And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 2 October 2014


Wedding snapshots
“A man in love is incomplete until he is married. Then he is finished.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor

To be an army officer in Turkey in the 1940s and ‘50s gave a man more status than lawyers or doctors could expect. You might not have made more money but you were a defender of the nation, so when the time came to get married full military dress said more about you than any well-tailored suit could. It might have even been expected, since several of your commanding officers were obligatory guests and according to protocol you were not supposed to appear before them in civilian clothes. Having the groom in his military uniform does tend to add a slightly sinister quality to a wedding photo, but even if he were wearing standard black tie in this scene it would still suggest this wasn’t exactly the happiest day in a young couple’s life. Everyone, including the little boy in the left foreground, seems to regard the camera with suspicion, even hostility. It also looks like they have crammed into an office, or a back room at the registry. 

Ataturk made all Turkish marriages civil rites, meaning that religion was officially removed from the ceremony. The law still stands although people get around it by having two weddings, one official, one not, and so far as a lot of people are concerned it is the second that seals the compact. The first is just a piece of paper. You get an idea why from this scene. A crusty old clerk asks a few questions for formality’s sake before he hands over the documents to be signed. The couple look solemn and attentive, as befits the moment. The two men behind the couple are also looking at the camera with suspicion. The one in the hat bears an uncanny resemblance to an American gangster.

 But before we start thinking that the Turkish marriage is a dry, sombre affair, a farewell rather than a greeting, consider this snapshot. Apart from the fact that, finally, we get a smiling bride, there’s a suggestion the woman with her has donned a turban and applied some blackface. It’s the difference in shade between her face and her arm that make us think so, but could she? Would she? I don’t see why not. Weddings are usually supposed to be fun and it wouldn’t be the last time someone attempted to brighten proceedings with a display of bad taste. At least the bride is laughing. 

 Here we get a scene that suggests some ritual is about to take place. He appears to be a relative rather than the groom and it is possible he has decided to offer some prayers for the couple. Everything about the scene points to hasty improvisation; important details that were overlooked in the hectic rush of the last few days. He had a speech prepared but he left it at home, or thinking how quickly his daughter or his niece has grown up fills him with an existential dread. She wants him to know that everything will be all right, but actually, she’s used to his sudden spells. This is nothing, but she wishes her sister would put the camera down for once. 

 Let’s leave Turkey for a while and head to Canada, to contemplate for a moment how utterly boring it must be being a professional wedding photographer, heading out all day every weekend to take the same photos over and over. Professionals are paid to capture that special day but what they record is a formula. Only family and friends can photograph the day properly. Being the 1950s, this might have been taken at the bride’s home; which is to say her parents’. It’s a moment where past, present and future come together, for this being Canada in the 1950s she will probably have the same wallpaper in her new home, which will be a triumph of domestic taste and design. Mum would have taken the photo; Dad could have but he was in the kitchen knocking back his third bourbon of the morning, on account of nerves. 

 Another Canadian marriage scene; this one taken out in the rural wilds of Ontario. It makes you wonder why people hire professional photographers at all. A professional would have resisted photographing the couple with the farm as a background, preferring a studio setting with a neutral background, but the whole point of wedding photography is to preserve memories of the day. The only memory a commercial photograph would record is that of the experience of being photographed. Here we get an actual incident. The couple are already married and about to drive off for their honeymoon. They don’t look like a couple of farmers, but then women in wedding dresses seldom do. We can speculate on why they are out on the farm but we can’t deny this is a moment that will stay with them. 

 To England, and a photo that looks like someone’s attempt to create the studio look, with the blanket draped over as a backdrop. Everything about the scene is slightly ratty, from the man’s ill-fitting suit to the cheap blanket and the dingy doorway. They probably couldn’t afford a professional photographer, but they didn’t need one. We do hope he’s not a proper Jack the Lad, with a spare bird out in Chelmsford and a couple of geezers on his back for some readies he promised to cough up last week;  that would break her heart.

 Back to Turkey, and a moment that doesn’t look like one the bride would have wanted preserved, but then the other great thing about amateur wedding photographs is the haphazard ways they come together. Not much left to say about this one; it speaks for itself.

Another Turkish snapshot, that also looks like it was taken at the registry office. Notice how the bride and the woman to her right have their eyes shut against the flash. The boy next to the bride has covered his eyes. But then the woman next to him and the one above her have expressions of stark terror. The man just behind the bride has an inane grin. Others are trying to push into the photo or preserve their dignity. The man at the far left looks like he has just realized he left the stove on at home. Think of those millions of photos of everyone standing to attention on the church steps. This one is what a wedding photo should look like. 

 Apart from making marriage a civil ceremony, the Ataturk government tried to outlaw polygamy and arranged and consanguineous marriages, but these were rooted in long traditions and out in the hinterland people stuck to them. This photo was taken in the 1920s, not long after the birth of the Republic and it presents the image of contemporary Turkish society, or what it should have been: an urbane couple without a hint of religious symbolism in sight. The woman’s headdress suggests she is Armenian, so here we encounter one of the conundrums at the heart of Ataturk’s revolution. With outwardly western values, better connections with Europe, a higher level of education and, in urban centres, more prosperity, on the surface the Armenian community embodied the new ideal, but how could that be so much as suggested after 1915? Compare it to the top photo and we see how it is one thing to adopt the manners, quite another to accept the mores.


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