Balkon, A Photo Diary: Orhan Pamuk

He is Turkey’s Nobel Laureate, a novelist whose visually detailed writing about his home city of Istanbul and its denizens makes him truly “a painter in words.” In fact, until he was 22, Orhan Pamuk pursued painting with an unrequited passion. It should be no surprise, then, that at age 60 he bought a Canon 5D camera with a telephoto zoom lens, set it up on a tripod on the balcony of his apartment and began to take photographs of the Bosphorus and its ever-changing light and weather as thousands of boats and ships sailing under every imaginable flag traversed the historic band of water separating Europe and Asia. 

In the introduction to the Seidel edition of the resultant book, Balkon, Pamuk writes:

Between December 2012 and April 2013, I took 8,500 photographs of the view of the apartment where I lived and wrote in the Cihangir neighborhood of Istanbul. While taking these photographs, I came to realize that there was a link between this new activity I was pursuing with so much vigor and conviction and my state of mind …. I write this introduction as a way of exploring my state of mind at the time, and of investigating the broader connection between photography and the photographer’s ‘mood.’


In the autumn of 2012, Pamuk was in Manhattan, where he has been teaching a course annually at Columbia University. He writes:

In November 2012, shortly before returning to Istanbul, I finally did what I had long dreamed about and went to New York’s famous photography shop, B&H, on Ninth Avenue in midtown, to purchase a camera and a telephoto lens.

It’s not difficult to imagine the feelings of anticipation and uncertainty that may have entered his mind as he looked up at B&H’s famed overhead moving conveyer trays, which transport hundreds of pieces of professional photo and video equipment toward the pickup point, his purchase as a tyro-lenser just another cashier ring-up regardless of his status in the world of letters.

When Carol and I stayed in Istanbul recently, we had the good fortune to be in a hotel just below the heights of Taksim Square; our room had a commandingly clear view of the Bosphorus. We found it addictive to stand at our window at all hours, watching the parade of laden ships, local ferries and tour boats crisscrossing the strait; we were amazed that such a seeming hodgepodge of traffic could avoid constant collisions. It was only in the dead of night, when I would awake and walk to the window, that there was a quiet sea lane. There were even rare moments when I could see just a single or no ship moving on the water.

One thing Pamuk hoped to capture with his camera was the true subject of much of his writing, as well as the focus of the 83 vitrines in his Museum of Innocence: memory, that elusive jewel of our brains.

Pamuk writes:

This idea of beauty and impermanence was epitomized in my mind by the beams of light that would appear intermittently among the city’s domes and the fast-moving clouds that gathered in the sky …


Ever the archivist and custodian of images, Pamuk also offers:

Another reason for taking photographs was that the sea, the minarets, the ships, the bridges, the rowing boats, the sailboats, and everything else that I would see stretching before me were saturated with memories.


This brings to mind the chicken-or-egg question of why we take photos at all. Is it to capture the moment on the fly, or is it that estimable aide-de-memoire that we can call upon as we age to remind us of who we were, especially in this post-literate age when so few of us keep a journal or diary or write handwritten letters to loved ones to document our emotional lives. (Think back on the near transcendent letters home that were referenced in the voiceover narration of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. We have devolved from the quasi-literacy of emails, downwards to texting, Twitter and, God forbid, emojis as the de facto carriers of our efforts at self-expression.) 

On Oct. 14, 2018, Pamuk met with Gerhard Steidl in the publisher’s office at Düstere Str. 4 in Göttingen, Germany. They discussed an upcoming interview about Balkon that would take place in the rare-book room of the iconic Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. Here is an excerpt from that interview that explains the book’s layout:

Pamuk says he averaged 70 photos a day during the four months he dedicated to the work — a fastidious undertaking, like his novels and his museum.

A precise documentarian, he breaks down his photography ritual.

I spent about 10 hours a day at my desk next to the balcony. So on average, I was taking 7 photos an hour — or rising from my desk for a new photograph every 8 minutes.


One has to wonder what Pamuk’s concentration was like for the other six or so minutes between photos, when he probably had pen to paper. (He writes longhand.) The 8,500 photographs were culled down to the 568 in the book — and in its traveling gallery exhibition. 

I won’t quote further from Pamuk’s introduction so you can have the pleasure of reading how he explores the sea and city’s changing moods of light and movement.

What I will leave you with is an interview Pamuk gave to the Louisiana Channel about how he has come to define, on his own terms, his international identity as an “Istanbul writer.”


The Eye of Istanbul: Ara Güler


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