"There are a considerable army of them who travel the country in all directions. There is not a market-town, village, or hamlet … that has not been visited by the face-making photographer."
The Leisure Hour, a family journal of instruction and recreation, 1859 (London)
They are probably the rawest photographs (technique-wise) you are ever likely to encounter; poorly composed, badly exposed and often out of focus, the subjects lined up against rudimentary outdoor backdrops and standing amidst the rubble of unpaved village streets. They are the work of Turkish itinerant photographers, men who travelled between villages and small towns or ran cheap studios in the cities and scratched a living photographing the local inhabitants. Their story has never been told. Whether it can be is another question.
Still, we have to try. If the history of photography depended on a few well known names with certain ideas about what made a photograph we’d have nothing left to say by now. Fortunately the art is interesting but so to are the economics and the social history and there are dark regions out there waiting for a little torchlight to be pointed their way. The photographers left no evidence of who they were or where they were located so to begin it is necessary to look outside Turkey, to England for example where itinerant photographers were working in the 1850s. Henry Mayhew interviewed a street photographer in London Labour and the London Poor and John Thomson and Adolph Smith met others in the 1870s when they were working on Street Life in London. The photographers in question worked the back streets, went up to the commons on public holidays and sometimes took their portable studios to seaside resorts in the summer. They made very little money even in the high season and they had no illusions about the quality of their work or the demands of their customers.
Itinerant street photographers could always be found in cities. In rural towns the only way to attract customers was to go out to them, to turn up at markets and fairs or to travel a route. Nobody ever got rich as an itinerant photographer. Thomson and Smith found a few who had run moderately successful studios but the business had failed and the itinerant trade was a way back to recovery. That may have been the case with some of the photographers here though unlikely; these photographs don’t suggest the person behind the camera had any particular skill with photography. Their equipment amounted to a camera, a backdrop – an old carpet was as good as anything else – and a portable darkroom because whatever success they had depended on getting the print to the customer as quickly as possible. All of that could be packed in a reasonably large suitcase.
If not for these photographs, our only photographic records of Turkish village life in the 1920s would come from outsiders - employees from various government departments including the police, or from occasional visitors from National Geographic and the like. One wanted evidence that could be converted into statistics or propaganda, the other local colour. The sitters here were most likely illiterate, girls especially would have received a rudimentary education, and quite a few would have never visited a city. To describe them as traditional doesn’t go far enough in explaining how isolated they were from the centres of activity. It matters that the itinerant photographers came from the same social stratum and that they were probably a familiar sight to their subjects. Not that this made the photographs more candid. Some of the sitters are obviously suspicious of the camera, but it would have been an equitable transaction and whatever defences the sitters raised were implicitly understood by the photographer. The camera does not record the truth and ‘raw’ does not mean ‘real’ but what we get in these images are portraits that could only have been taken by someone who understood how their subjects thought but also had no interest in the artifice and irony that marked sophisticated studio photography.
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