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Thursday, 25 June 2015


Turkish snapshots of death. 
“As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me?”
George Harrison: The Art of Dying

 One afternoon I was being driven in a taxi along the highway to a job in one of the industrial zones that ring Istanbul. Whenever someone says,  “I was in a taxi in Istanbul” assume that unless it was stuck in a kilometres long traffic jam it was moving at breakneck speed. A hearse was parked on the shoulder ahead. Turkish hearses are not elaborately converted Oldsmobiles or Cadillacs. They look more like green farmer’s trucks with open beds at the back and, like the one ahead, are often dilapidated. A pine coffin was jutting out the back. As we drew level I caught a glimpse of the driver puffing on a cigarette before the scene swiftly fell away into the distance.  No doubt this was a situation with a plausible explanation but it’s the case that in every other country I’ve lived in, a driver pulling his hearse over for a fag on the highway wouldn’t be tolerated if he had a coffin in the back. That said, when we see something strange in other countries it is easy to think that it’s part of the culture. Who knows what the other drivers zipping past thought of it. One thing I’m sure of: in an age of increasing cultural homogeneity, we can eat Turkish food, wear Turkish clothes, use Turkish phrases, have Turkish style weddings and give our offspring Turkish names and we don’t even need to visit the country. We cannot however have Turkish funerals. The rituals and customs surrounding death remain inviolate. To suggest a Turkish style funeral for a non-Turkish person would be in bad taste, not to mention disorientating to mourners. This is why snapshots about death can tell us things about a culture others can’t. Anglo-Saxon funerals are solemn affairs. Grief is personal and expressed discreetly. Not so in Turkey where they can be noisy and public.

 Another story: I was sitting in the shop going through a box of photos when the owner leaned across, asked, “do you like Rembrandt?” and passed this one over.  He was thinking of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp (1631). Google it and you can see why. One difference is that in Rembrandt’s painting only two of the observers are looking towards the camera, so to speak, whereas in this photo they all are. I found several snapshots taken at dissections or autopsies at Turkish student hospitals. It’s something you think would have been disapproved of in Anglo-Saxon hospitals, if not actually forbidden. We still think that it is disrespectful to the deceased, even when logic tells us the person on the operating table is beyond caring what we think, and it isn’t as though these students are behaving offensively. 

 Another thing that bothers us, and more so now than when these were taken, is the danger that the photographer is going to profit from the image. Financial gain is bad enough but worse would be the kind of voyeuristic pleasure achieved by sharing them. We live in contradictory times. We’re told that in the age of the smart phone news isn’t news without images and it’s up to us the citizens to take them and put share them online. We are also told that if we do that we are contributing to the decline of western civilization. When this photo was taken (circa 1940s) press photographers in the U.S tabloids were taking far more graphic images of murder and suicide victims than we see in the mainstream press. If this photo bothers us it could be because images of death have actually become unfamiliar to us as we forget how common they once were.

 Not that Turkey’s second-hand stores were overflowing with images of the dead but there were what statisticians call a significant factor, and most had something to do with the military. This is not surprising when you think that Turkey has always had a large army of conscripts and that soldiers of all ranks who die while on military service receive some kind of official ceremony (unless they were spies or deserters). This coffin has a flag draped over it, which means something.  Either the deceased had a high rank or died on active service. The second doesn’t seem likely as Turkey’s conflicts 1930s to 1950s were internal and the military would not have been considered to be on a war footing. Though a snapshot in size, this has the look of a press photo. 

 Another military funeral, notable for the presence of the imam. In recent years any association between the armed forces and religious organizations has been seen as provocative, controversial or scandalous, depending what paper you were reading. Technically the military upheld Ataturk’s secularist principles but you can of course be secular and believe in an afterlife, or be religious and not wear the fact on your sleeve. Only in recent years has secularism been equated with atheism in Turkey. Even when Kemalism was at its strongest in the 1940s it would have been strange to send a soldier off without some religious element in the service. Even the most hard-bitten generals wonder what lies on the other side. 

