Ara Güler: The New York Exhibition

In the opening of his biographical work Photojournalist: The Life Story of Ara Güler, fellow photojournalist Nezih Tavlas quotes an epigram from his subject, the famed Turkish/Armenian photographer best known for his documentation of Istanbul during its decades of transformation in the mid-20th century. 

 

The person running towards an explosion is a photojournalist; the one running away from it is a photographer.

 

Ara Güler not only ran toward his story, but also ran into history as a news photographer, a poet/photographer and a celebrity photographer on assignment for many of the world’s most respected magazines. This last role is his least known, but it is well covered in the traveling exhibition of his work that is now up at the Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 

On Sept. 24, I led a panel discussion there, in the old Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, about Güler’s wide-ranging work. My fellow panelists were Çagla Saraç, who spoke about the Ara Güler Museum and its archives; Alexey Titarenko, a Russian street photographer now living in Manhattan; and Christopher Mahoney, senior international specialist at Phillips, who positioned Güler’s work in the pantheon of art photographers. 

In my own section of the discussion, I presented eight of the 30 celebrity portraits in the exhibition, using Güler’s always entertaining stories about each session.

Here they are:

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

In 1971, Dali is staying at the Meurice Hotel in Paris. When Güler enters his suite, a silhouette rushes towards him, brandishing a cane. “So, you want to photograph me? I am a very famous man. I want $25,000 for 10 minutes of shooting. What journal is it for?” Güler answers, “Life Magazine. I do not have that much cash with me. Anyway, 10 minutes shooting is not my style.”

Güler then describes Dali’s response: “He became angry and held the back of my neck and my belt and dragged me towards the door.” Eventually, Güler escapes with his camera bag. That night, at dinner with his girlfriend, Ginesta, he tells the story. It turns out that Dail is her godfather; so, another meeting is set, and Güler takes Ginesta with him. This time it starts off well until Güler, replying to a question from Dali, says he doesn’t know that Dali had made a film. “I made the greatest film in the world! There will be no greater film in world history.” Güler is certainly film-astute. During Dali’s mandated screening of the film later that night, Güler realizes he knows the film, Un Chien Andalou, as Luis Buñuel’s movie.

In short order, he is able to return to the circus of wannabes and hangers-on that populate Dali’s suite. One day Güler shows Dali the prints he has made of their sessions. “Are you giving these to me?” Dali asks. “Yes, all of them, but I would kindly ask you to sign this one.” The signature refuses to dry, and Güler carries the print aloft through the streets of Paris. It is dry by the next morning, when Güler returns to Suite 101 in the Meurice. “While I was holding one of the cameras, Dali went into another room and came [out] with a dueling sword from the Middle Ages. He waved the sword at me and started to duel.”

Güler convinces Dali to stop jumping around and pose like a matador with a window drape from the room as a cape. As he pulls off the drape, a piece of cornice falls to the floor. Suddenly, plaster is everywhere. Güler shoots continuously as Dali prances around. He writes, “I cannot remember how many objects d’art in the room were broken. Dali and I had engaged in battle, so we could not think about details and the damage we had incurred. We both fell into chairs. I was both laughing and enjoying myself on the inside.”

And now, here is Güler’s point to this story: “I was happy because after so much coming and going, I had finally captured Dali’s atmosphere.” More than any of the other stories in the Tavlas biography — and there are many — this anecdote reveals a lot about this great photographer. Whether it took days to get the most revealing photograph of a legendarily crazy egomaniac or whether he had to wait an hour for a cat to cross his frame and complete the composition of an Istanbul street scene, Ara Güler was a perfectionist.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

In May of 1974, Güler began an odyssey in the United Sates to photograph and interview several dozen “creative Americans” for a book profiling 43 celebrities. With film director George Roy Hill as intermediary, Güler arranges to photograph Alfred Hitchcock. Somehow, the photographer gets the contrary director to loosen up and even put his legs up on a table. Hitch, at one point, “opened a hidden bottle of whiskey because his wife did not allow him to drink. ‘Nobody can interfere with us now because we are working. Come on, let’s have a couple of drinks,’ he says. We really cut loose after that. I imagine I took 200 photographs. He gave me the best poses so far. He really knew how to add something special to a pose. He managed to add the element of fear into photographs.”  One can only add in consideration of Güler’s acumen, “all in a day’s work.”

