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Tuesday, 28 August 2012


12 enigmatic snapshots of the Turkish landscape
 “I thought I’d photograph nature and landscape but I wound up photographing the changing of the times.”
Charles Moore

 After 9000 years of settlement Turkey has no wilderness. It isn’t difficult to find a patch of land that appears unmarked by people and could fit into the frame of a viewfinder but the image would be deceitful because there is sure to be a track, a powerline or a cottage just to one side. Even during photography’s pioneering era when a few photographers left the cities and wandered around the countryside they were looking for and drawn to ancient ruins or villages that looked like they hadn’t changed for centuries. A landscape devoid of humanity was empty and dull. 

 It was always a part of the world that tested its occupants. A narrow strip bordering the Mediterranean and Aegean, roughly from Antalya in the south west to Thrace bordering Greece and Bulgaria could be called temperate and accommodating but away from that the climate produced extremes. Moving eastwards meant climbing a series of plateaus that developed into mountains high enough to have snow on the peaks in mid-summer. The south east was the edge of the Arabian desert system, the north east the beginning of the steppe that spread across to Siberia. Summer was relentlessly hot, winter buried under snow. The climate imposed nomadism on anyone who chose to settle there so come the right season they’d move out in one direction or another to escape the worst of what lay in store. The inland cities were always small, underdeveloped and vulnerable. A lot of them still are.

 This was a typical village scene in the 1930s and you can wonder what exactly drew the photographer too it; the bare tree or the water pump looking useless in a pile of stones? It’s possible that the photographer wanted to make a point about the obvious poverty of the village though he or she might not have been impelled by a social conscience. For Turkish people born and bred in the cities the villages in the east could be as strange and backward as they were to western Europeans. You can imagine someone working the pump furiously for a thin trickle of water.

 This photo was most likely taken somewhere just east of Ankara, in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, but it also looks as though it could have been taken in the American west. Think of Arizona in the 1880s and images of summary justice at the barrel of a gun and territorial violence spring to mind. This region of Turkey was different in one aspect. Out here people regarded their law as ancient tradition. When a man was killed for some small transgression things were how they had been and should always be. There are still men who are baffled when they are arrested for murdering their daughter in an honour killing. So far as they are concerned, they acted according to laws that have been in place for thousands of years.

This is a field of opium poppies, in which case it may be the area around Afyon in the central west, though the hills in the background look more like Thrace, west of Istanbul. When this photo was taken in the 1930s, poppies in Turkey meant papaver somniferum. There was no reason to cultivate any other kind and even though the European market was officially medicinal, Istanbul still had a reputation as a city of opium dens, where a traveller could lose himself for months, return home and write incoherent poetry. Afyon – the Turkish word for opium – still cultivates a fair slice of the world’s legal opium and because the plant grows as voraciously as a weed the plants are often found scattered along the roadside. You might think that would turn the town into a Mecca for dissolute tourists but even hardcore addicts need their diversions and Afyon has few.

Summer in Istanbul is horrid. The humidity intensified by vast agglomerations of concrete apartment blocks and few trees to speak of, it’s as though someone turned a huge reflecting mirror on the city. Anyone who can flees. The luckiest have summer houses on the coast or on lake shores, houses that are often bigger and better equipped than what they have to put up with back home. At some point in our lives we all want to live somewhere like this, with nothing to bother us save a bit of rain.

I am sure that if I had taken this photo back in the 1940s I’d be rather pleased with myself. I would certainly congratulate myself for having the presence of mind to tilt the camera, while using the rule of thirds to have the road dissect the line between the two trees would demonstrate to me, if no one else, I had a sophisticated grasp of composition. No idea where it is but Turkey is big enough to have long roads stretching out to nowhere.

Turkey’s heaviest winter snows begin in Siberia and for weeks meteorologists tracking their course can predict their arrival in Turkey. By the time they reach the west they have usually weakened but if they haven’t they can cripple Istanbul, partly because, being in an earthquake zone it is built on a series of steep hills but also because the traffic system is so bad a jam on one freeway system can quickly spread to another. My guess is that this was taken in Uludere, a ski resort outside of Bursa.