 Story number three: A Sunday afternoon in Tarlabașı and the body of a man from across the road from the apartment is lying in the street. He is in his mid-thirties and his body does not look particularly diseased so it is likely that he suffered a heart attack or an overdose. Most of the inhabitants of this part of Tarlabașı are Kurds and Rum, what other Turkish people call marjinals, which means what it sounds like. The street is narrow and potholed. There is no pavement. Because it is Sunday a market is at the bottom of the street and so there is a steady line of people coming back and carrying bags of fruit and vegetables. No one stops to gawk at the body. There is a small group of women who perform histrionic displays of grief. One throws herself at the body and others pull her back. Someone else tosses her head back and emits a long wail that sounds like a small engine motorbike leaving a paddock. Eventually a doctor arrives to file a report. An ambulance turns up but apparently it’s a bit late so after a discussion it drives off. Perhaps an hour later four men arrive with a carpet. They put the dead man’s body in it and carry it down the hill. Did I photograph any of this? Of course not. I come from a culture where grief is expected to be private, and if it must be public then at least restrained. To have photographed the scene without anyone’s permission would have been in bad taste and an invasion of the family’s privacy, and yet the man’s death, or the initial mourning procedure, was absolutely public. They had no qualms about placing his body out where everyone could see it, so why should they be upset if strangers photographed it?

 It used to be normal to photograph a funeral in Turkey. They were events, like weddings and birthdays and they were public. They are still that. It isn’t unusual to find a street blocked by a crowd with a coffin surfing above it, but there’s no longer one man with a camera; there are dozens. An imperative has become an option.   

 In Anglo Saxon countries we can spend a week organizing the funeral but in Muslim cultures the body must be buried as soon as possible, ideally the next day. This leaves no time for family members from out of town to get to the funeral, let alone if they have to drop everything and fly in from abroad. In that situation photographs of funerals can give absent mourners some kind of contact. Notice the ripped and stained coat of the man in the foreground. Most of the people in this photo look dirt poor. In the way that post mortem photos of children from the previous century were often the only images the family would have of them, maybe it was the case with this funeral. People wanted to remember the deceased but also the event of his passing. If you couldn’t make it maybe you’d want to know who did. Note the jacket draped over the headstone? Try getting away with that in Australia.

 One other thing you’ll notice about the three photos of funerals above: there are no women. This brings me to story number four. When the father of someone at a religiously minded institution died the men were talking about going to Izmir for the funeral, which would leave me and the female staff to take care of things. When I wanted to know why the women weren’t going, one of the men explained that women aren’t wanted at funerals because they get emotional. I’ve always assumed that a funeral was one situation you were entitled to get emotional but I guess the men-folk figured that would kind of spoil it for everyone else. Women have to do their grieving elsewhere, or turn up to the grave later. She has her hands out, palms facing upwards in the manner of Muslim prayer. Was this a case of someone being asked to come along and take a photo or did they just happen to have a camera with them? Is this evidence of something we understand a bit or not at all?

 If you are visiting Istanbul, you might take a look at the Orientalist galleries at the Pera Museum and see a world as depicted by Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It seems life for the Franco/Italian crowd amounted to lying around in billowing gowns listening to flutes and zithers. Around that time a cemetery occupied the slopes between Taksim and the Bosphorus. It was demolished – I don’t know when – and later some of the monuments were moved to Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. They became part of a frieze running along a back wall. Here you can encounter seventeenth and eighteenth century Western European merchants and diplomats brought down by outbreaks of the plague or cholera. Clearly Constantinople was a lot of fun until the fleet from India dropped anchor. We share with Turkish people an approval of photographing the headstones of our deceased family members. At least we must assume that is why this headstone was photographed. Traditionally Turkish headstones were taller and narrower, had prayers in Ottoman script inscribed and were never as elaborately carved or surmounted with saints and angels as western European one were. Nevertheless, for the mid-twentieth century this is a very European monument. Sipahioǧlu means son of a cavalry officer. It tells the family was well off and like a lot of affluent Turkish families secularized early on.

 Sion, which is French for Zion, means the Promised Land, the sweet hereafter, and in this case is also the family name. How apt all round. These days Turkey’s government is keen to show off its credentials as an enemy of Zionism, blithely forgetting to mention its ongoing arms trade with the Great Enemy or the detail that for all its bluster it has been quick to promise and slow in paying aid to Gaza. This tomb reminds us of another age. Not necessarily a better age; despite commonly read claims that Istanbul’s Jewish community lived in harmony with everyone else during the last century there were frequent reports from the 1930s and ‘40s of persecutions and pogroms, and we shouldn’t forget Elza Niego, the Jewish typist whose murder by a jealous Turkish official in 1927 sparked riots against Jewish citizens. It was more acceptable for a Turkish man to kill a Jewish citizen of Istanbul than it was for her family to complain at the way they had been treated. This tomb would be in one of several Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul. Today there are very few Jewish people living in Istanbul compared to the old days and today most of the protestants and Catholics are likely to be ex-pats, so one way to read the history of the city when its citizenry (as distinct from its inhabitants) was more cosmopolitan and multicultural is to count the number of old cemeteries catering to the non-Muslim communities. Visit some if you can. It’s like getting a history lesson from someone who was there.

