Lessons from legendary photographer Ara Güler ‘The Eye of Istanbul’
© Ara Güler
”Art is something important, but the history of humanity is more important, and that is what press photographers record. We are the eyes of the world. We see on behalf of other people.
We collect the visual history of today’s earth. To me, visual history is more important than art. The function of photography is to leave documentation for coming centuries.” Ara Güler
Last night I watched a documentary about the Turkish photographer Ara Güler, called The Eye of Istanbul. He died recently at the age of 90 and I wanted to reflect a little on his life today, as he had much to teach us about photography and living life with passion and purpose.
I truly admire Güler’s work, particularly of Istanbul in the 1950’s and 60’s. He has a particular style of capturing the feeling and atmosphere of a place that I find exciting and compelling.
When I was in Istanbul a few years ago I bought Vanished Colours, a beautiful book of his early colour photography, again all photographed around Istanbul (the documentary is called after his nickname, as he spent so much of his life photographing the city.)
I also love to share the work of people who have lived lives that have followed a deep and meaningful passion. Of people who have chosen a different path in life, and worked hard to make it successful.
As the only child of a pharmacy owner, Ara Güler could have stayed safe and taken over the family business. But he chose to follow an interest for theatre, into film and then finally photography.
He makes me want to work harder and go deeper with my photography. I feel encouraged when I see the range of his work, as he travelled all over the world, photographing everything from ancient ruins, film stars to war zones. But I love that he had this constant subject: the changing city around him.
I admit Istanbul is one of my favourite cities on earth. I find the place endlessly fascinating and could spend many more months of my life exploring it.
As someone who also photographs cities Güler is an obvious person for me to explore, although his approach is very different to mine, as his interest is people within the city, and the city is the backdrop. So much so that he said:
“A picture of a landscape is not a photograph. A photograph is not the capturing of a beautiful sunset or the like. When I look at a photograph I should be able to see what it is telling me. Does it have a story? That’s it. A photograph starts from there.”
His interest is the human condition, the lives that people are living. You can sense the ease with which he was able to be with people, make them feel comfortable, his patience and ability to engage people so he captures authentic emotion.
“I am not actually a landscape photographer. I am a photographer of living breathing people, of workers.” Ara Güler
He describes himself as a visual historian. And I like this, that we can record and share stories of the life that we see all around us.
“How valuable will the thing you find be for the history and future of humankind? Finding that is the issue at stake. That is the starting point of photography.” Ara Güler
Look for the quiet moments, the signs of life in the world around you
Professor of Photography, Mehmet Bayhan, describe Güler as:
“Looking for social layers and traces as much as any sociologist.”
I like that he uses the city in his photograph as part of the story. He is photographing people, but within the context of their location, to tell us more about who these people are and their experiences of life.
A famous quote of Güler’s is:
“When I’m taking a picture of Aya Sofia, what counts is the person passing by who stands for life.”
The fishermen in their tiny boat contrasting against the monumental mosque behind. The grandeur of the mosque, and the epic sunlight are not significant when you have fish to catch.
Güler talks about when he is standing at a big monument or mosque he will be looking for signs of human life – the person selling the flowers, the man cleaning the steps.
It is how the people are living that is important to him.
Bring sincerity to your photos of people
“Sincerity is perhaps the most basic concept that brings Magnum and Ara Güler together. People-focused, but also entailing sincere emotions when approaching people.” Kimar Firat, Mimar Sinan University
I really like this point – that the incessant curiosity he brought to his photographs of people was coming from a place of sincere interest. Not voyeurism or superiority. But a desire to connect with his subjects and show a moment of truth about their lives.
In a world that feels sometimes so intensely divided, it feels imperative for us photographers to use the power of our medium to connect people – rather than separate them. To tell the unique stories of people’s lives, which are really universal stories for us all. We are not all that different.
There are stories to be found everywhere
“There is something going on around people at every moment. To be able to capture that moment, one needs to be a good musketeer.” Güler
We are limited only by ourselves. Watch and be curious. Patience helps too.
“I waited an hour and a half once for a cat to pass me.” Güler
Capturing atmosphere and feeling
Güler’s photos contained such intense atmosphere. Look at this photo. What do you think he needed to do to create such feeling in this image?
“We could say that photography is the only language in the world that everyone can understand. You look at a picture and you get the message. Ara is one of those photographers who connected the whole world to his photographs.” Photographer Bruno Barbey
There is something very beautiful about the look of old colour film
The colours are different to what we see in film now. Combined with the subject of a city that has so dramatically changed, it gives such a wonderful quality of feeling to the images.
Look deeper into life
“Since we are men of the heart we are looking for something else in life.” Güler
To me I feel to step away from the ‘normal life tasks’, even if it’s only for an evening or a few days, is to release yourself from the things that seem to propel us into living life on autopilot.
I have been thinking about this recently. I had a conversation with a friend who told me that weeks of his life seem to run endlessly into others, to be so similar that time seems to pass without being noticed.
