The “Istanbullu” who photographed the world

A new book dedicated to the work of Ara Güler, one of the greatest photojournalists, with preface by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has just been published. In an Istanbul coffee shop that bears his own name and where once stood his father’s pharmacy, the man who proudly identifies himself as “Turkish Armenian” reviews a career that has spanned more than half a century. (Read more…)

Master Guler at Kafe Ara, in Istanbul. Courtesy of @Rene Sommer Documentary Photography

The great pohotojournalist at his Kafe Ara, in Istanbul.
© Rene Sommer Documentary Photography

Every time that Ohran Pamuk looks at one of Ara Güler‘s most famous photographs, the writer sees the “soul of Istanbul”. The photo shows a tram stopped on a snowy day in 1956 while waiting for a horse cart to be removed from the tracks.

The tram was the number 26 and connected Edirnekap to Bahçekapi. It is an image where “modernity and tradition collide; ideals of discipline and authority with the disordered helplessness of poverty and technological inadequacy”.

These words by the Literature Nobel Prize of 2006 can be read in the preface to a recently published book, Ara Güler ‘s Istanbul  (Ed. Thames & Hudson), dedicated to the photojournalist that French Henri Cartier-Bresson brought to Magnum Agency  in 1956, and that quickly became one of the best in the world.

In 184 pages and 153 black and white photos, the book evokes the many lives of Turkey’s cultural capital, between the years 1940 and 1980. It is a “visual memory”, confesses Pamuk, one that makes him want to write again about the city of his childhood.

Guler’s images with their light and shadows – he is an Ístanbullu or native of Istanbul – follow us on a Tuesday in January 2013, up a steep hill leading to the Galatasaray Plaza in the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

Up there, a corner “hides” the coffee shop that once was his father’s pharmacy and where the 84-years-old master sits every afternoon. By his side, always alert, stands his personal driver and assistant, 45-years-old Fathi Aslan.

While crossing the Galata Bridge, we still see dozens of fishing lines in a flurry of competition, used both for pleasure and to put food on the table; steaming ferries glide on the Bosphorus, carrying local people and tourists; the pageantry of the stately buildings of the Sublime Door and the decrepit houses now occupied by the poor; narrow and wide streets where the religious and the profane intersect, with salons where Sufi dervishes whirl their long white robes and places where young women belly dance almost naked; eye-catching consulates that used to be embassies, museums that evoke the Ottoman Empire, and contemporary art galleries…

Above all, we see the many faces of Istanbul: the most important thing captured by the almost 50 cameras (16 Leicas) of Ara Güler, as Pamuk said.

Italian actress Sofia Loren @Ara Güler

Actress Sophia Loren
© Ara Güler

Kafe Ara is located in a corner of Beyoğlu – “a place where you can see without being seen”, perfect for photojournalists like Güler, who keeps here what he modestly describes as his “archive”: three-floors that hold “over 2 million negatives and transparencies – of Istanbul alone. He does not live here but in Taksim, considered part of the “European heart” of ancient Byzantium’s Constantinople.

Upon arrival a this coffee shop that serves as a meeting point for both locals and visitors, I thought how do you go about interviewing a man who does not like to be interviewed and has himself “interviewed” (photographed) famous personalities like Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Hitchcock, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso?

After a four-hour wait Mr. Güler arrives curved and wrapped in a thick coat, a grey sweater, a vest and corduroy pants that are almost the same color as the chocolate cake that added fame to the coffee house – and a typically Turkish black wool cap.

Fathi takes him to a table where an Armenian reporter has been was waiting. He give us priority, and the way he stares at us reminds the Arabic word hüzün that Pamuk used to represent his own “particular melancholy” in his autobiography, Istanbul: Memories and a City.

Most of Mr. Güler’s admirers insist on venerating him as an “artist” but Güler doesn’t even let us finish the question: he answers half-seriously, half-jokingly: “I am nobody. My father gave me a camera and I went to photograph the world. I’ve been 33 times in India – the paradise of photography, with that diversity of colors.”

“I would return with four, five-hundred rolls of film. Burma, Japan [it is evident his passion for the Far East] and Indonesia. Do you know how many islands? There are over 160 thousand, and in remote locations. A lifetime would not be enough to visit one per day. I’ve been everywhere, except the Poles.”

Henri Cartirer-Bresson @Ara Güler

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the father of photojournalism”, who brought Ara to Magnum Agency
© Ara Güler

Why doesn’t he like interviews? “I have to like the people or be their friend. If I show enthusiasm and the other person senses it, they will open more easily. Picasso, for example, it was difficult to reach him. We met each other in Geneva.”