Some of the most renowned classical Greek literature is set on the Turkish coast, where four marine systems, the Black Sea, the Marmara, the Aegean and the Mediterranean connect. The erotic element is strong. This was a part of the world where the coast provided all that was needed, the climate was mild, the seas rarely turned bad and people had time on their hands.  The sea still has a hold over national identity but these days old Greek towns like Bodrum are full of foreign tourists, the sea is littered with plastic bottles, bandages and other rubbish and eroticism means a quick shag on the beach after half a dozen pints. You feel as though something has been lost.

A friend pointed out that his eyebrows are perfectly aligned with the horizon and you do think that if they were slightly higher or lower some inner harmony in this image would be missing. It could be anywhere though you know he belongs to the eastern part of Europe. It’s the outfit that gives that away. This is a part of the world where it’s not unusual to see farmers turn up to work the fields in a suit and tie.

At first glance this looks like a village scene but it could also be along Istanbul’s ancient walls, close to the city centre. For years the walls were given over to gypsies and squatters and had a dangerous reputation. Most of the people living there had moved from villages in the east and adapted the ruins to their way of life, embarrassing officials who imagined Istanbul as a modern metropolis.
In a few years all that will have disappeared as the Government continues its redevelopment of the city but the clean-up involves moving the people out, to where, the government doesn’t know yet. It just wants them out.

One of those photos that tell you all you need to know without giving the location, the date or why it was taken. This could be any town or city in Turkey C1940; the whole country looked dishevelled as though it might have been knocked together just a few weeks earlier and run down as if it had been allowed to fall apart for decades. Note the rear tyre rim on the truck, the ambulance behind the truck and the general condition of the buildings. Nothing works and nothing can be thrown away.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012


 Eight stereographs
“The only problem with seeing too much is that it makes you insane.”

 In 1859 Jean Francois Gravelet, “the Great Blondin” was the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a high wire, setting a standard by cooking an omelette halfway across. The nest year William Hunt tried to outdo him by carrying a washing machine to the centre of his rope and washing the handkerchiefs several women spectators had given him. Niagara Falls did that to people. Maria Spelterina wore peach baskets on her feet and a paper bag on her head when she made the crossing in 1867 then two years later   Andrew Jenkins rode a velocipede across a wire. By comparison, Toronto photographer Samuel Dixon’s effort in 1890 was unpretentious except that only a few months earlier he had been crossing the Cantilever Bridge in a train bound for New York when he suddenly announced his intentions. Since he apparently had no experience with that kind of thing the other passengers didn’t take him seriously yet in May that year he made the first of two crossings. Look closely at the image and you can see Dixon is wearing a hoop around his ankles, which may have been a way to keep his balance. Dixon drowned in 1891 in a relatively ordinary and common boating accident. This Underwood & Underwood stereograph was published five years later, probably as part of a series on Niagara Falls. The photographer is unidentified, which is too bad since on its own the photograph makes excellent use of the lines created by the bridge, Dixon’s pole and the rope. Zoom in and you can also see the man on the catwalk, the train at the top of the bridge and the crowd across the other side.

 The best stereographic images make dramatic use of perspective – that’s the whole point of looking at them through a stereoscope – but it’s surprising how many don’t exploit this. This view of the Bowery, circa 1894, is a rare example. The photographer found a position best suited to photographing the length and depth of the street and waited until the train on the elevated track reached the perfect point: another second and the engine could have disappeared off screen. There is a good theory that in 19th century Europe photographers searched for the element of the city in static monuments and landmarks but in modern, forward looking New York they found it in the life of the street. There’s a lot to look at in this image, everything adding up to a bustling, noisy and vibrant city. The Casper and Cleveland sign at the centre top was a landmark on the Bowery but the company was taken over in 1894, which at least helps us date this.

