Lampoon, Exhibition Ara Güler, Isstambul, Turkey, Ara Güler Museum

Memory of the Shore – Magnum photographer Ara Güler evokes memories in Istanbul

From Istanbul’s past to its present, Ara Güler’s photography tells the story of the city’s relationship with the sea, laying at the intersection of Europe and Asia

Turkish-Armenian photojournalist Ara Güler’s latest exhibition Memory of the Shore has opened its doors to visitors at the historic Package Post Office at Galataport, Istanbul. Consisting of twenty-eight color photographs, the exhibition highlights the Bosphorus and its shores, shedding light on the heart of a city that lays at the intersection of Europe and Asia.

Life of Ara Güler

Ara Güler was born in Taksim, Istanbul in 1928. Growing up in a Christian Armenian household, Güler was heavily influenced by the world of cinema and dreamed of becoming a film director. He started working in film studios, assisting in set design and production. But his path crossed with photography when his father gave him a 35-millimeter camera when he was a child. 

During his university years, he pursued a career as a journalist, writing stories for literary magazines and Armenian newspapers of the time. But realizing that he can take a photo much quicker compared to writing a story, he decided to become a photojournalist and got his first job at the Yeni Istanbul newspaper in 1950, which allowed him to travel all across the country, taking photos of people’s daily lives.  

Driven with passion to document and record history, his talent for photojournalism was soon recognized by international news outlets such as Time Life, Paris Match, Stern and Sunday Times London who regularly published his work. In the early sixties, upon encountering photographers Henri-Carter Bresson and Marc Riboud, he was invited to become a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos and today, he holds the title for being the only photographer from Turkey to be part of the society.

In the Seventies, Güler added portrait photography to his impressive repertoire, realizing the portraits of famous celebrities and politicians such as; Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Maria Callas, Indira Gandhi and Winston Churchill.

In addition to his body of work, some of his famous features include photographs from the archeological sites of Noah’s Ark, Mount Nemrut, as well as his discovery of the forgotten city of Aphrodisias that he encountered during his travels. It was through Güler’s assignments that the sites caught the attention of the world. 

After practicing photography for more than 60 years, Ara Güler passed away at the age of 90 in October 17, 2018.

A debate between art and photography 

Despite traveling the world, Güler’s true passion rested in his home land, Istanbul. He was most famously known for being Istanbul’s Eye for capturing the city’s hidden faces and laborers. Often referring to himself as a visual historian, he believed his photographs were like pieces of documents, recording the changing course of history.

Often finding inspiration in the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who introduced the mysteries of the Eastern world to the West with his writings, for Güler a photographer’s job was no different than to witness and record history. To take people’s drama, their lives, their customs and traditions, their joy, their way of living. And to present it to the people in other parts of the world. 

Though his photographs satisfy the senses of the viewers with their aesthetic nature, Güler never wanted to be perceived as an artist. He believed while art had the ability to lie, photography could only tell the truth. For him, it was best to keep the two disciplines separate, as art was imagination that could exist beyond a frame, while photography was an experience that went down in history. 

In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, Güler shed light on his view between the disciplines and expressed, «Photography looks like art, but art has to have some kind of depth. Painting is art. Music is art. Who is an artist, Yehudi Menuhin or Vivaldi? One is only an interpreter. Photography is interpretation. I can stand for an hour in front of a picture by Ansel Adams or Eugene Smith or Cartier-Bresson. You can see that they have a visual education. But that does not make them artists. I hate the idea of becoming an artist. My job is to travel and record what I see».

But the photographer never denied the predominance of art and aesthetics. For him, though art held immense significance, «The history of humanity is more crucial, and that is what press photographers record. We are the eyes of the world. We see on behalf of other people. We collect the visual history of today’s earth. To me, visual history is more relevant than art. The function of photography is to leave documentation for coming centuries».

Memory of the Shore 

The exhibition Memory of the Shore joins together twenty-eight color photos that Güler has taken between the years of 1962 until 1994, a period when Turkey was going through drastic political, economic, social and cultural transformations. The selection of photographs inspired by the Bosphorus and its shores, present the heart of Istanbul. Like the veins in a human body, the sea breathes life to the city and its inhabitants. 

