12 Turkish snapshots
“I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it. ”
Lorrie Moore; Anagrams
Several of these were taken with a 127 camera, like the Bakelite Kodak the woman has hanging around her neck. It was a camera with a beauty proud of its ordinariness; like the Peugeot 2CV and the Renault 4 if we were talking about cars. A strange photo: the way that everyone is looking in different directions, but also, again, the way that they occupy their own space in the composition and that their individual gaze obliges your eye to move about the image. If an art director wanted a photo that expressed a dynamic ambiguity with a tension in the composition, most of us would have to think hard about how to achieve that, but here we have it all. It is like a frame from an Antonioni film, where everyone is locked in the same drama but wanders about disconnected.
This wasn’t taken in Turkey but either in northwestern Europe (Holland, Germany) or northeastern USA (Vermont, Maine etc), but either way, our photographer was struck by the way the light fell upon the leafless branches, . We can credit the previous two to happy accidents but not this one. It’s one of those scenes that any mortal with a heart and soul and a camera at hand would respond to.
Another beautiful image (well, they all are) and one we can imagine an art teacher in the 1950s (not that he – which they mostly were – had an interest in photography) would have set to with a fistful of daggers and not stopped until our photographer fled the room in tears. Half a century later, we see uncertainty, imbalance, even anxiety; all being words we have come to admire. In the 1950s said art teacher would have demanded to know why and where to that person was swimming, while today we can accept there need not be any reason. Here you can put on your best Robert Hughes voice: “How do we know the late twentieth century is mired in pointlessness? Because this photographer tells us it is. Why or where to is this swimmer going? Who knows? Who cares?” Up come the credits, on an art programme and the modern age.
The shabby, concrete apartments in the background could be Turkish, and the central figure in the monument looks like Ataturk, but the general impression is of somewhere on the other side of the Iron Curtain; the grim, grey, perpetually overcast other side of the Curtain. Take the three actual humans out of the photo then try and place them somewhere else in this scene. Chances are, you would end up at where we started. Nothing needs to be disrupted. The figure dwarfed by the monument, the two military types marching behind; it speaks of a willingness to subsume the self to authority, which was a problem in the 1950s. You’d think we would have learned a lesson by now.
No, not subsumption to authority but a love of history, of a lost past that cannot be revived. This is a site that many Turkish people may recognize immediately although I can’t identify it. The space and the composition suggest a fortification out in the wastes of Anatolia. In Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel, The Tartar Steppe, a recruit finds himself in a distant fort, defending it against unknown and possibly non-existent invaders. Here we seem him before he enters the fortress; cocky, and confident he will be seeing the photographer again soon.
Among the thousands of Turkish snapshots I bought while living there, this was one of the first, principally because it reminded me of Lee Friedlander’s work from the 1960s, and if he finds little to recommend vis-a-vis my judgement, that is an issue neither of us has to deal with. Circa 1960, he may have agreed that the division between the roof of the building and the flagpoles, with the bars of the crosswalk in the foreground, was what was known as a ‘pleasing’ composition but also disruptive. He might have approved of the way ‘enter’ appears, and especially agreed with the full word “enternasyonal”, an outdated Turkish spelling of ‘international’.
Who would take a badly focused photograph of some Jewish funerary wares in a shop window? The first instinct is to think a Jewish person but the more considered thought suggests the opposite; somebody who found the image fascinating because it was alien. At a time when the Turkish government has descended into the sewers of bigotry and is happy to wallow in them, it is worth remembering that in the 1950s and ‘60s, about when this photo was taken, Istanbul’s Jewish population could count on a quality of acceptance they weren’t going to get in the Arab countries or Western Europe. An image improved by its lack of focus: a world that is present but unknown.
The dent in his belly made by the top of the window frame makes the photo, but note too the mesh on the couchette behind him, and the way he performs for the photographer, looking forward with elation as though the train is already rumbling across the landscape. Turkish trains are slow and often decrepit but there’s compensation in the mountains and plains, farmland and semi-desert passing by. Travelling east, some passengers spend all day in exactly the same position and with the same expression as this man.
The house has all the pretensions of a family home in a moderately prosperous in Istanbul it is stuck out in the hinterland, and the donkey parked by the front door gives the game away. It is like the last survivor of a once thriving village, or a stubborn attempt at creating a new one. The landscape looks a bit like Silivri, which up until the 1980s was farmland far removed from the centre of Istanbul. Today it is on the edge of the city and infested with high-rise.
Another boast on behalf of the Brownie 127. Picasa’s editing tools come with a Holga filter to give you the same effects of soft focus and vignetting. Ordinary photos can be saved from ignominy and made to look mysterious, but this only amounts to an ironic appeal to nostalgia. It is much better to consider the real thing. She makes the photo. If she wasn’t already exotic and alluring it would look like a less than average photo passed through Picasa’s editing proves.
There is a point where soft focus and out of focus become distinct, and one where out of focus loses touch with reality and becomes, well, out of focus. This is right before that point. Everything is out of focus but still defined. We are in the middle years of the Cold War. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and provided it with the largest army, mostly made up of conscripts. Where a conscript was sent depended on several factors: family influence helped, and if you had little influence but a bit of money that was useful. About the worst place to be sent was the eastern border with Armenia. All you had to look forward to were endless patrols on a snowbound waste. The photographer probably thought the poor focus made this image a failure, but it is the opposite. Somehow it makes the soldier look more alone.