Ara Güler Exhibition: The “Eye of Istanbul”

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I recently took the time to visit an exhibition containing a series of works by the Turkish street photographer Ara Güler in the Seoul Museum of Photography. Seeing as I moved onto Part 2 of “People and Place” which focuses on photographing people aware in public settings, I thought this would provide a useful point of reference and some inspiration for the upcoming assignments.

The collection of images spanned a number of decades from the 1940s to the early 2000s, with the majority shot from the 1950s to the 1970s in Istanbul. Reading a short biography of the photographer beforehand, I noted that he was a friend and contemporary of Cartier-Bresson and worked for magazines doing reportage assignments in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. On first glance the collection resembled Cartier-Bresson’s form and style, 35mm and 50mm lenses and grainy black and white enlargements of wide, busy scenes. However I noticed that there was quite a marked difference in their approaches. While Güler often turned his camera onto wide, busy scenes searching for visual language in a similar vein to Cartier-Bresson, many of his images displayed a different approach. It seemed his main intention in photographing Istanbul over the course of the 20th Century was searching for individual characters of humble, working class background. Miners, fishermen, steel workers, street children and drunks to name a few examples were his chosen subjects for many of the images on display in this exhibit.

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There is a touch of the social documentarian about him – we can see that he liked to get in close to his subjects to portray strong characters. What also struck me was how he used nearly all parts of the frame. Whilst there is often a strong subject closest to the lens, he wanted to display a context and narrative that went beyond a straight forward portrait of an individual subject.

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The above image of the miners is a good example of this approach. The man in the foreground provides a point of initial interest and we wonder who he is, but the eye passes over to the rest of the frame occupied by his peers. The stained hands and tired faces provides context and the viewer could make a good guess at their occupation and circumstances. The image tells us something about the subjects but also hints at something of the intention of the photographer. My own interpretation is that he wanted to highlight the shared experience of his subjects.

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The above photograph of the shepherds is similar to the previous image of the miners in framing and the subjects are both looking in the same direction (in this instance, away from the camera). Likewise, context is provided by the sheep in the background and the clothes worn by the two subjects. Once again there is very little need to provide a caption or title for context.

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Another good example are the dockyard (?) workers waiting to start their shifts. This time like the miners, the two subjects fixate the camera directly and the background is filled by their peers in apparent conversation and activity. Once again the clothing and surroundings provide some context, and the clock suggests something is approaching but also hints at routine. The strong visual narrative provided by the elements Güler chose to incorporate into this frame encapsulate his style and approach to documentary photography.

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Whilst Güler was a contemporary and colleague of Cartier-Bresson, and there is indeed many similarities between them, there are also stark differences. The French master was like Güler employed as a photojournalist, and he captured some key moments in history such as the moment of Indian independence and the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. Coincidentally I managed to see an exhibit of his work a few weeks before the Ara Güler exhibit which showcased many of his portraits of famous artists, politicians and scientists. The contrast between the two exhibits was plain in the subjects on display. Whilst it is easy and perhaps overly simplistic to draw comparisons from just two exhibits, it also possible to draw accurate conclusions about each of the photographer’s intentions when they went out to photograph.

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Ara Güler Exhibition: The “Eye of Istanbul”

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