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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.


Saturday, 23 June 2012


Glamour portraits from a forgotten Constantinople studio

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

 In the 1930s a visit to the photo studio was still a social event, the way it had been since the invention of the carte de visite in the 1860s. Armenians and Greeks still dominated commercial photography in Istanbul – which had its name changed from Constantinople in 1930 – and according to some sources one of the busiest times for studios was on a Sunday after church services, when people were in their best clothes and a relaxed frame of mind. They would head off to the studio together and among tea and cakes discuss such matters as lighting and the angle of the face. 

 These portraits come from the Șark photo studio in Harbiye, Constantinople, and they are so distinctive they deserve a post on their own. Information on the studio is sparse but the name tells us something. Pronounced ‘shark’, it is a literary term for ‘the orient’ and not in common usage, although Pascal Sebah had called his studio El Chark – same word, different spelling – in the 1870s. ‘Orient’ might sound to us like a logical choice for a Turkish studio but it would be similar to westerners referring to themselves as occidentals, which they’d only do if they wanted to annoy people. Educated professionals in Constantinople would have understood the reference in Șark but a lot of people wouldn’t have known what the word meant.

There are hundreds of vanity portraits in the collection but few show this photographer’s facility for creating mood through lighting. The obvious source was the glamour photography coming out of the cinema in Europe and the U.S, something his subjects were au fait with too since they knew how to pose like hoodlums, heartthrobs and all round gentlemen of style. They could easily be actors. All that makes them interesting and worthy of a post, but there’s more.

Most of them have the same name inscribed on them; Șükrü Kaya’ and are dated between March and April, 1930. Some of them still have the brown corner tabs where they were posted into an album.  The way his name is written; ‘Șükrü Kayaya’, can mean ‘for Șükrü Kaya’. Whoever he was and why he collected so many portraits are just more questions we’ll never have the answers to though there’s no harm in considering some possibilities. A Șükrü Kaya held various ministries including Foreign Affairs during the Ataturk Era; in 1930 he was Minister of the Interior. That would suggest the men in these photos were all civil servants, which they don’t really look like since portraiture of government officials generally went for the stiff, ominous look. But we can dismiss the notion this was the Șükrü Kaya. Technically speaking, in 1930 he didn’t exist, not by that name anyway.

These photos were signed three years before the law compelling Turkish people to formally take surnames was introduced. At this point, Turks outside the higher echelons of government sometimes adopted surnames referring to their jobs, their father or a trait but they were unofficial and flexible so someone could conceivably be known by several surnames depending on who was addressing them. Kaya means rock, with all its attendant metaphors – solid, dependable, you are my anchor in a storm and so on. It became a popular official surname after 1933 but for 1930 it would have been a nickname, which makes sense yet it is still curious.

My guess is that Șükrü Kaya was a friend of these people, like them in his early or mid twenties, which would make him a student most likely. It was a touching gesture for all his friends to head off to Șark to have their portraits taken as a memento, something we wouldn’t think of today. Maybe he was getting married. Maybe he paid for everyone’s portrait. A lot of maybes and even more don’t knows. 

There are ten portraits here. All of them have the Șark look. There were hundreds of photo studios operating in Constantinople at the time. Most of their details have been lost and forgotten, which is too bad because if Șark had been based in a lot of other countries its records would have been preserved somewhere.


Saturday, 16 June 2012


More snapshots from the Riddle of the Sands series
 “International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood.”
Eric Ambler

 At the end of April One Man’s Treasure put up a post about a set of photographs taken by two Turks in Germany on the eve of the Second World War. Sixteen more photos from the same collection have been uncovered, making it a comprehensive album. It becomes clearer what the Turks were doing in Germany and why bridges and railways appear so frequently in their photos. The photos also cast light on Turkey’s situation during the war, which we think was inconsequential though complicated is a better word. 