“Editions Skira Paris had asked me to photograph him [for the book Picasso: Metamorphose et Unité], on the occasion of his 90th birthday [in 1972]. He did not like being photographed, but let me spend four days at his mansion in Cannes – and we became good friends.”

“In what concerned Churchill,” he said, “I met him on the yacht of [the Greek millionaire] Aristotle Onassis, who had invited me to join him. I went as a photojournalist, though I was also a friend of his. Later on, I ended up showing Istanbul [to the former British prime minister, in 1958.]

Chagall also presented a challenge: Güler met him in a house without any of the artist’s paintings: “a plain white wall and a potted plant; we had to go outside take his picture on the stairs.”

Ara regrets not having photographed three of his biggest idols, the ones “who taught us to look at life and gave us a vision”: Charlie Chaplin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Einstein.

He also grieves when he recalls how he is “losing Istanbul”. And he will sound bitter when he says: “There are no boats as before, the horses are no longer means of transport; cars have forced the demolition of unique spaces that are now parking lots.”

“Old wooden houses were demolished and burned; cemeteries and churches disappeared; there used to be neighborhoods with butchers, grocers and blacksmiths. Now, nothing is natural, only metal and concrete. Without my photos, nobody would remember the past. The city changes, people change, ideas change. I bear witness.”

The late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi @ Ara Güler

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi
© Ara Güler

Ara Güler, revered as “The Eye of Istanbul”, was born in 1928 in Beyoğlu. His childhood dream was to become a film director. He admits that both film and theater influenced the way he photographs, namely in capturing “facial expressions” and “wide shots”.

He clarifies: “I walk around, see an interesting scenario and hopefully someone will come. I press the camera’s button and show reality. This is photography! It is very important and difficult to photograph, because we are the ones who determine a piece of reality and fix it for eternity.”

“In film, there is a whole staging. The actor dies on stage, but it is a lie. I do not take pictures for people to look at them and be impressed. I photograph what I see. Some are able to see, others are not.”

It was with a 35mm camera given by his father that Güler’s passion for photography began. In 1948, he was already working for small newspapers in Istanbul, accepting all kinds of jobs, however boring or dangerous they might be.

Flashing his smile, he remembers for example how he climbed the minarets to make wide shots. “How else could I get good images?” If the newspaper complained that he used too many rolls of film, he would pay for them out of his own pocket – the same pocket where he candidly admitted, he used to keep scissors to “cut the cables of flashes” of colleagues, when they were the first to arrive on site.

With Güler ‘s talent recognized, it did not take too long for him to be hired by prominent publications both at home and abroad, the likes of Paris Match, Stern, Time-Life, Sunday Times and Newsweek. The big jump in his career came in the early 1960s when Jean Cartier-Bresson, “the father of modern photojournalism”, invited him to join Magnum. Fame never left him.

His photos are on display in several countries, from the USA, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to France, at the National Library in Paris. In 1962, Germany awarded him the title of “Leica Master”. In 1968, the British Journal of Photography Year Book hailed Güler as “one of the seven best photographers in the world.”

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso @ Ara Güler

Painter Pablo Picasso
© Ara Güler

Despite this recognition, not all doors opened to Ara Güler. One day, he contacted the National Geographic’s photo editor. “His first question was: ‘How long were you in Mongolia?’ I told him: ‘Ten 10 days’. He replied: ‘I am not interested, not even worth looking at the photos’. I retorted: ‘What? I’ve got over 1500 images, I wrote a series of articles, why don’t you give me a chance?’ He countered: If you want to know a country you need to feel it, to be there for at least three months… Only this type of articles are published by our magazine'”.

In a homonymous book with a foreword by his friend and colleague Nezih Tavlas, the Armenian “proudly Turkish”, as Ara describes himself, sighs: “In our days, being a photojournalist was as important as being a writer.”

“Today, it is no longer so. Photojournalism is lost. Everybody considers themselves ‘free artists’. Photojournalists are those who go after the bomb when it is about to explode; the ones who run towards death and risk their lives. Photojournalists write the story with the camera.”

In Lisbon, however, when in 1969 he came for a photo session at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’ Museum of Modern Art, Ara Güler ran away from death, he confessed. 

”It was an assignment for Éditions Skira Paris, and I traveled [to Portugal] with Yves Rivière, the chief editor. We stayed at the Ritz Hotel and everything seemed to be going just fine; but during the first night there was a powerful earthquake [8.9 on the Richter scale, that caused 12 deaths]”

“It rained a lot and I rushed out into the night”, he added. “The streets were full of people in their nightgowns and pyjamas, running around bare-footed. The only person who did not wake up was my friend Yves.”