 The very best stereographic images not only exploit perspective but the paired images work as one, creating their own organic design, as in this French card from Hyeres on the Mediterranean coast where the kerbs on either side of the avenue meet in the middle, linking the image to itself. By the 1890s when this photo was taken Hyeres had become established as an English enclave on the French Riviera and was about to become an essential site for the post-impressionists; they claimed nothing in common yet both were drawn to the town’s intense azure light and the Middle Eastern atmosphere created by whitewash and palm trees. You get a sense of both in this image; allée Victoria, named after the Queen, and the family under the palms looking like an idea for a small oil painting.

 From the same publisher the same idea of the sharply receding passage, and maybe part of a bigger project to photograph the essential sites of France. Solesmes Abbey was built in the 10th century by Benedictines and survived the vicissitudes of French history until 1790, when the revolutionary Assembly abolished all monastic orders. In 1839, with most of the original Assembly dead or in disgrace, Dom Prosper Guéranger  revived the Benedictine order at Solesmes, making the abbey a centre for the Catholic revival in France (not that Catholicism had ever really gone away). For any Catholic visiting France in the 1890s, the abbey was an essential destination. The light falling on the vaulted ceiling makes this an exceptional image. In a few years photographers would consider that effect outré moderne.

 The third from the same publisher has no dramatic perspective but it does have a lot to look at; the masts, the barrels, the harbourside hotels and bars, the French poodle (in case you were wondering where it was taken). France’s access to Mediterranean trade, Marseilles was never a glamorous port but it was always tougher and seedier than Paris. The woman with the basket on a stand appears to be selling apples. 

At first glance this stereograph of a garden on Pincian Hill in Rome doesn’t look that remarkable but on closer inspection you realize nobody is aware of the camera. It is a snapshot, probably taken with an early Kodak camera. Dated 1903, it could have been taken a few years earlier but compare it to the one of Marseilles above. To take the Marseilles image the photographer could have mounted a heavy camera on a tripod and waited for the various elements to fall into place. Here the photographer held the camera at waist height and snapped then walked off to find another scene. The people here may not have had any idea a shutterbug was in their midst.

If you couldn’t exploit perspective in a stereograph then the key to success was to fill an image with details. Looking at stereographs was a private affair after all; a family could gather round the stereoscope but they could only look at the images one at a time and it really was something better done on your own. At the turn of the century the Steglitz company in Germany began publishing stereoviews and postcards for a new mass market. This one was taken at Misdroy, or Międzyzdroje as it is better known today, Poland’s only claim to a Riviera and a brave one at that judging by the modern photographs of grey sands butting on to greyer water. Things were changing in Europe though not so fast on the Baltic beaches obviously enough. It’s another snapshot, taken quickly and without too much attention to composition. The point of interest is the clothing the women are wearing and the fact no one goes deeper than ankle height. Notice how the women have their backs to the camera: you wonder if it was considered indecorous for a photographer to snap them in their swimwear.

 We can definitely date this photograph to between the 26th of June 1911 and the 28th of June 1912. During it’s brief life the Schwaben Zeppelin was known as the ‘lucky airship’ on account of surviving its first flights, that being apparently uncommon. It could also be considered the first successful passenger aircraft, ferrying over 6000 Germans around the country, until it was snapped in half by a storm - which makes you think luck had nothing to do with it. Still, you can see in this image how people the world over thought they were at the dawn of a new era in transportation.


Friday, 10 August 2012


Wedding costumes from a 1930s Turkish studio
 “Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don't.”
Lord Raglan

 These seven photographs are from the Rasim photo studio, about which I know nothing except that it was active in the 1930s. It could have been based in Istanbul but Ankara or Izmir would also be possible. Trying to track down information on studios is a worthy pursuit; you sometimes uncover interesting details but they can be irrelevant to the real story. In this case the women are modelling traditional wedding costumes, which might not sound so fascinating in itself except that during the 1930s Turkey was undergoing a radical cultural revolution. It was supposed to be a modern state with a western, secular outlook. Officially the traditional wedding and its elaborate rituals were frowned on. Layers of colourful embroidered silk and satin were out. A modern Turkish bride wore white and her husband sealed the marriage with a gold ring. So, what’s going on here?  

