Preserving Moments

A Play of Light and Shadow is a tribute to Ara Güler (1928-2018), celebrated as “The Eye of Istanbul” and one of Turkey’s most legendary creatives. His love for the country and its capital city shines through in his evocative black and white shots of everyday scenes – from docks and fruit carts to people and streets. This retrospective is a close collaboration between Foam, Amsterdam and the Ara Güler Museum, Istanbul. It is the stunning centrepiece of Kısmet, a multi-year project delving into the diverse and intricate facets of Turkish visual culture, as seen through the lens of different generations of image-makers. The initiative has been created and developed in close collaboration between Studio Polat, Amsterdam and Foam.

A renowned photojournalist, Güler captured the essence of Turkey as well as the world beyond. His work focused on the experiences of people in the 20th century. He documented people’s lives as a visual historian, maintaining their memories through the still image. However, he emphasised: “I am a photojournalist, not a photographer; I certainly am not an artist. I shoot what I see. I don’t do art. I transmit what is natural, what I see to people. That is called photojournalism. A photographer is very different from a photojournalist.” For him, art could lie whilst the documentary offers a more honest reflection of reality. This impulse to capture the experiences of people truthfully took him all around the world, from Borneo to India and Iran to New Guinea. Undeniably, Güler was a driving force in Turkish image-making. In 1961, his work was presented in the British Photography Yearbook and he became the first Turkish member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. His unforgettable images inspired generations of emerging photojournalists, such as Emin Özmen, who told the British Journal of Photography that Güler “dedicated his life and his energy to photographing life itself, and for this reason he is an example for many.”

Foam’s retrospective provides attendees with the unmissable opportunity to explore famous and little-known parts of his oeuvre. The show revolves around four sections: “The Iconic”, “The Historic”, “The Ambassador” and “The Personal”. Through these key thematic gateways, visitors become immersed in Güler’s practice – from signature photojournalism to remarkable experimental work. In addition to capturing everyday life, Güler immortalised numerous renowned artists and political figures throughout his illustrious career, such as landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1982), art critic John Berger (1926-2017) and former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917-1984). Despite producing work in colour and capturing famous faces, his poignant black and white pictures taken in 1950s and 1960s Istanbul are most renowned. For example, in Galata Docks, Istanbul (1962) a man reaches his hand out of a ship’s porthole towards a piece of paper handed to him by a woman standing on land. Elsewhere, we meet a diverse array of characters: ballet dancers, laughing children and mysterious figures silhouetted against the dockside seascape. In Apollo, author Kaya Genç writes that: “For me, the grainy Istanbul that emerged from the shabby music halls, tiny churches and adventure-courting ships in Güler’s images has always held a near-magical appeal. His Istanbul urged the viewer to set out and see whether it existed still; the city’s ruthless modernisation sends one back to his photographs with even more nostalgia.”

Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) conceived of “the decisive moment” as the instant when the most important elements assemble in front of the camera – the perfect opportunity to take the shot. Photography has the power to preserve one meaningful second forever. Although impermanence is a reality we must accept, these frozen images exist as striking anomalies. Within them, anything from personal experiences to historical moments may be stored and revisited for years to come. Saved as memory, they continue to spark nostalgia for times, people and places long gone. Güler offers a testament to his country’s history and a glimpse into the foundations of contemporary Turkish identity.

Foam, Ara Güler: A Play of Light and Shadow | until 8 November

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Mount Ararat, 1965 © Ara Güler / Ara Güler Museum.
  2. Old Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 1957 © Ara Güler / Ara Güler Museum.
  3. Galata Docks, Istanbul, 1962 © Ara Güler / Ara Güler Museum.
  4. The Golden Horn, Istanbul, 1955 © Ara Güler / Ara Güler Museum.