Sophia Loren
Sophia Loren

Here is one of the photos of which Güler was most proud. He was often on assignment at the Cannes Film Festival; he went there more than a dozen times. When told by a colleague that Sophia Loren is on her way to the Carlton, Güler says he has photographed her “a million times.” Somehow, dressed in a tux and bow tie, he is able to follow Loren and her husband, Carlo Ponti, into the Carlton elevator, up to the ninth floor and into their suite. They think he is with their party. “Thank God we are saved from the fracas,” Loren says. Not wanting to stand out in the small group, Güler walks over to director Alberto Lattuada and engages him in conversation about the success of Italian films in Turkey. Güler recalls, “Sophia Loren went into the bedroom and took her shoes off and sat on the bed comfortably. I immediately seized the opportunity and said, ‘Let me take a few photographs of you; no one has ever seen you like this.’ ‘Oh, go on, then,’ she said. When I sent the pictures … they had written the following text underneath: ‘Our reporter in Sophia Loren’s bedroom.’ That was the heading. They printed posters out of it and hung it all over the streets; the sensational news was mine, but I didn’t have a clue.”

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams

In the summer of 1954, Williams is visiting Istanbul, where his play A Streetcar Named Desire has recently been staged to great acclaim. Güler discovers Williams is staying at the Hilton Hotel and convinces the desk clerk to give him the room number. After some discussion, Güler takes Williams to Guney Park, a local music hall, where they meet up with several journalists and consume large quantities of raki. Williams insists on going to a hamam, a Turkish bath, where it is indicated he may meet young men. They wake the hamam officer up at 1 a.m. and negotiate a bath. Sometime later, Güler meets Williams at the writer’s home in Rome and presents him with photos. In his diary, Williams recounts the visit: “I woke up in the morning with diarrhea and pains. I was told that a Turkish photographer I met in Istanbul was at the door. He had brought an album of photographs he had taken. How fat, ugly and stunted I turned out. He stayed and stayed and stayed. I could not work at all.” Here is one time that Güler seems to have been “the man who came to dinner” rather than a welcome co-conspirator.

William Saroyan
William Saroyan

Güler’s effort to photograph this writer, a fellow Armenian, went on for years after Tennessee Williams told him Saroyan was the best dialogue writer ever. Güler tried to find the elusive Saroyan in country after country. In Paris, he gets a phone number and calls. “Ha, Ara Güler, I remember I received all your letters. I did not respond because I knew you would find me. Where are you now?” Güler is in a café near the Opera. Saroyan gives him directions to his home, where the unshaven author greets him.

Güler continues, “There was practically no furniture in the house. Two wooden chairs, a folding wooden table, a few dried-up flowerpots on the windowsills on the balcony side, and late 17th century French-style fireplaces in both rooms … the bed was by the wall, books strewn all over the place.” They quickly connect. Saroyan tells Güler, “'When I was in Turkey, you were not there …. What is Yashar Kemal doing?’ I explained  about Yashar for a while. ‘Well, what about Fikret Otyam?’ Then I talked some more about Firket. ‘Well, who did you photograph in America?’ I listed nearly 40 names.’” They begin to walk the streets of Paris, and Güler understands that even more than he himself, Saroyan loves being with and talking to people, people from many walks of life. The two begin to compare childhoods, Güler talking about his pharmacist father, Dacat, and how he was hounded by anti-Armenians, and Saroyan about his own father from Bitlis.

In the catalogue for Creative Americans (1975), Güler wrote this caption under his photograph of Saroyan: “Do you know the little people in your neighborhood? For example, if you are in Spain, do you know your neighbor, the small-scale shoe shiner, or the leather master on Rue Lafitte if you are in Paris, or the ice-cream seller in Copenhagen? Even if you do not know them, William Saroyan knows them all and their worlds as well. He was born in Fresno, but he has become a man of the world. Observing the world through his perspective is superior to discovering the world for the second time. Saroyan teaches us how important the smallest things are.”

This is also a perfect description of Ara Güler’s way in the world.

Nazim Hikmet
Nazim Hikmet

When I mentioned I was going to talk about the poet Nazim Hikmet at the Heye, Alexey Titarenko jokingly (I think) suggested that Hikmet was Russian, not Turkish. It is an indication how revered this leftist poet is in worldwide revolutionary circles. Titarenko mentioned the 13-year term Hikmet served in Bursa prison beginning in 1938. Even after his amnesty release following a 1950 Turkish general election, no one in Turkey would publish the full work until after Hikmet’s death in June 1963. Despite Hikmet’s career-long troubles with Turkish authority, he is much loved by the people as a spokesman for their character and lives. I am now reading his great prose poem composed in prison, Human Landscapes from My Country. I find it deeply moving, one of the greatest epics of ordinary lives lived in the chaos of the 20th century. 