This is a rather excellent view of a bridge over the Kiel Canal dissected by the rails on the ferry. Had it been taken by a well known German photographer of the time people might devote essays to his study of a linear arrangement. In fact a reputable photographer would have spent a bit more effort composing the shot and used sunlight and the darkroom to better effect. It is fairly apparent that what interested our photographer wasn’t artful composition but the bridge. The railings got in the way but they were of no real importance.

This suggests he was an engineer, which recalls a problem raised in the original post. Would the Germans be keen to have foreign engineers wandering about the country when Hitler had already settled on a date for the invasion of Poland? For sure, in May of that year only a very few people in high command would have had any idea how far advanced the plans were but anybody who read a newspaper knew war was inevitable. We can assume the Turks weren’t given carte blanche to wander as they liked but had a security detail attached to their party.

Maybe that explains why some photographs have a sneaky appearance to them, as though they were furtively snapped without much time for a proper composition. Some, like the one above, were photographed from moving trains, which you would do if you saw something interesting and had no other opportunity to photograph it. Surol, incidentally, was a vinegar essence so although the factory looks like it was the point of interest in the photograph our photographer was thinking more about the railway or in the layout of industrial space in the city.

Here’s a photo taken from a train winding its way through “Polonya Topraklar”, or Polish lands on May 25, 1939. There are obvious connotations attached to such an image. The German hosts would have, or could have, known about the concentration camps already set up in Germany but not the Turks, or if they had would have been careful not to raise the issue. It’s a safe bet that throughout their stay in Germany the treatment of Jews was never mentioned.

In May and June Turkey was playing its cards close to its chest. Germany was an important trading partner but Hitler had made it plain that Poland wasn’t his final objective. A hasty alliance with Germany based on historic ties or economic interest would have had the effect of further fracturing the unstable Balkans and set Turkey against England and France, which it couldn’t afford. Actually Turkey couldn’t afford very much in 1939. The modernizing reforms of the secular revolution hadn’t reached the country’s industrial machine, which was still badly underdeveloped compared to Western Europe. Only when Hitler and Stalin signed a pact in October would Turkey be obliged to make a stand, albeit a non-aggression pact with England and France that was not the same as entering an alliance. 

One of the problems with being neutral is that no one really believes you. There has always been a whiff of suspicion that although Turkey had declared its neutrality there were strong sympathies with the Nazis within the Government. Even the record of Turkish assistance to European Jews has never quite removed it. By 1941 Germany had put considerable pressure on President Inonu to make some declaration of support. When Bulgaria joined the Axis in March and Greece was invaded the following month, the message was clear. Turkey could maintain its neutrality but if it sided with the Allies an invasion was a foregone conclusion. Turkey kept its neutral position but signed a non-aggression pact with the Axis.

That is the official version but as these photos show the story was more complicated. Turkey had chromite deposits, necessary for transforming iron into steel. Germany needed the mineral and before the war signed an agreement with Turkey that involved construction of railways, plants and port facilities in Turkey, industrial development sorely needed in a country that was still agrarian.  The agreement was to expire in August 1939. In May the prospect of an automatic renewal was still feasible and so our two photographers went to Germany to inspect the state of German engineering. 

The clue is in this photograph of Gibraltar. The most straightforward water route from Turkey to Germany involved a short crossing of the Black Sea into the Danube and straight through to Bavaria, close to Munich. Why travel all the way through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic to Rostock on the Baltic Sea unless, as part of the fact finding mission, the Turks needed to follow the intended sea route for the chromite? Until these photos came to light the idea of putting the story in chronological order seemed unnecessary; now they have the chronology is significant. The photos trace two journeys between Turkey and Rostock, into the Kiel Canal and down to Berlin. All this time Turkey was presumably taking a gamble that Europe would pull back from war and that the chromite agreement would roll over. By August however Turkey succumbed to pressure from Britain, France and the US and didn’t renegotiate it, at least until 1941. (One photo is from Romania, dated 25/May/1939, which throws the chronology right out, unless there were three trips, one by train.) 