 Well, it probably isn’t that subversive. The Government passed some famous laws regarding headwear and others that made marriage a civil rather than a religious ceremony but it didn’t expressly forbid traditional costumes. At some point it had to balance its desire for western integration with the banal reality that most of its citizens were rural and weren’t going to discard tradition so quickly, and then there was the nationalist tension between cleaning out a failed system and protecting the Turkish identity. As long as the family kept within the law and had the marriage sanctioned by a government representative, the costume probably wasn’t an issue though, if a woman, or more exactly her parents, were modern citizens of the new republic she would wear white.

These could be actual wedding portraits but it is more likely they were intended to show off a range of traditional outfits available from a store or manufacturer; in other words they are fashion. It seems apparent that some of the women are professional models who know their poses. Also, the range of costumes on display is broad. Traditionally, wedding costumes were regional so a bride from the Black Sea region wore a specific design different to a woman from any other area. This regionalism isn’t always easy to distinguish. The pillbox hat and veil for example appears all over the place and every woman here wears baggy harem pants.

Likewise, each region supposedly had its own ceremonial traditions although a cursory glance suggests there wasn’t that much variation. The stories of wedding celebrations lasting 40 days are either exaggerated or belong to a time long before these photos were taken. Ceremonies tended to last three days during which time the bride remained secluded from the groom. Pampered by her female relatives and friends, the highlight was the henna night when all the women painted elaborate designs over the exposed parts of their bodies. The ritual of the wedding night exposing of the bedsheets to the crowd below appears to belong to the very east, where Arabic and Persian influences were strongest. An aunt was always on hand with a sachet of sheep’s blood in case there was a problem. Everything was done for appearance’ sake.

It’s just possible some of these women are modelling Jewish or Armenian costumes. Despite religious differences Jews and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had absorbed so many traditions that in some cases no one can be certain what belonged to which culture. The costumes weren’t that different, at least to our eyes, the henna night was also practiced by Jews and Armenians and wedding feasts had a similar procedure and menu.

You will notice none of the women have their faces covered. This would have been one prohibition taken seriously by the government although it was and still might be practiced in isolated rural areas. It was also an Armenian and Jewish custom as demonstrated by some 19th century photographs. The white veil served the same function in western tradition, the idea being that the moment of marriage was when the woman revealed herself to her husband and the world. (You will notice too that some of the women appear to be wearing wedding rings. This custom didn’t appear among Muslim Turks until the emergence of the new republic when the other accoutrements of western marriage were taken on.) Another traditional custom that was outlawed was polygamy, even though, like arranged marriages, it was almost impossible to enforce, especially if it was conducted without ceremony but the approval of the village council. These photographs can be read as a compromise between emerging western and traditional Ottoman ideas. The dress is traditional, but not entirely, and the structure of the photographs follows western imagery. 

Which brings us to this, the photograph that expresses that dynamic most directly. The bride wears white, her maids traditional costumes. It isn’t going too far to say this image exemplifies official doctrine. The ceremony should obviously be western yet it ought to acknowledge Turkish culture. See how all the men in these photos wear standard black tie. To wear the traditional outfit of the groom or his best men would be difficult since by now the fez was outlawed yet it would have also defined them as country types, which is to say backward and poor. The women could do it because, even in the villages, their wedding costumes were intended to define them on their special day as glamorous beauties. Within a few years the traditional wedding costume would disappear entirely from the cities and almost everywhere else but isolated areas. In the last few years it has made something of a comeback, inspired by the revival of interest in Ottoman culture.


