Standing back from a close look at his photograph of a cluster of wooden fishing boats docked at a quay on Istanbul’s Golden Horn, Ara Güler turns to an offscreen interviewer who asks, “Do you remember shooting that?” His answer is, “Of course I remember. Do I look that stupid?”
Güler, also known as “The Eye of Istanbul,” did not suffer fools. He died last October at age 90.
On Sept. 25, a traveling exhibition of Güler’s photography will open at The Smithsonian’s Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan. It will feature his images of Istanbul from the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were made on the quays and bridges of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus and in the narrow, cobbled streets of the old city; there will also be photographs of political and cultural celebrities he took on assignment. But there won't be any of his important but lesser known work in Anatolia, especially in Aphrodisias in the village of Geyre, among archeological Greek, Roman and Hellenistic sites and excavations.
It’s the Istanbul images that are Güler’s best known work, created over decades in which the city grew from a struggling-to-modernity backwater of 1 million inhabitants to today’s megalopolis of 15 million.
Güler recorded this urban transformation as new, towering office buildings loomed over the crumbling and eventually demolished 19th century wooded yalis that fronted the banks of the Bosphorus on both the Europe and Asian shores.
This is also the city of Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who was born in 1952 and came of age in the neighborhoods of Taksim, Galatasaray, Tünel and Karaköy. Pamuk’s memoir of his childhood, Istanbul: Memories of the City, is both intimate and expansive in his love of the city. The “expanded” edition of the book contains several hundred photographs of Old Istanbul, many by Güler; the cheaper reproductive quality of the book’s non-glossy print pages endows these images with a newsy, grainy quality that befits the decay of the wood and stone houses and the melancholic spirit that they inhabit, hüzün.
Pamuk’s introduction to Güler’s Thames and Hudson monograph evokes the details that paint a rich portrait of this historic city:
Ara Güler’s Istanbul is my Istanbul. It is the city where I live; the city I know and think I know; the city I see as a single world and as an indivisible part of myself … its streets, pavements, shops and dirty, neglected factories; its ships, horse carts, buses, clouds, private taxis, shared taxis, buildings, ridges, chimneys, mists and people; and the soul in all these things, so difficult to recognize at first sight — is nowhere as well documented, preserved and protected as it is in the photographs of Ara Güler.
A video introduction to Güler’s work was made by TRT World, the international television service of the Turkish government, on the occasion of the opening of the Ara Güler Museum in the neighborhood of the old Bomonti beer factory.
Three years earlier, producer Umran Safter and directors Binnur Karaevli and Fatih Kaymak made the one-hour documentary The Eye of Istanbul, which is as much a portrait of Güler in his own words as it is about the images he created in his near 60-year career. His response to being called a “photographer” is typical of his sometimes thorny quips. “Son, I am a historian; I record history,” he tells an interviewer. He also decries the iPhone and the social-media generation that shoots indiscriminate snapshots as though they were strands of pasta. Güler fears there may be nothing left for him to photograph, insisting “the only place left to go is Hell.”
Güler is a photographer who watched and waited when he came into a scene. He tells of once waiting 90 minutes to photograph a cat: “Goddamn that cat!” But even as a grizzled nonagenarian, it was evident in his every utterance that Güler would not cease photographing the daily lives of people as long as he had breath in him.
In a controversial decision, The Eye of Istanbul was not chosen for the Istanbul Film Festival. Güler, like Pamuk, has never been a toady of the establishment, and both artists speak with passion about freedom for their respective arts. While heralded by scholars and fellow photographers, especially ones from Magnum, it is Güler’s own voice that best describes why and how he created this “history” of Istanbul and its denizens. (You can watch the film on Amazon Prime.)
Güler says that the film Cinema Paradiso, by Giuseppe Tornatore, best captures his own early love of film. Like the movie’s Salvatore, he worked as a projectionist (in the Yildaz Cinema) as a youth. “It was the cinema,” Güler says, ”that taught me all about setting the stage …. A photograph also has mise en scène.” This simple, almost throwaway remark provides a revealing entry into Güler’s portraits as live dramas. Activity stops only in an instant, a whirl of people, boats and birds amidst the surrounding waterscape of one of the world’s most visually dynamic cities.
In 2017, Nevih Tavlas published an English edition of his Güler biography, Photojournalist: The Life Story of Ara Güler. While researching and interviewing the artist between 2007-2010, Tavlas made hundreds of photographs of the initially resistant “historian.” Here is a 10-minute compilation of Tavlas’ portraits:
In a vitrine in the Ara Güler Museum is one of his beloved Leica cameras, and alongside it is his 16mm Bolex. Güler’s work is not a compilation of discrete still photographs, but a film-like narrative, a story of a city and its people — and of his own presence in that lifelong “movie.”