So these photos are about the murky world of foreign trade on the cusp of war. In the 1930s Eric Ambler wrote a series of thrillers – The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey into Fear, Cause for Alarm - where some hapless innocent stumbled across a web of dirty intrigues involving fascists and some secret business deal. They often started in Istanbul and ended up somewhere in Europe, by which time the leading character had come to realize how much of a fool he’d been played for. The surreptitious appearance of these photos and the inscriptions written in a shaky hand on the autograph camera could have been lifted from one of Ambler’s thrillers.


Friday, 8 June 2012


1940s snapshots from Cameroon, the Congo, Uganda and Kenya

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.”
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
 “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists.”
Franz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth 

“Kala Dic 1948
Arriers place = Mission Kala. Dans ma barque le motor (something) full speed. (something) a droite le bouillon de l’eau. A gauche c’est mon capitaine! C’est beau! Il (something) vous cela!
Jean Louis
In my rudimentary French I translate that to be: “Behind is the Kala Mission. In my motor boat travelling at full speed. To the right the water is rough. To the left is my pilot. It’s beautiful. I wish you could see it (or be here).”
Presumably Jean Louis is the photographer though he could also be the younger Pére Blanc on the right, and since this photo came from Montreal we can assume he was Québécois; a land geographically and climatically as far removed from the jungles of Cameroon as one could imagine. You can read in his description that he has recently arrived and is still impressed if not entranced by the place. How long did that last? Just about every European who travelled to Central Africa and wrote about it quickly fell victim to the heat and disease, forgot about adventure in exotic lands and came to regard it as one of the levels of Hell.

This photo comes from October the same year and Jean Louis’ more simple description is of the students with their professor. The Pére Blanc in his white cassock and sola topi is one of the iconic images of colonial Africa. From Algeria and Morocco through to the Congo and Tanganyika the White Fathers proselytised and evangelized but mostly they are known as educators and scientists. They don’t appear to have attracted the scandal associated with missionaries in Australia and South Asia, the strongest criticism coming from Europeans who have detected an unnecessary political competition with Protestant missionaries. Some Africans accused them of meddling in state affairs and also, in the way they encouraged women to leave abusive relationships and find refuge at the missions, families. Mostly there is an acknowledgement that the Pére Blancs were providing the only education in Central Africa.

In the 19th century the anthropological photography coming out of Central Africa was thin on the ground (And anyway, a lot of the photographs of Central Africans available in Europe were taken at the various expos in Paris and Chicago.) By the middle of the twentieth century the small studios run by Africans were located in the big cities and the photographers rarely ventured out of them. For images of village life we had to rely on National Geographic and its various replicas. If you don’t want photographs that are contrived to show off local colour in carefully composed natural settings, you have to rely on snapshots taken by visitors; a few tourists but mostly missionaries, anthropologists and mineral exploration teams.

Well, they are also about local colour but there isn’t that faint scent of deceit that comes when the photographer is aware that their images will be used in a magazine and the editors have certain requirements. The other photographs in this post come from several sources. Those of the Mbuti Pygmies were taken in the Belgian Congo and neighbouring Uganda in 1944. Though there are ancient Egyptian sources dating back 4500 years that mention the Pygmies of the Congo, European contact was sporadic enough for the people of the Ituri Forest to still be mythified as secretive inhabitants of a world rarely touched by sunlight. The Europeans in these photos could be missionaries but they look more like anthropologists or geologists. The latter makes sense as it was wartime and the search for minerals was intense. In the photo above the two Europeans are wearing Australian army slouch hats but they are most likely British since Uganda was a British protectorate at the time. When compared to the photos from Kenya below, there’s a sense of first contact in these images; not that this was the first time the Pygmies had met Europeans but there is a mutual curiosity absent in the Kenyan shots.