Saturday, 4 August 2012


 11 cartes de visite based on characters from de Maupassant short stories
 “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.”
Guy de Maupassant

 Guy de Maupassant’s grave at Montparnasse Cemetery is modest and surrounded by others of much the same dimensions, so even with a good map you have to search for it. Visitors have attached various mementoes including a small teddy bear and a china dove that look out of place on the tomb of someone whose most famous stories are about cruelty and madness. Across the road, Baudelaire’s grave is littered with whiskey bottles, beer cans and dead flowers, which seem more appropriate to the writer, even if Baudelaire wanted to be remembered as a great aesthete and art critic, not a laudanum addict.
Trying to find a dozen carte de visites in the collection that could resemble characters from Maupassant’s short stories turned out to be difficult, partly because the restrictions – French, between 1860 and 1890, and not used in a previous blog post – precluded some better examples. No one remotely matched Boule de Suif, “round as a barrel, fat as butter and with fingers tightly jointed like strings of small sausages (and with) two magnificent dark eyes shaded by thick black lashes”.  The woman above could pass for another passenger on the coach, Madame Loiseau; “tall, stout and determined looking, (with) a shrill voice and a brisk manner”, but then she could be any one of the stolid, middle class matrons who never suffered in his stories but observed the misery inflicted on others with smug indifference. The portrait incidentally is from Bayard and Berthall. Hippolyte Bayard was one of the pioneers of photography, famous for his self portrait as a drowned man, who went on to a distinguished career in photography and has a chain of islands off Antarctica named after him.

A survey like this must include a Prussian officer since so many of Maupassant’s short stories were set during the Franco-Prussian War, and here is one, photographed by a French studio in Metz, a city close to Alsace that was captured by Prussia and not returned to France until 1918.  Part of the popularity of Maupassant’s short war stories was in his ability to show the French as either victims or perpetrators of atrocities with a directness that made their actions understandable. The problem is that Maupassant’s Prussians tend to be of two types, the simple minded conscript or the heartless boor and this man appears to be neither. He could be one of the soldiers billeted with Mother Savage, who “behaved as good sons would towards their mother”, but that would assume he escaped the revenge the mother extracted from the soldiers for her son’s death in another theatre of the war. 

 And here could well be Mother Savage’s son, or one of the many others who paid the price for a French officer’s stupidity or a Prussian’s military obligations. A popular theory after the war was that France’s defeat was brought about by a crisis in masculinity; a nation of once strapping men had become weak and listless, the result of growing up in cities that encouraged pleasure and dissolution. However strongly Maupassant subscribed to the idea, most of his young men are not fit or ready for war. Lacking the brute pragmatism of the Prussians they often bring on their own deaths by showing an unnecessary moment of compassion. The carte has no photographer’s stamp but a look at the records shows that A. Jorda operated from 10 Rue Villedo during the 1860s.

Oh! Yes; you understand me well enough. It is now three months since I had my last child, and as I am still very beautiful, and as, in spite of all your efforts you cannot spoil my figure, as you just now perceived, when you saw me on the doorstep, you think it is time that I should think of having another child.” In contests involving romantic love women always succeed in making the men look like fools. In ‘Useless Beauty’ the countess schemes against her husband by insinuating one of their many children is not his, then watches him stew as he tries to work out which one. Though the woman in this portrait is not a countess, she matches Maupassant’s description in every other way. Look at the child. The photographer has arranged a distraction off camera in order to keep her (or it could be him) still. Back then a distraction could involve anything from a bird on a stick – “watch the birdie” – to firing a pistol. Some studios were also known to dose children up with opium, which also worked.

 I was born with all the instincts and senses of primitive man but these have been tempered with time by both the reasoning and the sensibilities of his civilized successor. I am passionately fond of hunting yet a bleeding animal, a bird with blood on its wings, or even the sight of blood on my own hands often makes me feel faint. This is from the opening paragraphs to ‘Love; three pages from the diary of a hunting man’ and it could describe most men from Maupassant’s social circle, they being an urbane bunch who boasted of their masculine prowess yet often came up short when it was put to the test. Though he was taken under the wing by Flaubert, Maupassant didn’t think much of the famous author’s friends, particularly the Goncourt brothers who struck him as vain and pretentious. Not to label the subject of this portrait by Lefevre as such but he does come across as a typical Parisian, chasing pleasure before duty and, in Maupassant’s view, sure to have one of life’s cruel lessons inflicted on him …

 … Like the central character in ‘Tombstones’: One of the most lively of them was Joseph de Bardon, a bachelor living the Parisian life in its fullest and most whimsical manner. He was not a debauche nor depraved, but a singular, happy fellow, still young, for he was scarcely forty. A man of the world in its widest and best sense, gifted with a brilliant, but not profound, mind, with much varied knowledge, but no true erudition, ready comprehension without true understanding, he drew from his observations, his adventures, from everything he saw, met with and found, anecdotes at once comical and philosophical, and made humorous remarks that gave him a great reputation for cleverness in society.
Bardon thinks he is on to a good thing when he meets a young woman wracked with grief in Montmartre Cemetery. By the story’s end he is more mystified by human behaviour than a self-proclaimed man of the world ought to be.