The Italian publisher of Human Landscapes asks Güler for photographs. He submits eight on life in Anatolia “on condition that his name was not published.” We can only wish Güler had written more about Hikmet in his book, but these are delicate times in politics everywhere. Hikmet is buried in Moscow’s famed Novodevichy Cemetery, giving stronger voice to Alexey’s claim of Hikmet’s Russian prominence. However, the poet’s final wish was to be buried under a plane tree in any village cemetery in his beloved Anatolia.

Picasso
Picasso

The story of Güler’s pursuit (there’s no other way to describe it) of Picasso reads like a labyrinth of false turns and dead ends. He makes attempts through contacts with Picasso’s publisher, Albert Skira, and the painter’s son, Claude. The bartender at a bar near Picasso’s home in the Notre Dame-de-Vie region outside Cannes disabuses Güler of his notions about a set appointment. “Right in this room where you are sitting now, the ambassador of Russia in Paris waited for exactly 12 days to give Picasso the highest medal in Russia, the Lenin Medal. Picasso had forgotten that the man was waiting here.”

With Skira running interference, Güler arrives at Picasso’s home, and Picasso bursts out, saying, “Hello, Albert, welcome. Go in and wait. I will be back within an hour … I am going to meet the man I fear most, [my] dentist.” Later, Picasso leads the photographer through a series of increasingly dark rooms until “he opened another door, this room was even darker … In the center of the wall there is an easel, an old chest, newspapers on the chest which are covered with paints. Opposite the easel is a camera reflector, and that was it. It was like the operating table of a surgeon … He painted most of his paintings in the light of the projector. That is why I photographed him always in the dark room: everything is black, empty space and a man in the space.”

Güler’s beard was just starting to turn gray. Picasso says, “But you really look like Cézanne. Wait, let me draw your picture.” Picasso finds a blank page in a nearby book and does a drawing of Güler, then dedicates it to him and signs it. The book turns out to be very rare edition of a Picasso monograph. Güler ends up spending four days with Picasso. His recollection of this time is the longest chapter in the Tavlas book. He concludes, “Those four days opened new horizons for me. It was like a magic wand, a magic flute. [They] are the most privileged days of my life. He enlightened me. Picasso changed my outlook on the world.”

Ashik Veysel
Ashik Veysel

I have saved this portrait till the end. I find it the most moving for several reasons. It is one of Güler’s most intimate, and there are reasons for this dramatic portrait. Veysel was a blind musician and poet, a true artist of the people. There is no doubt Güler felt strong spiritual kinship with him. Watching YouTube videos of Veysel playing the long-necked lute called the baglama and singing his own folk stories, one is reminded of American folk troubadours like Woody Guthrie or, more to the point, the raw voice of someone like Delta bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson. 

In late 1957, Güler was shooting a cultural documentary for French television in Anatolia. He went with friends and the crew to see Veysel in his small village, Sharkishla, in Sivas province. They stayed for days, shooting scenes of village life, including “harvest gathering, grinding grain with a grinder turned by a blindfolded horse, gathering bales with a harrow; I took photos of many faces, working girls, men, an elderly woman churning away. Subsequently, I found out they were all Vesley’s grandchildren, children, daughters-in-law, and the elderly lady churning was his wife. Thus, I photographed Veysel’s whole extended family.”

Being a neophyte about Turkish folk culture, I asked a young movie director and friend, Cenk Erturk, whether Veysel is a figure known to younger Turkish citizens. This is his e-mail response:


Ashik Veysel is still very well known among Turkish youths, as his songs are being covered by important rock bands, big rap singers (a big cultural phenomenon in Turkey nowadays) and pop singers. He is an artist any person from any background would like. I always call him ‘the wise of the land (soil).’ His songs are very pure and simple but cover very big existential issues of being human. For instance, the song you sent is called ‘uzun ince bir yoldayim,which means, ‘I’m on a long and narrow road,’ referring to life, the living itself …. The Turkish audience would love hearing his name in any talk.


The traveling exhibition of Güler’s work will be at the Heye Center in New York through April 10, 2020. It is the only U.S. venue for the show, which celebrates a facet of this great photographer’s work that is too seldom seen. The exhibition includes nearly two dozen other portraits of major Turkish writers, American and European filmmakers, political and scientific figures and movie stars. 

A broader look into Güler’s portraits can be found in the recent book Creating the 20th Century: 100 Artists, Writers and ThinkersIn his introduction to the book, Alberto Manguel, a bibliophile/scholar and director of the National Library of Argentina, calls this portrait anthology a “Noah’s Ark of world culture.” He writes, “Gazing into the faces Güler has portrayed, we recognize the eyes that taught us to see, the hands that taught us to touch, the lips that lent us the vocabulary with which to reflect on who and where we are today.”

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