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Friday, 29 June 2012


Turkish studio portraits of children

“Children are all foreigners.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 The photographs in this post have two things in common; children who don’t like being photographed and elaborate backdrops and props. They are not disconnected. Going to the photographer for a portrait was a social event that required dressing up and various other activities intended to make you look your best, and which any self respecting child would naturally resist. Maybe they went to the photographer once a year, or once in their life, but it was a special occasion and a simple, blank background would have been an anticlimax. The parents wanted something more, like a papier-maché rock or a path cutting through a forest; they wanted the portrait of their child to look at least a little like a work of art. To the child it was probably not that different to a visit to the doctor or dentist. They were put in a room where an intimidating stranger started ordering them about; stand up, sit here, look at the camera, smile please! No less an ordeal than having a dentist stick sharp metal objects in your mouth when you think about it.

The first hand accounts of children growing up in the late Ottoman empire are rare and most, actually we could say all, describe an idyllic world of mansions, gardens and a bevy of servants at attendance. This is hardly surprising. You need education, some cultivation and a sense of loss to be aware of what made your upbringing worthy of record. You also need a market that would consider reading your reminiscences. Most people in the collapsing empire had none of the above. Few would have considered the life of a poor Turkish child as having much to say beyond making an ideological point and hardly any of those children would have had the background or training to put words to paper. Loss, especially of status, is the big theme in all the memoirs. One of the best known is Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family, written in the 1950s when the full grasp of what had vanished could be given eloquence. By then the family home had been sold long ago, the servants had disappeared and most of the central personalities in the account had died. The sons and daughters of poor tradesmen had a lot less so a lot less to lose and, they could argue, the collapse of the empire wouldn’t change their lives that much. If they were shining shoes on the street in  the Ottoman era they probably still were in the republican years.

You might think there would be a few books written by Greeks and Armenians forced to leave the city in the 1920s and 30s and had something to say about the experience but if there are, not many have made it into English. Over the last few years, accounts by descendants have been published but these are not first hand and lack the vividness of lived experience. What we are left with is a few facts, some glimpses that, like these photographs, tell us something though not necessarily what we want to know. 

Like, for example, what happened to these two kids? He wears a uniform from one of the good colleges and what we know about primary education in the Ottoman empire is vouched for in his whole pose and expression; it was strict, dry and traditional, it concentrated on image rather than expression and it left a lot of students unprepared for a modern world of technology and science. If he is Armenian or Greek there is a high probability that his family left Constantinople soon after the photo was taken and he entered a world where most of what he had learned was suddenly redundant. If he was Turkish then the best future outside of law, medicine and the military was in the civil service. Whichever path he took involved years of rigorous exams leading to a valued position that ultimately depended upon very little of what he had learned. At least his sister could say that by the time she graduated from high school she would be given advantages her mother never had, like the opportunity to go to university, to vote and to have a full time job.

The writer Halide Edib described an elaborate ceremony at the start of the school year where a new student was selected to wear a silk gown and ride in a carriage while the others formed a procession behind singing hymns and collecting other students on the way. The full ritual, which involved several recitations from the Koran and ended up with the students eating ceremonial cakes, lasted most of the day. Halide Edib was not permitted to learn to read until she was seven and was married to a friend of her father’s when she was about fifteen. Things could have been worse. In the villages girls weren’t expected to have any education. Well, they were already betrothed when they were barely out of infancy so what was the point of learning? Things were already sorted.

The painted studio backdrop is such a 19th century idea we can forget that in some countries it persisted into a time when most studio photographers had never used one. Some of these portraits were taken in the 1930s and if we can’t identify the studio we can say that it was one that had been around long enough to have certain hallmarks, even notions, it couldn’t dispose of. In other words, it was probably an Armenian or Greek studio. The first studios run by Turkish Muslim photographers started appearing in the 1920s and the operators came out of either art schools or the army. The army of course did not like frivolities like fake trees and the art schools were more aware of what was happening in Europe. Consequently their photographs had a more contemporary look. 

Which isn’t to say they were better. When the studios started abandoning backdrops and props something was lost; a sense that the photograph was more than a portrait, it was a construction, what cultural theorists like to call imagined space but which the rest of us is a kind of bonus. Would this image of the two students be better without the obviously artificial stage? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have that strangeness that makes it special.

Or what about this one, with the boy on the right who looks like he stepped out of a Goya painting? My guess is that having to stand in front of a backdrop of a woodland made the experience more obviously absurd, which to the children’s minds was translated as something unpleasant. Had their father raised his Kodak Brownie and told them to say cheese they probably would have but here they were being told to do something they couldn’t quite figure out.

One of the best things about backdrops is that they disrupt our idea of the portrait. Whatever we want a portrait to tell us about someone, the backdrop distracts us. It’s a reminder that however we might try we are not going to get beneath the skin of the subject. Everything is on the surface. Everything is a disguise.



  1. These are captivating, mysterious, and amazingly beautiful all at the same time. I do wonder what happened to these children, what their lives were like and what their view on the world was. Thank you so much for posting these. I was momentarily transported.

  2. Fine category! Some of the backdrops and props used in the early portrait photography made very little sense.


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