Ara Guler: Capturing Turkey’s unseen corners in new exhibit at Sackl

Ara Guler: Capturing Turkey’s unseen corners in new exhibit at Sackler Gallery
By Vanessa H. Larson
Jan. 10, 2014

Two cone-topped minarets pierce the sky, silhouetted against a
striking backdrop of clouds. Below them is an elaborate stone portal
with a pointed arch, intricately carved with Islamic calligraphy and
arabesque patterns in the style of the Seljuks, a dynasty that ruled
much of what is now Turkey during the 12th and 13th centuries. Inside
the archway, a wooden door sits ajar, while a small child, barefoot
and unkempt, passes by in the foreground.

This is a Turkey that most people will never encounter. The location
of the impressive Gok Medrese–a madrassa, or Islamic theological
school, built in 1271–is Sivas, in the central part of the country.
Though it served for a time as the Seljuk capital, Sivas today is a
provincial city that’s too far off the beaten path to attract most
foreign visitors–or even most Turks. The photo, taken in the
mid-1960s, captures a time long before a restoration that filled in
gaps with unsightly, gleaming new masonry.

This and 20 other black-and-white photographs of lesser-known sites in
Turkey–the work of the country’s foremost living photographer–are on
display in the intimate exhibit “In Focus: Ara Guler’s Anatolia,”
[] at the
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

A legend, Guler, 85, is called the “Eye of Istanbul” for his 1950s and
’60s photos of street scenes that are among the most iconic
representations of the city.

The Istanbul native, whose photographic archive includes some 800,000
images, got his start in the 1950s as a photojournalist for Hayat (the
Turkish “Life” magazine) and went on to a distinguished career that
included working at Magnum Photos with luminaries including Henri
Cartier-Bresson and publishing his work around the world.

The works in “In Focus”–never previously shown–come from a set of 53
photographs donated to the museum in 1989 by Raymond Hare, U.S.
ambassador to Turkey from 1961 to 1965. Hare had a keen interest in
Middle Eastern architecture, and the photos were a gift from
colleagues when he left Turkey.

Shot at locations across Anatolia, the photographs mainly portray
medieval Seljuk and Armenian monuments, along with a few other sites
including the stunning Ishak Pasa Palace in Dogubayazit, built by the
Ottomans in the 18th century. Whether due to deterioration or to
restoration and modernization for tourism, most of these places don’t
look the same today.

The photos of Armenian sites, including the 10th-century Church of the
Holy Cross on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, are especially poignant
because Guler himself belongs to Istanbul’s dwindling Armenian

By the time he photographed the remote ruins of Ani in northeastern
Turkey–capital of the Bagratuni Armenian Kingdom in the 10th and 11th
centuries–the buildings had badly deteriorated, caused by both
natural forces and centuries of neglect. The facade of the crumbling
Church of the Redeemer–only half of which remains erect after a
lightning strike–appears surrounded by thick, overgrown grasses, as
if it had stood untouched for years.

Although Guler has traveled the globe and photographed the rich and
famous–from Salvador Dali to Alfred Hitchcock–he is most proud of
his work covering his native country. He explains his philosophy in a
seven-minute accompanying video produced by FotoTV: “We press
photographers record a visual history of our time. I find that more
important than creating art.”

Guler has a distinctive photographic style, however, and the exhibit
treats his photos as “art,” emphasizing aesthetic elements such as
dramatic lighting, composition, texture and framing. Labeled only with
names, locations and dates, the works are divided into four (slightly
contrived) thematic sections, each paired with a quotation from Guler
and commentary that encourages viewers to contemplate the artistic
qualities of the images.

While presenting Guler’s photos as art is valid, to a certain extent
it removes them from their cultural and historical context. A wide
shot of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents in Ani, for
example, shows a deep river valley that snakes between two hillsides
directly behind the church. What isn’t revealed is that this river
forms the boundary between Turkey and Armenia; the border itself is
lined in places with mines and has been closed since 1993 due to
long-simmering political tensions between the two countries.

Nevertheless, even without an in-depth examination of their political
and historical significance, Guler’s photographs are compelling in
their beauty and narrative power. Whether viewed as “art” or
“documentation,” they capture a moment in Turkey that has long since

Larson is a freelance writer.

In Focus: Ara Guler’s Anatolia at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery until May 4.

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