The photographer who unveiled the eternal beauty of İstanbul - Ara Güler

 ‘’Güle Güle Ara Güler“ (Farewell Ara Güler) has been a worldwide hashtag in the past days. The death of Turkey’s legendary photographer on Wednesday night has created a wave of grief and sympathy.

Turkish cartoonist Ramize Erer shared a classic from the 1950’s on Facebook using this Hashtag. She shared a headscarved Anatolian woman in a long cloak on her tiptoes. In the image, she is handing over a package of food to a man through the porthole of a huge freighter on the shore of the the Bosphorus in İstanbul. The hardship of working far away from home, the loneliness of the ones left behind, and the stunning beauty of the metropolis of Istanbul are etched into a unique piece of photographic poetry. The photo is black and white, has a perfect framing and a touches on a symbolism that triggers several emotions for the viewer. It is these sort of images which made photographer Ara Güler famous.

The lonely man strolling the city with his Leica was known as the “eye of Istanbul” to many. “Istanbul was his canvas, his notebook” shared South-Korean photojournalist Yunghi Kim from the U.S. on social media.

Güler used to stage the metropolis: the old tram in a snowstorm, on the shopping street Istiklal Street; ferries, steamboats and fishermen on the Bosporus; craftsman, the labourer, simple people on the street. Istanbul was for him "like a box full of jewels and precious stones," as he once described.

Just last August, a photography museum named after Güler was opened in Bomontiada, a district of Istanbul that was inhabited mostly by the non-Muslim minorities before the 1950s. The opening ceremony at Bomontiada Museum took place last August to honor Güler’s 90th birthday. Already suffering from health problems, the veteran photographer was brought in a wheelchair amid cheers and a birthday cake was cut. The exhibition includes photographs, stories, videos, paintings, objects and books from the Ara Güler Archives.

“His chair without him sitting there leaves a big void for us”, a waitress in the famous “Ara Güler-Café” said with tears in her eyes.

The always-crowded venue is located close to the Galatasaray High-School at a famous square. Lots of demonstrations would begin at that very corner prior to the July 2016 coup attempt.

“For him that was always a matter of excitement” Hülya S. reflects. The photographer was known for his unpredictable grumpiness. He did always treated the people working for him like a father, though.

Güler was a man full of contradictions. He was first educated as an actor by the country’s legendary actor Muhsin Ertuğrul. Then he decided to study economics. After all that he opted to make his passion, photography, a profession. Although his deep attachment to Istanbul, Güler always resisted a one dimensional interpretation of himself or his work. The photographer never wanted to be understood as a chronicler of one city alone.

"People call me a photographer of Istanbul," he once said. "But I am a citizen of the world. I am a photographer of the world.”

Güler was born in 1928 in Istanbul to Armenian parents. He always refused to commenting on his ethnicity. “I am an Ottoman,” was his usual answer to political questions. Güler began his career as a photographer with the Turkish newspaper “Yeni Istanbul”. In 1953, he met Henri Cartier Bresson and joined the legendary Magnum agency. He was working for major magazines such as Time-Life and Paris Match. Throughout his career he had also captured portraits of great personalities such as Salvador Dalí, Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, John Berger, Bertrand Russel, Willy Brand, Pablo Picasso and Sofia Loren.

Güler won several awards for his work: in 1961, the Photography Annual named him one of the seven best photographers in the world. In 1962, he was declared "Master of Leica." In 1968, he was voted among "The Ten Masters of Color Photography" by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Ara Guler

Güler always resisted the idea of celebrity, though. “I am not an artist, I am not a photographer, I am a photojournalist,” he repeated during interviews. His works, however, continued to be exhibited as contemporary art pieces.

Four years ago, a retrospective was put on display at the “Willy-Brand-Haus” in Berlin called ‘’Ara Güler – The Eye of Istanbul. A retrospective from 1955-2005.”

The transformation of the metropole was visualized masterfully through his adoring eyes of city. Güler was particularly fond of the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn. He photographed it in black and white and in color, in the morning and at night and all seasons.

He created unique photographic paintings. The title of one of his books is incisively “Vanishing colors.” When the floating bridge built in 1912 was badly damaged in a fire in 1992, Güler was deeply affected. He continued capturing images of the new bridge.

Six years ago, at the age of 84, Güler agreed to an exhibit on his life for the first time. “The Unknown Ara Güler” was curated by Lora Sarıaslan, daughter of Güler's childhood friend İkna Sariaslan.

Visitors to the exhibit were startled by blurry photographic abstractions spread over a magical atmosphere. “These are the broken pictures, they lack exposures which reflects my broken life,” the master shared with the audience during the opening ceremony.

It was obvious that the artist wouldn’t have kept exposures in his archive for no reason.

Ara Güler - Lora Sarıaslan
Ara Güler - Lora Sarıaslan

Art historian and curator Sariaslan is deeply saddened about the loss of an important figure in her life. Her memories working with an outstanding artist are heartwarming.

“I grew up with Ara’s narrations around the dinner table of his fantastic stories and encounters around the globe. He had a distinct sense of the world and its inhabitants and a keen eye to constantly present it even till the very end. I was lucky to have also gotten the chance to curate his exhibition of never before seen abstract photos, and he was always open to new ideas and encounters, the way a great artist should be.”

His presence in the city he captured ever so poetically will be missed. Güle güle Ara Güler.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.