Anthropological books almost never make the best seller lists but in 1961 Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People did. A criticism of The Forest People was that Turnbull’s descriptions of the Mbuti as happy and carefree living off what the forest provided weren’t present in his field notes, which depicted a much harsher and violent society. It was also pointed out later that most of the Mbuti didn’t live in the forest but in villages on the outskirts, often in slavery. One photo in the gallery shows a souvenir market set up by the Pygmies. When Turnbull reached the Mbuti they had already embraced economics. This photo of the woman holding up a pineapple gives the other side to Turnbull’s account. She looks wretched. Notice the way the man behind regards her. 

The people photographed here are teenagers or in their early twenties. The average lifespan for the Mbuti has been put at between 17 and 24, and that is without outside interference; (During the Congo War in the late 1990s the UN received verified reports that soldiers from both sides were hunting Pygmies for food.) something else that didn’t square with Turnbull’s image, though as he was doing fieldwork he must have been aware of it. Drastically shortened lifespans are a condition among Pygmy groups worldwide. The reasons why aren’t entirely certain but with such short lives Mbuti girls reach puberty and give birth around 10 years of age. 

To Kenya, which was so much easier to deal with. I mean, Nairobi in the 1940s was practically an English town, with tea plantations and just outside was the real Africa of lions, zebra and giraffe cruising across the savannah. Kenya also had the Maasai, beloved by anyone with a camera because they could look regal walking along a bush track. Your actual nobility couldn’t pull that off. By the time these photos were taken, Kenya was so emblematic of Africa in the English consciousness that it is easy to forget that it had only been a British colony for about fifty years. This was the land of King Solomon’s Mines, the Happy Valley set and numerous other takes on the concept of jungle romance. You can see all of that in this photo, a glimpse of the real Africa for the tourists.

 “The latest style in ears! & hair!”  Well, yes. One of the obvious differences between the photos from Kenya and those from the Congo is that the Maasai are much more familiar with cameras. She not only gave him time and space to compose the shot, she probably charged a fee. He would have paid. After all, he now had a photograph worthy of National Geographic to call his own.

It’s uncertain where this photo was taken, but she looks like the woman at the rear right in the photo three above. At the time the British probably imagined they would hold on to East Africa for another generation or more. No one really believed the Africans were capable of managing their own affairs, not Churchill, who had decolonization imposed on him by Roosevelt as part of the Atlantic Charter. The most generous spirited Britons believed one day the Africans would rule themselves, but that was a way off yet.  In the meantime the motherland had a duty to its foreign children, to teach them in the virtues of empire, that Christianity was better than paganism and so on. You can see the colonial notion of the Africans as children in this photo. There is no way the photographer would have imposed himself on any female European stranger in a state of undress - never mind her shame, his was the stumbling block - but in Africa he was at liberty. Whatever else she was thinking she was aware of who was the boss.


Friday, 1 June 2012


Snapshots of interiors

“Step right up, come on in. If you'd like to take the grand tour, of a lonely house that once was home sweet home. I have nothing here to sell you, just some things that I will tell you. Some things I know will chill you to the bone.”
George Jones ‘The Grand Tour’

Seventy years ago, the largest piece of furniture in the living room was likely to be the radio. It was also the centrepiece. To own a polished mahogany valve wireless set bigger than an armchair said a few things about you. One was that you had a little money; though the radios weren’t prohibitively expensive they were a luxury. Another was that you had enough time to afford leisure and taste. Most of all it was a focus of your social life. Whether the family sat around listening to the hiss and crackle of thrilling dramas, if your friends came over to listen to football matches or you sat alone with the classical hour as your only company, the radio reflected what you valued about your home. It was probably a good thing radios quickly began to shrink in size. They never needed to be that big and once television came along there was a crisis of competing interests.

Anybody who lets themselves be photographed is obviously lending some part of their identity to the photographer, which is why they so often affect a mask. But something more happens when they allow themselves to be photographed at home, surrounded by their possessions. Even, or especially, if they are playing a game for the camera, the objects around them give away much more about their inner lives than they might want to admit. You might look quite the house-proud man of means but that hideous lamp in the corner wasn’t just a lapse in judgement, it is proof that behind your calm façade lurks a desperate and vulnerable social climber. The furnishings look grand but the wallpaper is cheap. The people you work with have no idea how many books you have on your shelf and that far from the impression you give them, your idea of a perfect night is a glass of wine by your side and a heartbreaking romance in your hands. 

