And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 19 February 2011


Miniature portraits of Turkish women from the 1920s

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

Oscar Wilde

If you want to make a list of the various elements that distinguish photography from the other visual arts there are a few obvious points that spring to mind though one ought to be the first on any list. Every photograph becomes more interesting the older it gets. This is the case whether we’re interested in the surface details such as the fashions of the time, or if we are responding to something deeper regarding our links to the past. We don’t have to agree on what makes a photograph interesting and we don’t even need to know anything about it to appreciate its resonance. Photographs tell us things no other medium can.

The photos in this post were taken in studios in Istanbul during the 1920s. They are all approximately 80x60mm, or the size of a postcard cut in half, which is what they were. Presumably the customers were given a choice in the size of the print or the studios kept them in window displays to showcase their work. It’s a fair bet too that the women are Greek or Armenian. The Christian communities in Istanbul were generally much more conscious of European fashions and ready to embrace them. Also, the banning of Islamic headwear under Ataturk’s reforms came after most of these photos were taken and most Muslim women put something over their hair, even a loose scarf.

Small format full-length studio portraits like these aren’t so common in Istanbul and they tend to be of women. It may have been the case that women saw a session at the photographer’s studio as a small event, not that different from the carte de visite era half a century earlier when people put on their best clothes before heading off to the studio. Aesthetically they aren’t far removed from the CDVs; about the same size, the sitters assume similar poses and they even use the same props such as fake columns, furniture and books. One even looks like it has a clamp behind the two women to keep them still. A lot of the most reputable studios around at the time had been established in the previous century and though the original owners may have retired or died their formulae and look were still maintained.

On one level these photographs can be seen as a catalogue of women’s fashions in the 1920s but there is something more important going on. Our image of Constantinople (as Istanbul was still officially named) is of a predominantly oriental city, its symbols being the fez, the veil and the minaret. People who drag up that old cliché about Istanbul being the bridge between east and west are inclined to overlook the west bit, thinking of it instead as an Islamic centre where European visitors could feel comfortable. These portraits suggest that things were more detailed than that. There were women who saw themselves as essentially European, which in the 1920s meant modern in outlook as well as dress. They weren’t radical or subversive, or rather they were only if Europeans and Muslims saw them as outsiders rather than integral to the city’s identity and culture.



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