The Photographers Of Constantinople

by Matt Damsker


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By Bahattin Oztuncay. Two Volumes. Published by Aygaz A.S., Istanbul, December 2003; ISBN Nos. 975-296-052-9; 975-296-053-7; ISBN Set No. 975-296-051-0. 735 pages; no price indicated.

This comprehensive two-volume study of Istanbul's 19th-century photographic pioneers, studios, and artists seems worthy of a life's work for its relatively youthful author, 46-year-old Bahattin Oztuncay. Born in Istanbul, Oztuncay has immersed himself in the photographic legacy of his native land, and his writings on James Robertson, Edouard de Caranzam and Vassilaki Kargopoulo--all pioneers of Ottoman Empire imagery--have distinguished him throughout the photography world.

His systematic approach to this sprawling subject serves him well here, as does the lavishly illustrated and annotated packaging of these volumes, with hundreds of superb reproductions on rich matte paper stock. Oztuncay begins his history with the invention of photography and its early days in Istanbul, from the spread of the daugerreotype and calotype methods to their arrival in Istanbul with the first wave of traveling photographers.

Importantly, he describes how the intense Orientalism of the Ottoman Empire and the scenic splendors of Istanbul proved to be such powerful inspirations for Western photographers such as Robertson, John Shaw Smith, and Alphonse Durand. They were also financial motivations, given that "Britain and France's political and economic interests in the Middle East in particular stimulated popular curiosity about the region, thus providing enough of a source of demand…for works dealing with Orientalistic themes that artists and authors could be assured of making a living by supplying them."

Indeed, portraits of exotic personages in Turkish costumes, along with the mosques, minarets and Byzantine obelisks of the Ottoman experience proved popular fodder for the late 19th-century picture-makers. And while James Robertson's photographic views of Constantinople earned him just renown, Oztuncay details Robertson's more official occupation--as chief engraver for the Ottoman mint, where he designed many of the coins of the realm.

Photography was thus a sideline for the likes of Robertson, but he and other Western pioneers were paralleled in their efforts by the Ottoman court photographers who began to define the Istanbul style. The most accomplished of these was Vassilaki Kargopoulo, who prevailed over such potent rivals as the Abdullah, Gulmez, and Sebah studios to become Chief Photographer of the Ottoman Court in the late 1870s. Kargopoulo and his peers benefited greatly, of course, from Frederick Scott Archer's invention of the wet collodion method of photography, which allowed for convenient paper reproductions of images.

And so images of Turkish commercial and domestic life, street-sellers, and the variety of scenic wonders became commonplace, many of them superb in detail and atmosphere. Volume 2 of Oztuncay's study collects over 300 of these treasures, with generous reproductions of the Imperial Family, statesmen, Ottoman celebrities, palaces, everyday life, the city and the sea. There are also several wonderful foldout panoramas of Istanbul, the Topkapi palace and the Asian shore of the Bosporus, taken from such vantage points as the Beyazit and Galata towers.

As these volumes show so compellingly, the power of photography to return us to and reveal to us lost worlds is truly magical. Oztuncay's discernment and his devotion to his subject combine powerfully with the depth of archival material at his command. "The Photographers of Constantinople" may well prove to be his masterpiece, though it's logical to assume he'll provide many more tours de force of scholarship in the years ahead.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.