If you can’t let your guard down at home, where can you? Left alone in the refuge of your own house, it won’t be long before you do something you’d rather others didn’t see. The telephone, the push button ashtray and the modular chairs date this photo to the mid to late ‘60s. So does its sparseness. For her parents, the signs of middle class comfort were dark stained furniture and fittings, with cabinets and shelves filled with sentimental objects. The 1960s were a minimalist age. The modern home had aluminium frames on the windows and sliding glass doors and the sunlight streamed in through polyester net curtains. The ambience worked against excessive decoration. A cheap Matisse print mounted on cork or chipboard was enough to bring life to a room and it probably set off the Pyrex dishware and Marimekko tablecloth quite well. She has her purse and sunglasses ready. They’re off to an event that will also be spare in detail or description but intellectually satisfying.  

And here we have another bare looking room in an image full of details. Isn’t it great? The cigarette hanging casually from the mouth of the woman on the right, the look of concentration on everyone’s faces, the purse, the bowl; this is bridge night, or it could be poker. Whatever game they are playing, you know it’s a regular event, a ritual and men aren’t allowed anywhere near it because it’s part of the glue that holds these women’s marriages together. You also know it’s been going on every Wednesday night for some time and will continue into the future. That’s why somebody thought it important to capture on film. 

Every room is a work of art. Stripped bare or full of clutter, cheap or expensive furnishings, plain white walls or something more elaborate; the self-expression of the occupant is on display. Everybody has an idea of what their ideal home should look like inside. Sometimes it becomes an obsession as they neurotically shift the furniture about from one part of the room to another or consult coffee table books on Mexican or Neapolitan style, the paradox being that the Mexicans and Neapolitans who could afford those interiors are looking to New York or Paris for inspiration. Sometimes we get it but more often we accept a compromise. What we want is often at odds with who we are.

The bedroom, we’re told, is where a lot happens, but it doesn’t really. We sleep, which is hardly active, and sometimes we lie there reading a book. It’s the place we go when we are so exhausted that we have no other choice. Mostly the bed is the best place to think. 

You can see why the photographer took this snap. He or she was standing in the living room and suddenly struck by the afternoon light filtering through. The glimpse of a light fitting tells us it is the ceiling reflected in the mirror but it could almost be the sea with waves quietly landing on the shore. A professional would have fixed things to remove any anomalies but the result wouldn’t have been so strange or felt so empty.

We have countless photos of people in the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, the study but photos from the bathroom are rare. No doubt there were couples who shot off rolls of film of each other sitting on the toilet or taking a shower but they tended to be very private and kept away from the regular photo albums. It’s too bad really because in a lot of countries the toilet is the only room a house must legally have. The closest we have here is a woman washing her hands in the bathroom. This being a typical Turkish apartment bathroom the toilet is probably right behind her, though it may not be the reason she came in here. Note the tin on the soap dish. If it wasn’t here this photo would be missing something.

The concept of the home bar was as American as a Chevy in the carport. No other culture really thought it necessary that the man of the house ought to have his own space to entertain his golfing buddies, but like a lot of things American in the 1940s and 50s it caught on like syphilis and spread quickly. By the 1960s a proper home bar had to be built entirely out of Swedish pine, which didn’t mean the timber came from Sweden, just the look; a cross between a sauna and the sleeping quarters in an expensive yacht. Most likely the bar has only recently been installed; said Man on the House hasn’t had time to put up any tacky decorations, and he shouldn’t either. With a home bar built from Swedish pine and a glamorous wife/girlfriend to occupy a stool, he has everything he needs for the perfect life. What’s that drink by her side? It could be a white wine though the point of the home bar was to serve up cocktails.