulyan are either given the title of Artist of Astounding City or photographers known to be close to the palace.

The Press photography develops with the solving of the technical problems met in the production of photo half-tone with the more free milieu after the second Constitution in 1908. About that time Ferit Ibrahim receives an identification document applying to the office as photography correspondent of "Resimli Kitap / Illustrated Book" to avoid the employees preventing him to take photographs. This is the first identification given to a photo correspondent in Turkey. The photographs of the raid of Ittihatcilar / "Union Party members" to the Babiali / Sublime Porte are among important works of Ferit Ibrahim. During the same period, the photographs of the raid of Sehzadebasi Precinct of the Istanbul occupation forces causing Velid Ebuzziya to be exiled to Malta have been effective in arousing national feeling and ideas and gathering forces in Anatolia. Rahmizade Bahaeddin (1910), A. Hikmet Koyunoglu (1920) who opened a studio named "Yeralti Fotografhanesi / Underground Photo House", Naciye Suman who opened "Hanimlar Fotografhanesi / Ladies' Photo House" in 1919 are the names starting the process of Muslims keeping studio photography. Between the years of 1912 and 1923, 1557 otochrome photographs of many regions of Turkey have been taken for the Albert Kahn Collection by various photographers with objectivity, with no internal constraint. Besides other rare albums such as the Ottoman-Greek War of 1897 or the Balkan War of 1914 (Erzurum Ataturk University Library), the visual material formed by private, official and voluntary photographers is a direct information source for our ideas about the Ottoman Empire.

Photography gets to be an influential communication alternative in our country with the beginning of the Republic. The demand by Ataturk of the Independence War to be documented by photographs has yielded as well the pursuit of photography in the period of peace. Ataturk has shown endless understanding to photographers. Most of all, Namik Gorguc, Cemal Isiksel, Seladdin Giz, Cemal Goral, Ali Ersan, Faik Senol, Hilmi Sahenk, who are the founding members of the profession of photo correspondents, have played an important role in reflecting the social developments and the political activities of the Young Turkish Republic. We can follow the course of development of the Republican Period photography from the first pages of the chronological biography of the book "Fotografide Kompozisyon / Composition in Photography" that Sinasi Barutcu has written in 1975. Barutcu is one of the first students sent abroad by the government in the 1920's to specialize in photography. He has been appointed as a "writing, graphics and photography" teacher to the Veteran Training Institution when he returned to the country in 1932. The process of sending students with scholarship abroad and of the application of institutionalizing in the cultural field originates from the idea of the impossibility of development of a single-minded country. Barutcu struggles to found photography in many institutions by continuing his works in Ankara till 1967, founds with friends an association for the first time in our country in 1960, plays an important role to start publishing photographic works. We see the Press Publication General Directorate of which Vedat Nedim Tor has been the director in Ankara become the fortress of photography with Othmar Pferchy between the years of 1933 and 1937. Barutcu takes the duty of chief of photography service of this institution in 1943. It is necessary divide the Republican Period into two different categories of pre and post 1960. Prior to 1960, except for small groups gathering around Barutcu and Ihsan Erkilic at Ankara and Istanbul, photography has an appearance of scattered and insufficient individualist approaches. Munif Fehim, Suat Tenik, Husnu Canturk, Ilhan Arakan, Limasollu Naci, Baha Gelenbevi and the rest from the group exhibitions at the French Cultural Center in Istanbul and the American News Center, Igsan Erkilic, Nurettin Erkilic, Mueddep Erkmen, Sabit Karamani, Haluk Konyali, Fikret Minisker, Cafer Turkmen, Ferit Can, Aziz Albek are such examples. A loving and romantic attitude in evaluation of life has been exhibited in works before 1950. Kemal Baysal appears with a new concept he brings to the field of studio portraiture between the years of 1950 and 1960. Baysal first becomes known with the rewards he receives in photography competitions at halkevleri / cultural centers in 1941 and 1942, then gets photography and cinema education in Germany and USA the following ten years. Mustafa Kapkin (1953) who gets education at Koln, Institution of High Photography, Yasar Atankazanir (1966) who gets education at New York School of Modern Photography are authorities in their own branches. We also see in the same years Yildiz Maran returning from school, opening exhibitions in Istanbul and selling original print postcards, making a living. Besides her works dominated by regional motives, Moran has been interested in interpretations unlimited by time and place. Ara Guler who has participated to an exhibition at Maya Gallery in 1954 with a slide show accompanied by poems of Nevzat Ustun, is the photographer realizing the most exciting and consistent emerging of his time. From the moment Guler is interested to photography, his tendency of "fitting life or senses and ideas into a frame with topic and story", has become in time the characteristic origin of his works. Ara Guler continuing his photography life with a "free lance" spirit for 40 years, has had an accumulation of reportage all over the world.

The dominance of the artist over the material, the evidence of his narrative skills; his inclination to a personal style, his interpretation ability to sharpen a perfect cultural substructure, the reflection of thoughts to works in all ways necessitate a devotion fed with a dense multi-dimensional effort, passion, enthusiasm. High cost in photography, the absence of a market for art products generally keep the interest at an amateur level based on hard work. These amateurs have difficulty to reach a level necessary to realize their ideals. Especially between the years of 1960 and 1980, it is seen that the axis between the beginning and end of many amateurs opening photography exhibitions is very short. However during the mentioned period, the search of identity and language includes a colorful fan. Besides the realist sociological attitude starting from a national and historical consciousness, fantastic tendencies, essays regarding the tissue entity and the exciting appearance of the formation in time of the things in the nature, works without detail aiming the simplicity of the peek, projects towards the inner worlds of a human painting or physiograms prepared in accordance with the rhythm of music... All kinds of technical possibilities are used to find a striking way of expression.

