Pho­to­jour­nal­ist much ad­mired for po­etic and poignant pic­tures of his home city, Is­tan­bul

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Si­mon Bow­cock

Though Ara Güler, who has died aged 90, was a renowned in­ter­na­tional pho­to­jour­nal­ist, his great achieve­ment lay in his ca­reer-long doc­u­men­ta­tion of his home city, Is­tan­bul. Güler pho­tographed the city af­fec­tion­ately yet au­then­ti­cally, and be­came known as the “eye of Is­tan­bul”. While he could be pos­i­tive, po­etic and play­ful, he also showed the harsh re­al­ity of life for many of its in­hab­i­tants.

Many re­gard his ear­lier Is­tan­bul work, in which he seemed to cap­ture the city’s essence, with the great­est fond­ness. “Ara Güler’s Is­tan­bul is my Is­tan­bul,” wrote the nov­el­ist Orhan Pa­muk in 2009 in the fore­word to the col­lec­tion Ara Güler’s Is­tan­bul. “The Is­tan­bul of the 1950s and 1960s – its streets, pave­ments, shops and dirty, ne­glected fac­to­ries; its ships, horse carts, buses, clouds, pri­vate taxis, shared taxis, build­ings, bridges, chim­neys, mists and peo­ple; and the soul in all th­ese things, so dif­fi­cult to recog­nise at first sight – is nowhere as well doc­u­mented, pre­served and pro­tected as it is in the pho­to­graphs of Ara Güler.”

Pa­muk was par­tic­u­larly taken by the hüzün – a kind of melan­choly – evoked in many of Güler’s pho­to­graphs from this pe­riod, in which the mosques, the wa­ter and smoke from the ships in­sis­tently re­cur. Güler worked in both colour and monochrome, but the blackand-white pic­tures tend to have more of this melan­cholic qual­ity, some­thing the pho­tog­ra­pher recog­nised, once ob­serv­ing that “colour pho­to­graphs lack the so­lid­ity of black and white”.

De­spite the depth and com­plex­ity of his pic­tures, Güler was de­void of artis­tic pre­ten­sion. “My aim is not to pro­duce art pho­tog­ra­phy, but sim­ply to re­flect Is­tan­bul as it re­ally is,” he said, re­gard­ing him­self as a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher as op­posed to an artist. “I be­lieve that pho­tog­ra­phy is a form of magic by which a mo­ment of ex­pe­ri­ence is seized for trans­mis­sion to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy was not his first choice of pro­fes­sion. He was born in Is­tan­bul to Ar­me­nian par­ents, Da­cat Derderyan and Ver­jin Şahyan; in 1935 a law com­pelled them to take a Turk­ish sur­name. Ini­tially

Ara set his sights on a ca­reer in the dra­matic arts. He started job­bing in film stu­dios where his fa­ther, a phar­ma­cist, had con­nec­tions through sell­ing chem­i­cals for de­vel­op­ing film.

Ara ded­i­cated his 1994 book A Pho­to­graph­i­cal Sketch on Lost Is­tan­bul “to my fa­ther Da­cat Güler

... for his hav­ing bought me my first cam­era”. He also pur­sued cour­ses in the­atre and wrote plays. While study­ing eco­nom­ics at the Univer­sity of Is­tan­bul, he be­gan work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher for the Yeni Is­tan­bul news­pa­per. He later headed the pho­tog­ra­phy depart­ment at the mag­a­zine Hayat.

His big break came in De­cem­ber 1958, when the Amer­i­can mag­a­zine group Time Life opened an of­fice in Is­tan­bul and hired Güler. This raised his pro­file in­ter­na­tion­ally, and be­fore long he found him­self also work­ing for Euro­pean ti­tles, par­tic­u­larly Stern, Paris Match and the Sun­day Times, reg­u­larly trav­el­ling abroad on as­sign­ment.

In Paris he met Henri CartierBres­son, who in­vited him to be­come the 16th mem­ber of the Mag­num pho­to­graphic agency, which then be­gan to dis­trib­ute his work to more mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers glob­ally.

Al­though he later left Mag­num, he re­tained strong links with and friend­ships at the co-op­er­a­tive. “Be­ing a Mag­num pho­tog­ra­pher doesn’t make you rich, it makes you proud,” he said in an in­ter­view with the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Pho­tog­ra­phy in 2013, about his de­ci­sion to leave and pur­sue an in­de­pen­dent ca­reer. “I’m never go­ing to re­tire. I will take pho­to­graphs un­til the day I die.” He con­tin­ued to work at the high­est level well into his 80s, and pho­tographed the Turk­ish pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan and his fam­ily in 2015.

Güler pho­tographed sub­jects in­clud­ing Pablo Pi­casso, Cole Porter, Al­fred Hitch­cock, Maria Callas, Ber­trand Rus­sell and Win­ston Churchill. But it is his por­traits of the or­di­nary peo­ple of Is­tan­bul, from the young man light­ing a cig­a­rette in the dark in Bey­oğlu, Is­tan­bul, 1954, to the group idling by the wa­ter in Sariyer, Is­tan­bul, 1982, for which he will be re­mem­bered.

“I have seen some of Güler’s pho­to­graphs so many times that I now con­fuse them with my own mem­o­ries of Is­tan­bul,” wrote

Pa­muk. “Ara Güler’s great­est achieve­ment is to have pre­served for many mil­lions a vis­ual mem­oir that cap­tures the city in all its rich­ness and po­etry.”

Güler re­ceived prizes and awards in­clud­ing the Lé­gion d’hon­neur from the French gov­ern­ment and the Turk­ish pho­tog­ra­pher of the cen­tury award. Ear­lier this year, on Güler’s 90th birth­day, a mu­seum ded­i­cated to his work opened in Is­tan­bul. It also houses the Ara Güler Ar­chive and Re­search Cen­tre, which will pre­serve the pho­tog­ra­pher’s col­lec­tion of neg­a­tives, slides, prints and re­lated ef­fects.

Güler’s first mar­riage, to Per­i­han Sarıöz, ended in di­vorce. His sec­ond wife, Suna Taşkıran, whom he mar­ried in 1984, died in 2010.

He has pre­served a vis­ual mem­oir that cap­tures the city in all its rich­ness

ARA GÜLER MU­SEUM, ISA TERLI/ANADOLU/ GETTY IMAGES

Galata, Is­tan­bul, pho­tographed by Güler in 1955. Mosques, wa­ter and smoke from ships re­cur in his early work. Be­low, the pho­tog­ra­pher pic­tured in 2015

Ara Güler, pho­tog­ra­pher, born 16 Au­gust 1928; died 17 Oc­to­ber 2018

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