They highlight different moments of daily life, emerging with the first light of the morning to the sunset, leading the audience to explore the coastlines of the city that acts as a mosaic of cultures, languages and religions. The colors transform with the changing lights of the sun, portraying the famous silhouette of the city in different shades from the golden hours of the afternoon, to pink, orange, blue and purple. 

The rich and vast collection of photographs Güler leaves behind is embedded in layers. His visual story-telling goes in depth with the reality of Istanbul, his photographs speak of a city which stands as a symbol of richness, while housing the faces that have grown weary and tired, showing signs of defeat against poverty and class struggles. 

Laborers pulling their boats to the shore, fisherman selling fish by the docks, people carrying passengers from one continent to another, workers cleaning the edges of their ships. In the Memory of the Shore Güler documents workers in different stages of their domestic lives. Workers hidden in docks and industrial sites, invisible to the eye. A portrayal of Istanbul’s inhabitants in constant movement, from the land to the sea, from Asia to Europe. The exhibition illustrates the exchange between different territories and the working-class’s efforts to exist amongst the spaces. 

The photos also characterize the intertwined life locals have with the sea and its fishermen. From the fishermen that align their boats to leave in the first moment of daylight, to the shores that bring people the joy of living by the sea, for Güler, Istanbul exists with the energy of its people and through their attachment to the water. 

Lampoon, Istanbul. A picture from the exhibition 'Memory of the Shore' by Ara Güler. Courtesy of Ara Güler Museum
A picture from the exhibition ‘Memory of the Shore’ by Ara Güler. Courtesy of Ara Güler Museum

The Human Element

The human element is ever so present in Güler’s photography, in his own words he is «a man of the living people, breathing men, workers» His communication with his subjects often feels unsentimental and raw, like a bygone passenger who simply notes his observations. The ‘witness’ angle in his photographs is further supported by his intentions to focus solely on capturing the truth and nothing more. 

But as one may observe, Güler’s artistry goes beyond simple documentation. The photographer’s own emotions are imprinted in the work; his passion, love and even sometimes hate for his country, like patches of memoirs, reveal themselves in the foggy, melancholic photos.

It is the intimacy the artist shares with his hometown and its inhabitants that add a layer of affection. The dedication to preserve and protect the cultural richness of his city, the adoration for his people, the devotion to nurture and care for what may be lost. 

Turkey’s Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk once expressed in a ceremony at the Bosphorus University in 2014, that the secret of Güler’s photographs of Istanbul «is to be able to see the center of a great empire and the richest city of the Republic of Turkey, with the fragility and poverty of its people in its streets, teahouses and rubbish workshops. It also means grasping Istanbul as a whole between the 1950s and 1980s, ignoring the hope of the future with the burden of the past, realizing what was happening in the city at that time, and opening one’s eyes to it».

Perhaps the cardinal aspect of Güler’s work rests between contrasts. The contrast between sea and land, people and environment, richness and poverty, old and new Istanbul.

As Istanbul’s eye, his work is deeply embedded in the city’s history, taking people to a time when Istanbul’s cultural richness hadn’t been stomped upon by the rapidly growing desire for modernization.

A time when the architecture that once housed the city’s locals still existed, the professions that earned the life of many hadn’t been replaced by sophisticated machinery. His poetic photos provide the striking difference between the past and present, the old and new Istanbul. In his final years, Güler looked at his city like many locals still do, with longing for the lost Istanbul. 

Ara Güler

Throughout his lifetime, Ara Güler published several books. Some of the awards and titles the photographer has won in his life include American Society of Media Photographers (1961); Légion D’Honneur; Officier des Arts et des Lettres (2002).

His photographs are included in the collections of international institutions. With a mission to preserve the archives of Ara Güler, the Ara Güler Museum and Ara Güler Archives and Research Center opened its doors in 2018 in Istanbul in Bomontiada.

Aybuke Barkcin

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.