Entertainment The godfather of Turkish photography: Ara Guler

The godfather of Turkish photography: Ara Guler

Ara Guler
Ara Guler

(AA) – “I am tired of taking photos.” 

Turkey’s most popular photographer Ara Guler laboriously takes a seat in Ara Cafe in Istanbul’s teeming Beyoglu district, where he has been living since he was born.

A bit grumpy and foul-mouthed, Guler has difficulty walking and more often than not needs someone to lean on.

Commonly referred to as “Istanbul’s eye,” – a term he does not like, refusing to claim ownership of the historical city – Guler admits a certain weariness.

He made his name mainly with his black-and white nostalgic pictures of Istanbul, depicting the city’s wide range of emotions, photos that have since been turned into paintings which are showcased in an exhibition in the city’s high-class district of Bebek, open until April 18.

With his gray hair and beard, the 86-year-old Istanbul native looks like a character in one of his famous photos. 

Suffering from renal failure, the legendary photographer is full of stories about dialysis, since he has to take the treatment three times a week.

“That dialysis makes me stupefied,” he says. “I cannot do anything three days a week, it takes four hours each time and it is unbearable.” 

Still, Guler takes the occasional photograph. Earlier in the year, he took pictures of the ongoing construction of Istanbul’s third bridge on the Bosphorus.


– Always wanted to be a playwright


Since his early childhood, Guler belonged to a social class made up of Turkish intellectuals.

His mother came from an Istanbul native Armenian family, who owned several houses around Beyoglu.

Guler’s father was left an orphan at six years old following the mass relocation of Armenians from Anatolia at the turn of the century. He was later a pharmacist for the Turkish army at the battle of Gallipoli in 1915. 

It was thanks to his father’s connections that he managed to land his first job as an assistant film projector in one of Beyoglu’s many theaters.

Indeed, in his father’s drugstore, where theater artists would gather regularly to buy make-up material for plays, Guler met the founder of modern Turkish theater, Muhsin Ertugrul, and was even able to work with him.

“(Guler) always wanted to be a playwright,” wrote, Nezih Tavlas in a 2003 biography on Guler called “Photo Journalist.”

At 22 years old, he receives his first camera – a Rolleicord II. His career as a photographer kicks off when he joins a local newspaper called Yeni Istanbul in 1950.

The legendary photojournalist fondly recalls when he went to cover a train accident at the end of 1950s. 

“Three carriages had collided and there were more than 90 dead on the ground,” he remembers.

“I saw an emergency handle and a hand which looked like it was stretching out to it 20 centimeters away,” he recalls with enthusiasm.

He needs to show “the accident.”

“But to do that, I had to turn the body over,” he says, similar to scenes in 2014 American neo-noir movie Nightcrawler, which portrays a cameraman who tampers with crime scenes, i.e. by moving victims’ bodies, to get better shots.

 He ends up soaked with the victim’s blood.

“Even my camera was in blood,” he says. But he managed to get the picture he wanted: “I wanted to give meaning (to the photo). He extended his hand but did not pull the handle and the disaster started there.”

“Do you know how dry blood smells?” he asks. “It is disgusting and sticky, the dried blood stuck like glue.”


– What is journalism?


It is around the same time that Guler meets world renowned French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson – through his connection with Romeo Martinez, editor-in-chief of the magazine Camera between 1956 and 1961– and becomes a member of Magnum Photos, an international photography cooperative.

By the end of the 1950s, he works for world-renowned magazines such as Time Life in the U.S., the French weekly Paris Match or Der Stern in Germany, traveling around the world – from Pakistan to Kenya, from New Guinea to Borneo. He is in Sudan in 1978 just before the second Eritrean civil war to report on clashes between rebel groups. Just before the 1980 military coup in Turkey, Guler goes to Mongolia, the Turks’ homeland, to photograph 8th century inscriptions. In 1990, he heads to Indonesia with his wife for a report on cannibal tribes.

But it is in Turkey that he makes one of his most astounding discoveries:  an ancient city called Aphrodisias in Turkey’s western province of Aydin in 1958. As he is returning from a job involving the inauguration of a dam, his driver loses his way ending up in a village where locals used the antique architecture as part of their daily life.

In 1957, he is in France covering the Cannes Film Festival. He meets such legendary figures from the film industry as American filmmaker Orson Welles or Italian writer Alberto Moravia and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

While he manages to take a picture of Picasso on the red carpet in Cannes, Guler has to wait until 1971 to take a true portrait of him.

First he tries through one of Picasso’s best friends, French painter Edouard Pignon, but to no avail. Then he attempts to gain contact Picasso through well-known Turkish artist Abidin Dino. Again, he is unsuccessful.

Guler is losing hope when he meets the owner of Skira Publishing, Albert Skira, who has just signed a contract with the Spanish artist to publish his “Metamorphoses et Unite” book.

This means a visit to Picasso’s house, which Guler cannot miss. He suggests to Skira that he join them during the four-day visit to photograph Picasso’s daily life.

“Those four days broadened my horizons,” Guler said to Tavlas. “Just like a magic wand. Picasso changed my view of the world.” 

Guler also photographsthe likes of Winston Churchill, John Berger, Alfred Hitchcock and Salvador Dali, among many, many others.

Ever the grump, Guler downplays the importance of the portraits he has done. 

“There is a guy, this guy is famous, and there is a necessity of taking this guy’s picture and you take it,” he says. “But (taking a picture of ordinary people in their environment) is like taking out a part from reality and making it history.”

“That is journalism,” he adds.


– ‘The sunset is the same everywhere’


Although Guler is quick to claim that “photography is not art,” he does concede that it is as complex as “structuring a painting.”

“It is not just taking a picture of a sunset or a sunrise,” he adds. “The sunset is the same everywhere, even the sun itself is the same one.” 

“(But) you cannot think of this as an artwork,” he adds.

The New York Museum of Modern Art thought otherwise in 1968 organizing an exhibition titled “10 Masters of Color Photography” with work by Guler’s works in 1968.

When asked what he would like to photograph today, Guler elfishly replies: “I want to take a picture of the Ebola virus.”

According to the legendary photographer, the perfect photograph has never been taken: “There is no art piece that has reached perfection.”

“There is no best,” he says. “The best will always be in the future. To reach the best is like to reach the deity.”

He shows a photo of himself taken by American photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976): “I am proud of this picture. She catches my thinking moment,” he says in an unusual moment of demonstrative satisfaction.

It is a frontal picture of the photographer. He holds a camera in his right hand, of which the index finger barring his lips seems to gesture a shush as if to encapsulate the silence. He does not look at the camera. Instead, his eyes focus on something beyond the photographer.   

The more Ara Guler talks, the more animated he gets, the more the passion reclaims him. But the dialysis, the disease, serve as constant anchors back to reality. 

“Either you have to live like this from now on or there is only one expedience; one day you will pull a bullet into a weapon and shoot the gun on your head. There is no other remedy,” he says.

But the man who started the interview saying he was fed up with taking pictures remains a photographer at heart:

“How is your camera? Is it any good?” he asks The Anadolu Agency photographer.

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