As the dust settles regarding the sad passing of Ara Güler, Turkish photographer Niyal Akmanalp administers well-deserved superlatives on his career. While his death resonated globally Niyal briefly discusses the legendary photographer and his ability to capture the true essence of Turkey.
Ara Güler, a universally acclaimed photographer from Turkey, passed away on the 17th October. He was born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1928 into an Armenian family. In the 50’s he started working as a photojournalist for the newspaper Yeni Istanbul (“New Istanbul”) and eventually became Near East correspondent for Time and Life magazines. In 1961, after meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud, Ara Güler became a member of Magnum Photos.
Ara Güler travelled extensively on assignments and portrayed famous faces such as Hitchcock, Dali, Picasso, Chagall, Fellini, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Sophia Loren, Indira Gandhi and many more. However, the subject he most frequently covered was the street life of Istanbul. Although he considered himself a world citizen he was a true Istanbulite, and a well-known character in his own right on the streets of the city.
Istanbul’s famous skyline and iconic architecture was never Güler’s main subject, but merely the background for his shots. Armed with a Leica camera which he carried everywhere he went, he turned his lens towards those inhabitants of the city on which others turned a blind eye: the Istanbul of 1950’s with its tortuous back streets crowded by Dickensian poverty, fishing crews returning home from a long days of labour, jobless people in line for work or consoling themselves by drinking at a neighborhood tavern, street vendors struggling to make a living.
It was not only the people he captured from the streets that gained him the nickname “The eye of Istanbul”, but also his ability to capture the heartbeat and spirit of the metropolis. Besides freezing time and writing the visual history of Istanbul, Güler’s shots told stories full of mood and emotion. Just by looking at his pictures one can hear the sound of children playing on the streets, smell the cigarette smoke wafting from the coffee houses, or feel the wind coming from the sea.
While many people saw his work as being artistic, he shunned recognition as an art photographer and preferred to be seen as a visual historian. He believed that it was more important for a photograph to be a document than for it to be work of art. I, rather, prefer to see him as the visual poet of Istanbul.
Whether he remains known as an artist, a visual historian, or a poet, it is certain that Güler lit the fire of passion in the hearts of the street photographers of Turkey. Goodbye Ara Güler… You and your extraordinary work will be missed…