“The secret of Guler’s photographs is that they allow us to see this great imperial centre, still the Turkish Republic’s richest city, in images that also evoke the fragility of its people and the poverty of its streets and teahouses and ramshackle workshops.”
- Orhan Pamuk
The city of Istanbul, a bustling conglomeration of humanity straddling two continents, has always evoked a sense of mystique. Its hybrid East-West character and outward-looking maritime disposition give it an alluring face which beckons the visitor to partake in its robust variety of human interaction.
Ara Guler, nicknamed “the Eye of Istanbul”, is a Turkish photographer of Armenian descent who spent decades documenting the soft human underbelly of this former seat of Empires. Guler spent three decades, beginning in the 1950s, capturing images of Istanbul during a hurried phase in its transformation into a modern, industrialized, city.
His photographs are often described as vignettes that border on paintings. They capture a city and its inhabitants that seem to almost stagger under the weight of new incarnations suddenly grafted upon them. Gritty and mist-covered scenes involving shops, factories, shipyards, back-alleys and the hurried traffic of cars, people, horse-carts and buses, are reminiscent of images from turn-of-the-century New York.
In addition to containing what Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls Istanbul’s “ostentatious splendor” one finds in Guler’s photos what Pamuk also describes as “fatigue, the wear and tear, and the human face of poverty.” His images, many of which convey a sense of melancholy and tattered innocence also have a commotion, energy and life-force brought to bear by the human element present in them.
Ara Guler was born in 1928. He started working as a photojournalist in the 1950s for Turkish magazines and newspapers while taking commissions from numerous international publications. In the 1970s, he traveled around the world and to remote parts of Turkey documenting people and life in colour. Yet, his most evocative images are still considered to be the black-and-white images taken in Istanbul in the 1950s and 1960s with his Leica camera.
Guler’s former studio, in the district of Beyoglu, is now a museum and archive containing some 800,000 of his images.