A Turkish photographer in the US, C1940s
"It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight."
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
If a picture paints a thousand words, the 56 photos this unknown Turkish photographer left behind make up a decent sized book, but it’s barely a story. It has gaping holes in it. We don’t know his name, why he travelled or what he did when he wasn’t taking photos (he wears a suit; presumably he wasn’t on holiday). We can only say that sometime in the late 1940s he went to California and fell in love with America.
Or perhaps he was already in love with it, with the idea of America anyway. Most of his snapshots are of the very stuff that identified the country in the 1940s; Hollywood, a Fourth of July parade and a baseball game, wide, palm lined suburban streets and the detached Californian bungalows. Even the wealthiest Turks would have envied these symbols of middle class America. These are photographs a man takes when he already knows what he’s going to find.
We all do it. America is a country so familiar to foreigners that it always meets our expectations while rarely exceeding them. Barring those who don’t have access to television, cinema, books or radio, everyone knows it so intimately that the most surprising thing about America is that it turns out to be exactly how we imagine it would. Every tourist who goes there with a camera ends up taking snaps that celebrate the things they recognize. It’s impossible not to.
About the same time the photographer arrived in the States, Vladimir Nabokov was starting work on Lolita. The second part of the book especially, when Humbert Humbert and ‘Dolly’ are moving from one cheap and gaudy motel to the next, has something in common with these photos. In both cases we get a list of symbols that identify America. Nabokov took a more sceptical and sophisticated view – his America was highways, neon lights and cars – but like the photographer he was compiling details that revealed a particular optimism about the country. Post war, victorious America was the bastion of democracy and however dubiously some Americans regarded that idea, outsiders from states that couldn’t live up to those claims weren’t going to quibble. Forget McCarthy and segregation, America was the land of Betty Grable, Joe DiMaggio, Walt Disney, hot dogs at the baseball game, Cadillacs in the garage and tennis on Saturday afternoons.
Neither Nabokov nor the photographer went to America intent on being social critics and needless to say, anything the photographer witnessed that contradicted his idea of the country wasn’t going to be put in front of the camera. What he brought back was evidence of an idyllic society where leisure was the highest ambition and easy to obtain at that. But, being fragments of a story, these photographs don’t tell us what we really want to know, which is what happened when the photographer returned home. If he went with preconceived ideas that were quickly matched, did he learn anything? Do we when we go there? It’s hard to say. The country has always laid itself bare to the rest of the world. It has no secrets beneath the thin crust of its surface. We’re always lured into seeing the things we already know we will discover.