 Story number five: more than twenty years ago I was travelling through the far east of the country, around the Iranian border, and in villages I kept seeing gravestones out the back of houses. If I asked anyone about them I can’t remember their answer but I thought then and still do that the backyard is a perfectly respectable place to bury our loved ones. We read that in prehistoric societies around the world it was common to have a room in the house or underneath it for the ancestors. Unfortunately we in the west live with the expectation that we will own and live in at least a couple of houses (one for the family, one for when they move out) so the idea won’t catch on again too soon. This man probably isn’t sitting is by a family plot in his backyard but the photo asks a related question. Is he asking the photographer to take a snap of him, or is he asking the photographer to take a snap of him together with his wife?


Thursday, 11 June 2015


Postcards of the Redwood Highway
 “The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.” 
Theodore Roosevelt

During the 1920s Ansel Adams photographed the Sierra Nevada and the Californian forests, establishing the image of a world that was sublime and pristine. Adams said wilderness was sacred and some influential people believed him. At the same time Charlie and Leslie Payne were running their postcard company Art Ray out of their van on the Redwood Highway, while Alexander ‘Zan’ Stark travelled the same road as well as others across the mountains ad into Nevada. To them the Redwood Highway was a rather more trashy experience, about as reverential as a plastic Jesus winking on the dashboard. It was a world where once great redwoods and Sequoias were turned into road tunnels, houses and even public toilets. But if honesty has anything to do with reflecting public taste, then Art Ray and Zan were much more honest than Adams. Their image of the highway accorded more closely with the official and the popular image. Between the wars, the more people who visited wilderness the more its status was validated.  The notion that wilderness ought to be protected from people never entered anyone’s head.

Today we are driving along the Redwood Highway, in the company of Art Ray, Zan Stark and Frank Patterson. It is the late 1920s (or thereabouts) and the towering trees have inspired two responses among Americans. One is to be overcome with awe at the power and majesty of nature and the other is to calculate how much cash could be made from cutting down a single tree. Some Americans can experience both simultaneously and not be aware of any contradiction, not the least Theodore Roosevelt, who died in 1919, before any of these were taken. Notice how Roosevelt chooses his words in the quote above, advocating neither the protection nor destruction of forests but responsible management; two words America has always struggled with when appearing together. These postcards epitomize the schizophrenic attitude to wilderness that infected the American psyche in the first decades of the last century. The Redwood Highway was a place to worship nature, and it was also a theme park. 

During the period when most of these photos were taken, the USA had the best environmental policy in the world. Every other country that had wilderness it wanted preserved adapted the American model. But for something to be the best in the world does not mean it has to be good, merely better than what anywhere else has to offer. The American model, such as it was imposed at Yellowstone, had parcels of wilderness that were not protected from development so much as dependent upon a particular type; tourism. There was nothing inconsistent in having thousands of tourists visiting places like Yellowstone and Yosemite and each individual being asked to imagine they were in some pristine wilderness. Even those two words were dubious. The ecosystems were barely given a moment’s thought: wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone by the mid-1920s and being a national park never gave an area protection from grazing farm animals or logging. As for pristine; it conveniently avoided any idea there had been people living in these areas prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The dense fernbrakes are what we expect to find in an ancient forest, but only because we’ve been told to. Most genuinely old growth forests have been subject to thousands of years of human use. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the west coast was the most densely inhabited part of North America. We can be sure that fire was used to control the ground cover and promote particular plants. Thick undergrowth like this would have made hunting and movement difficult and when we look at the historical record, it is more common to read descriptions by Europeans remarking on how open the forests are. This photograph shows us what the forest was like after European intervention, when the Native Americans had been forced out of the redwood forests and the undergrowth was allowed to run amok. Our modern idea of wilderness as untouched and untamed is as much propaganda as the idea that First Nations people were passive caretakers who did nothing but watch plants grow.  

The redwoods of the Pacific coast and the Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada are different species of the cypress family. They owe their exceptional height to two factors. One is the competition in a densely populated forest where each tree was involved in a race to the sunlight that over several thousand years became increasingly distant from the rootstock. This can’t explain everything, otherwise all forests would have enormous trees. The second factor is their locations between the broad Pacific and the high Sierras. We don’t consider this part of the world tropical, it’s in the wrong place and it’s too cold, but if we think in terms of humidity, northern California rivals equatorial jungles. For trees to reach 75 metres or 250 feet tall, they don’t need vast amounts of rain but a steady, relentless damp.