That made me feel sad. I know that I have had such times in my life, but to succumb completely to routine and habit is to dull the senses so much that you could argue you are barely living.
Moving beyond what feels easy and normal will awaken your mind and spirit, it will put your brain on high alert to the new situations, and that slows down time. When you are really, deeply, truly concentrating on something – life seems to come into sharp focus, so that you are totally present, totally aware of the task or new place you are in.
What brings you deep satisfaction? And how can you do it more?
© Ara Güler
Letting your imagination run free
Güler describes in the documentary an imagined scenario of when he once saw two chairs on the bank of a river, which happened to be facing over the water in opposite directions.
He imagines a story of lost love, of lovers being separated, of ships sailing past taking people away. It was fascinating because the photo is simply of two chairs, not facing each other. But there is another sense, another feeling about this photo that makes it more than just a photo of chairs.
That is because, I believe, of the feelings that Güler had whilst taking the photo. They are somehow imbued in the photo itself.
Güler said of the photo: “This is my most romantic shot.” And that after imagining this sad, romantic story, that yes, “you can photograph sorrow.”
This all about engaging our imaginations in our photos. It’s not just photographing things at face value. It’s allowing your imagination free reign to create scenarios and ideas so that your photos have other dimensions that are maybe not obvious to the viewer, but create a deep feeling within the photo.
When I talk about my photos I often say things like: It looked to me like a post-apocalyptic world and so I shot it with those ideas in mind or It reminded me of the light I would watch when laying on my parents’ bed as a child.
The resulting photos are then imbued with some of the feelings I had – maybe of wonder, nostalgia, fear – about the stories I had created of what I had seen.
Photography is simply a mechanism to capture light
“What are you going to find with that light?” Güler
I like this thought – this simple, clear thought and if you remember only this, it will serve you incredibly well in your photography.
Look at the light, find interesting light and go find a subject that will be served by that light.
To me that is the absolute essence of all photography. Find the good light, then find something interesting within it!
Photography can be a form of poetry
“Ara Güler is one of the philosophers of our era. We can see this in his images that have a poetic quality.” Actor, Şener Şen
Photography can be a form of visual poetry. It can take us to magical, faraway places. It can provoke day dreams and ideas, it can take us back in time to the feeling of somewhere we knew well…or not at all.
Photography is an incredible medium, because regardless of if you agree with my or Güler’s ideas about photography – you can always create something of your very own with it.
There is always something new to see, new stories to tell, and that I find ridiculously exciting.
I hope you have enjoyed those ideas and thoughts about Güler’s work. I loved spending time going through his images and evoking my experiences of Istanbul.
Here are some interesting links to explore more of Güler’s work:
- Ara Güler book: Ara Guler’s Istanbul
- Ara Güler book: Sinan
- Ara Guler website
- Documentary: The Eye of Istanbul
- Ara Guler Museum in Istanbul
- New Yorker: What Ara Güler saw in his homeland
I have been photographing Istanbul four years. I exhibited some of my work of the city a few years back in London, but I am continuing to build my story of the city. It will soon become a book, and at the moment I am also making a short film about my impressions Istanbul, as I continue to go back year after year to explore and see more of this mesmerising city.
You can read about my experiences over the past few years:
- My Photo Story: The Feeling of Istanbul
- BBC Turkey piece about my project
- Huffington Post: The Beauty and Serenity of Istanbul at Dawn
My photography workshop in Istanbul – April 2019
Each year I run a photography workshop for a small group of people in Istanbul, the next one coming up this April. I love to take people to all of my favourite spots to shoot – to explore hidden neighbourhoods, to watch the sunrise over the city, capturing the majestic mosques and views at dawn.
I love to take people wandering through the narrow streets, meeting people as we go and photographing the busy, bustling city that has layer upon layer of history embedded in this magical place.
I love to show people the amazing hospitality and food of the Istanbulites, the friendliness and welcome of the locals. Its a workshop full of long walks through diverse neighbourhoods, a lot of fun, beautiful food and of course incredible photography.
Journeying up the Bosphourous, capturing the sunset on the Asian side of the city and standing in awe at the majesty of the Blue Mosque at dawn. Come join me for an adventure for all the senses.
We will be there during the Tulip Festival in spring when 30 million bulbs are planted all over the city, and the vibrant colours and displays fill Istanbul with incredible colours.
This workshop is now 6 days, so we can see even more. Limited to 6 people. You can find out more and reserve one of the last spots on this workshop here.
From my last workshop – exploring, photographing and critiquing our images.
That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into old Istanbul. Let me know what you think below. It’s always fantastic to hear from you.
Anthony and Diana
31/05/2019 @ 4:52 PM
I really loved reading this and seeing the photos. They’re so evocative. I think I’ll come back to this piece several times when I need some inspiration! It reminds me of what photography can be.
11/06/2019 @ 10:53 AM
Fantastic! Glad you enjoyed it. He was an incredible photographer. I would also watching the documentary about him, The Eye of Istanbul.
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