 Maître Hauchecome, economical like a true Norman, thought that everything useful ought to be picked up, and he bent painfully, for he suffered from rheumatism. He took the bit of thin cord from the ground and began to roll it carefully when he noticed Maître Malandain, the harness maker, on the threshold of his door, looking at him. They had heretofore had business together on the subject of a halter, and they were on bad terms, both being good haters.
This from ‘A Piece of String’, one of hundreds of stories Maupassant wrote about the peasants of Normandy. He is mostly unsparing. They are possessed of a stupid cunning and utter lack of curiosity and if they get what they want it is often through pig-headedness or sheer chance. What’s more, like the above paragraph suggests, they can be consumed by a rivalry that has no known or a completely trivial source. This portrait is by Claudius Couton, a Nice photographer better known for his work in Algeria. He was working there when Maupassant toured through the country though the chances they met are slim. In the 1870s Algeria was full of Frenchmen seeking artistic inspiration. Most of them came back with something, usually the pox.

And here is a lumber merchant or some other business operator from Normandy. Note how he looks well dressed though could hardly be described as having the sophisticated style expected of a Parisian. Maupassant came from a well off Norman family and he is more sympathetic to men like the one above than to any other from the region. They are inevitably sensible, practical and above the petty demands and grievances of the peasants. In a typical story, a man like ours above will sit at a bar and recount some tale from the district that has a meaning he doesn’t quite grasp.

What, you might ask, is a nun doing here? Well, apart from it being an uncommonly good portrait from the era, we can talk about the clergy because Maupassant scarcely does. Given the authority the Church still held over France, especially in the provinces, you’d think a considered atheist like Maupassant would be ready to expose its hypocrisy and dishonesty but then even his supernatural stories are set in the real world. God and religion have no place there, not even as enemies. His parents divorced when he was young and he was sent to a seminary, a grooming yard for the priesthood but had himself expelled within a few months, indicating his lack of belief was already established. On Good Friday the critic Sainte-Beuve and the illegitimate son of Napoleon III would get drunk and throw sausages at a crucifix yet it is what Maupassant didn’t say that marked him as subversive.

It is usual to associate Maupassant’s tales of madness with his decline into insanity brought on by syphilis but he was writing stories about the profoundly psychologically traumatised long before he knew he was afflicted. Madness was a popular image in French literature, thanks partly to Dr Jean-Martin Charcot, whose public lectures at Salpêtrière Hospital Maupassant and most of the Paris literati attended every Tuesday. Charcot’s most significant breakthroughs in the study of hysteria were in linking it to a trauma – though he resisted the obvious association with sexual trauma such as incest, leaving that to his student, Freud – and in declaring that men too suffered from it. The portrait above was taken at an unidentified French hospital in the 1880s. She has been diagnosed with hysteria.

Maupassant’s most famous story is ‘the Horla: Modern Ghosts’, which like earlier stories such as ‘Who Knows?’ linked the supernatural to paranoia and psychosis rather than the paranormal. The portrait above comes from the same hospital as the previous image. Though he is dishevelled his mental state isn’t immediately apparent. Neurology was still an uncertain science and a paranoid could be entering the tertiary stage of syphilis, suffering trauma as the result of war experiences or injury, be homeless or he could be an agitator the police or other authorities arranged to have locked up. In his last years Maupassant was severely afflicted, attempted suicide several times and spent his last months in the psychiatric hospital run by Esprit Blanche where the poet Nerval and composer Gounod were also treated.