Theodore Roosevelt was an early supporter of the conservation of the redwood forests and was instrumental in having the Muir Woods protected. The land put aside for the national park belonged to a lesser-known Republican, William Kent. Like Roosevelt, Kent wasn’t at all opposed to a timber industry but he realized that unless some areas were given protection the likely result would be the total destruction of redwood forest. The first steps were taken in 1908 when Roosevelt had the Muir Woods preserved as a national monument.
I have a theory about Roosevelt. Today he is known for three things: his environmental policies, his pre-presidential years as an adventurer, rough rider, cowboy, and for being the last president of the Gilded Age, when the capitalist class showed off its largesse by building public institutions: universities, museums and art galleries and libraries. Think of the latter two reputes and the first takes on a new tone. Here was a man who was passionate about frontiers, the physical ones he could explore on horseback and in canoes,, and the frontiers of knowledge, and by the turn of the century even France and Britain were looking to America to lead the way there. What is it to such a man then when forests are cut down and office towers built in their place? Cut down the wilderness and you remove the frontier, and the world has no need anymore for a man like Roosevelt. His job is done. Preserve wilderness and he can still believe there is a frontier.

Talking about the sacred and the profane; on the back of this postcard stamped 1946, Anita writes that she, Helen and Jack are ‘having a swell time’. At the Cathedral Tree, ‘we sat and listened to the music and it was just like being in church’. Cathedrals are circles of trees that grew up around a dead one and were named cathedrals because the way the light filtered through from the canopy reminded some people of the effect created in great European cathedrals. Anita is telling us however that she, Helen and Jack could sit in the circle and hear piped music, probably one of Bach’s works for organ. These days we say the way to appreciate the wild is to stand still in silence. In the 1940s the idea was to experience comparisons with the great works of man. What nature proposed, we had done better.

 The redwoods are among the oldest trees on the planet, with a few getting close to 4000 years old (still falling short of some nearby bristlecone pines by a millennium). We see that this one’s life came to a premature end in 1930. The lumberjacks who set about cutting it down could probably tell how old it was to within a century so when it fell they sliced off a disc and sent it on to whoever was managing the tourist facilities. Dendrochronology is the art of reading tree rings to understand climatic patterns. To people that can read them, tree rings reveal a precise story of shifting weather conditions. Although they cannot tell us who or what was living in the vicinity 500 years ago they can provide an explanation as to why everyone packed up and moved out.  To the rest of us the best that tree rings offer is a timeline that appears astonishing but tells us nothing. Well, we can see here that this tree was already sturdy and mature when William the Conqueror landed at Hastings, which needless to say is nowhere near northern California. And height-wise it was impressive by the time Columbus landed on an island in another ocean. As history lessons go, it’s a bit non sequitur. Still, there’s an irony at work. You want to impress on tourists how old these trees are but the only way you can do that is by cutting them down.

Things could be worse. An ancient tree, just a sapling when the three wise men were on their way to Bethlehem, could end up being turned into what some Americans inanely refer to as ‘comfort stations’. Is this divine retribution, a credit to man’s ingenuity or is it an indignity? Back then the second would have been the answer. Even passionate advocates for wilderness believed that tourism was going to nurture and ultimately protect national parks, so turning dead or dying trees into toilets would have a harmless compromise. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the damage from 1920s era environmental policies became apparent, that people like Aldo Leopard proposed Washington rethink its environmental strategy while Edward Abbey insisted that everyone from Ansel Adams to Theodore Roosevelt and even the patron saint of the forests, John Muir, had got it wrong. 

Well it's been fun. We've witnessed the beauty of nature and the banality of man looking quite comfortable together, seen things that some of our contemporary Americans would rather we hadn't and others that remind us there was a time when the choices facing us were simpler We've saved the best for last. The drive through tree is most iconic image of the Redwood Highway. Even people who can't spell Sequoia know it's the tree you can drive through. During the 1920s and 30s there were several of these trees on the highway. Most, including the Coolidge, have died, which somehow doesn’t sound surprising. At least three are still in operation, and all owned privately so they come with a fee.  Adams photographed plenty of redwoods but it’s doubtful he ever photographed one of these trees – the car, Beaver and Wally Cleaver's faces pressed against the window, would have been anathema to his purist eye – but I can’t help feeling that his view is all the more deceitful for that.  Whether he was suggesting his view was what the Redwood forest looked like now or what it could look like in the future, it was created in the darkroom. He was like a good lawyer in that you had to pay attention to what he was leaving out. Zan Stark and Art Ray weren’t that clever but if you want to know how environmental policy worked in the 1920s and ‘30s, which is the same as wanting to know why some aspects don’t work today, they are the photographers to look at.