In an artist's life there are different phases regarding essence and form or a structural process that matures in a line taken up from the start. One of the leading names of the 1960 generation, Gultekin Cizgen, states in his article published in the 6th issue of the "Fotograf / Photography" magazine dated the 15th of October 1962: "It appears to me that it is not possible to come up with any plastic reflection through classical photography. A large number of photographers who had endless facilities scanned the entire area for many years, reached with great possibilities from China to the bottom of the oceans, the atmosphere and all over the world. Modern photography started with knocking down all subjects of conventional photography. We have to like this pure photography stripped off from literature as it is the only way out." Cizgen remembered this period in his exhibition "a Wall Facing Another Wall" held at the Istanbul Photography House in 1986 and publishes a paper on the topic. Husnu Gursel, Ahmet Esmer, Ibrahim Zaman, Ozan Sagdic, Teoman Madra, Fikret Otyam, Mustafa Otyilmaz, Ersin Alok, Tacay Erdemsel, Emin Hakarar, Sami Guner and Guler Ertan who begin photography at around the same time have all worked intensively, surpassing themselves up until now. Sahin Kaygun who opens his first personal exhibition in 1968 (Mersin, DGSG/ Fine Arts Gallery of the State) followed by his approach to social realism with polaroid experimentation and completes his work with a series of introverted, rich in symbol mixture of painting and photography technique. Ibrahim Demirel, Halim Kulaksiz, Isa Celik, Semsi Guler, Sabit Kalfagil, Mehmet Bayhan, Reha Gunay, Hasan Kurbanoglu, N. Nurdan Eren, Sitki Firat, Ergun Cagatay, M. Erem Calikoglu, Gulnur Sozmen and Nazif Topcuoglu who hold their first exhibitions in the 1970's have been renowned for their original esthetic approaches acquired as a result of an intense discipline of work.

Art is commonly known as aesthetic relation between man and the objective reality and between our inner world and related connections. In this sense, "art is a product of culture and idea". The success of reflective accents is related to the good usage of language. The solution to harmony of the figure; rhythm arrangement, proportion understanding, application of tonal scale in a sensitive way, explanation power of lines, the correct relation of main figure with the rest, brings a phonetic fluency to the subject structure. Moreover, color consciousness which taking its place on design, is a factor affecting works deeply. Those who are taking photograph in color should consider the saying of Picasso: "the walls of a coffee house should be painted in such a red and such a green that a man could be a killer here." After 1980, the art dynamics of the Turkish photography developed in its essence and shape. A more developed, contemporary and passionate model of the photographer type already existing comes out. These people are in a social and economic status over a certain level, can transfer their income gained from commercial fields to their art works, with a productive tempo and are trying to reach the audience with competitions, exhibitions and publications. Cengiz Karliova, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Emine Ceylan, A. Onder Gezgin, Cerkes Karadag, Kamil Firat, Mustafa Kocabasi, Adnan Atac, Gokhan Yalta, Tahir Un, Faruk Ertunc, Sedat Uzaras, Merih Akogul, Members of the FOG Group, Nevzat Cakir, Ilyas Gocmen, Izzet Keribar, Mehmet kismet, Bulent Ozgoren, Yusuf Tuvi Sedat Tosunoglu, Ilteris Tezer, Selcuk Kundakci trio and Sarkis Baharoglu remain among the names we follow at activities like competitions, exhibitions and albums of the last ten years.

There are many ideologies and art trends in the West making progress along with the social developments from the beginning of the century till today. High technology, rooted cultural and economic developments have lead to new perspectives in all fields. Pop-art, Op-art, Surrealism, Dada developing as a revolt to all artistic tendencies valid at the time, Post-Modernism influence the photographers of the "conceptual art" trend who defend that an art work is not a concrete product, but rather a concept or thought. We reach to applications aiming to get photography out of being a "copy of the outer space". Some changes have occurred in compliance with radical opinions during the process of creation. Compositions are being created, leaving aside the main elements of the classical structure; the horizon line, clarity, depth, perspective, the third dimension of illusion and natural color concept. The methods of condensing the attention of the audience over thinking is facing the danger of being a mathematical. It should not be forgotten that "an art work is an aesthetic subject". After 1980, people interested in different photographic tendencies are raised in our country with western influences. On the other hand, there are those who see art as an organic part of sociological life, those who approach photography directly from a technical point of view in the light of consciousness of nation and history. The walls between the disciplines in art are narrowing today. New flavors are brought to language by concerns over multi-dimensional form and message. However, conditions in social environment play role in the formation of art works. How the difficulty will get passed should be thought of facing a synthesis of the works coming out as result of a cultural bypass with the society.

Many problems of the Turkish photography are being talked for years. They may be classified with a global approach as education, organization, publication, exhibition, sales and material. The solution of the problems depends on a realistic evaluation of "objective conditions formed in culture". There is a close relation between the economic conditions of the country and the development of the raising and the working facilities of the artist with the public approval. The settling of social dynamics and the attainment of a healthy performance will solve many topics. Ismail Tunali says in the introduction of his book "Estetik / Aesthetics" that the "cult of genius has been surpassed" in science and philosophy. The situation is not different in the field of art. There is no way of finding easily a pioneer artist in the 19th century or in the beginning of the 20th century. It is time for artists who will bring photography to an unbreakable part of the cultural mosaic, who are not content with complaining of insufficient accumulation of the past, are well raised, know a foreign language, have an investigating spirit and are disciplinary in all topics.

We hope the 150th year of photography may be the beginning of widespread and permanent works in our country.