“Well, on the next day, the first thing I did was to go directly to the airport and take the first plane back to Paris. Yves stayed on in Lisbon. Can you imagine?”

O cineasta Alfred Hitchcok @ Ara Güler

Film director Alfred Hitchcock
© Ara Güler

When he confided this fear, fatigue was already visible on Güler’s face. He laughs: “I am not an early riser. Around noon my driver picks me up and then the day starts. I have quite a lot of things to attend to: printing house visits, autograph sessions, TV interviews…”

“Then, of course, at Kafe Ara, there are always people waiting for me and wanting to talk. I love to go to the cinema, and also dine out at my favorite restaurant on the Bosphorus. I don’t stop – nor do I have time to kiss my wife.”

Subsequently, by e-mail, Mr. Güler clarifies his words: “As for finding no time to kiss my wife, don’t you ever believe it. I always find time for kissing my beautiful beloved!”

The interview continued with the assistance of his ​​friend Mrs. Fatma Artunkal, a translator who organized in Portugal, in 1994, the exhibition Two Cities Two Poets, or Istanbul-Lisbon; Yahya Kemal – Fernando Pessoa, using photographs of Ara. He was not present at the time, but gave his opinion: “I think it must have been rather difficult to find words to suit my Istanbul photos – they have their own poetry.”

About the dangerous moments faced in the course of a half a century career, he said: “I remember two incidents. One of them was on Mount Ararat [in Turkey]. I had taken there a Bostonian [from Boston, USA] who was keen on seeing the Noah’s Arch. We formed a team with armed guards and started the climb. At one point, I saw a bear looking at us. The bear was at some distance … and then, foolishly, I pointed my gun at the animal.”

“The locals had told me not to shoot”, he added. “They warned me that if I missed, which they obviously expected me to do but did not say out loud, the bear would get mad and take revenge. I – again foolishly – did not listen to them, because I wanted to show off and brag about it once I was back home in Istanbul. So I fired my gun and missed.”

“What do you think? The animal went mad and started to throw huge rocks at us. We survived the attack but did not know what lay ahead”, Ara said. “During the night we were awakened by some tremendous noise: the bear had enlisted other bears and they were attacking our camp. We defended ourselves, and thank God no one was hurt – and no bear was shot.”

Opera singer Maria Callas @Ara Güler

Opera singer Maria Callas
© Ara Güler

The other incident was in the African Horn”, Ara recalls. “I was sent there to report on the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. We were put into a truck and sent off into the desert to reach the guerrillas. We rode through the night with helicopters flying over our heads the whole time.”

“When we reached the guerrilla camp next morning, people came to greet us with such big enthusiasm that I was surprised, and even flattered”.

“Then the truth came out”, he added. “It was not I they were rejoicing about but the heavy ammunition in the truck which had taken me there. I realized what a narrow escape I had in the night. Imagine the helicopters recognizing the truck and shooting at it.  Boom! And no more me…”

This is the man who said: “me and my photos are a bit romantic. I do not like to photograph with normal light, but rather at dawn or dusk. In addition, each image must convey a message. Nezih Tavlas, his colleague and friend, contextualizes.

“In spite of all his romanticism, Ara Güler never moves away from realism because it is a photojournalist who is writing the story.”

Orhan Pamuk, whom Ara describes as “a friend who visits me now and then, to talk and drink”, ends the preface by saying: “I cannot decide if I like Güler’s Istanbul because his images reproduce my city so powerfully or if it was through his images that I learned to look at Istanbul and to recognize its essence. ”

Ara Güler photographed the many faces of Istanbul-most of them captured by his almost 50 cameras (16 Leicas) - he is holding one in this picture. @All Rights Reserved

Ara Güler photographed the many faces of Istanbul, and most of them were captured by his almost 50 cameras, 16 of them Leica, as the one that he is holding in this picture.

The journalist is grateful to Rene Sommer, to whom this interview was possible and for the courtesy of the first photo, to Fatma Artunkal, who served as a mediator to complete the interview that began in Istanbul and ended in Lisbon; and to Henrique D’ Korth Brandão, for his generous translation’s review.

Ara Güler and a gallery of celebrities portraits @ Yillarin Ogrettigi (All Rights Reserved)

Ara Güler and his portraits of celebrities’ gallery. He died aged 90, on October 17,2018
©  Yillarin Ogrettigi

This article, now updated, was originally published, in the Portuguese literary magazine LER (March 2013 edition)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.