Turhan Kayaoğlu
Nov 07 2017

The Death of a Photographer

Photographer and poet Lütfi Özkök said his final farewell to the world on the last day of October.

Farewells were his destiny.

Özkök was the eldest son of a family that migrated to Romania, to the Crimea, and then to Istanbul. His father was a fisherman in Feriköy, Istanbul.

Turhan Kayaoğlu with Lütfi Özkök
Turhan Kayaoğlu with Lütfi Özkök

One day Özkök’s father makes an offer to one of his patrons, a French pastor, asking him to teach his son French in exchange for fish. The priest, taken aback, gladly accepted this unexpected offer. Thus, Lütfi learns French as a young boy.

He starts making his first appearance in Istanbul literary circles at the age of 17; ready to discuss Arthur Rimbaud's poetry, which he carries around with him.

His father not only finds a way for him to learn how to speak French, but also figures out how to send him to Vienna to study engineering.

That was his first farewell to friends and family.

Just as the Second World War starts, Lütfi hops on a train once again and says farewell to Vienna.

During his college years in Istanbul, he is often seen at singers' taverns and Beyoğlu cafes with famous poets and writers like Salah Bilsel and Oktay Akbal.

But once again he bids farewell. This time to Paris, to study architecture at the Sorbonne. In Paris, he falls in love with a Swedish classmate: Marie. The young girl returns to Stockholm a year after they meet. Soon after, Lütfi follows his love to this magical city of the north... bidding farewell to Paris. 

Özkök arrives in Stockholm in the early 1950s with three wooden suitcases full of books, oblivious to the fact that that he will live there for the next 67 years, becoming the world's best-known photographer of author portraits.

In Stockholm, he meets French poets and writers and translates their work into Turkish. He sends them to Hüsamettin Bozok, a close friend, to be published in 'Yedi Tepe' literary magazine in Istanbul. Bozok asks for these poets’ photos to print alongside the poems. Unable to find professional photographs of authors, Lütfi takes on the task with his amateur camera, walking door to door taking photos of the poets.

He distributes his photographs to newspapers and magazines. Soon these photos are published, and Lütfi starts gaining recognition as a professional photographer. That is how Lütfi bids farewell to the state agency he is working for and starts making his living taking author photographs. He participates in international literary meetings, taking pictures of poets and writers from all over the world. His archive grows as demand starts pouring in from across the globe. 

By the year 2000, Özkök had photographed almost all the literary giants of the 20th century, among them 37 Nobel prize winners. What makes Lütfi unique is that he took all of these portraits before the authors won their Nobel prizes. It is an ongoing joke in art circles that one needs to pose for Lütfi in order to win a Nobel.

Being a poet himself, Lütfi always established a friendship with his "patrons". He was close friends with Beckett and Rene Char, and received hundreds of heartfelt letters from literary giants he had photographed.

A picture of Samuel Beckett taken by Lütfi Özkök in 1968
A picture of Samuel Beckett taken by Lütfi Özkök in 1968

Well, what was his magic?

His portraits are called "iconic" by critics. Looking at the portraits, one is magically drawn to the soul of the subject. The picture opens up an enchanting channel between the rest of the world and the author almost like a warm and direct relationship. This circuit, of course, is created by the poet and Lütfi.

In his words:

Suddenly I am trying to extend the life of the moment before me. I want to say hello to the waft of loneliness in their faces, to the blinking melody in their eyes... It is light that creates the moment. The camera captures the light passing through the dialectical process between life and death... In my opinion, the artistic identity of the photograph is completed in the darkroom ... The dance between the nuances, the blacks and whites create the contrast, tip of your fingers add hardness, darkness, softness, clarity to the face during development. This is a game of love ... Finally, you take your newborn child to the light of day, after washing thoroughly in running water, releasing it to the world for an exciting journey.

Paul Auster from Lütfi Özkök's perspective
Paul Auster from Lütfi Özkök's perspective

I met Lütfi Özkök at a Turkish poetry meeting organized by Stockholm University in 1985. Our friendship lasted thirty years. Mostly I remember his childish curiosity and excitement. I am always amazed by it. I often tell my friends "when I am at a point where nothing surprises or intrigues me anymore, I find it amazing that Lütfi still looks at the world with the curiosity of a child."

I still hear his astonishment, "Nooooo! Really???" And his laughter! His fondness for backgammon and how enthusiastically he played! How he almost inhaled Turkish böreks and those lovely croissant buns.

I think it was 1987. Lütfi and Anne-Marie went to Provence to visit Rene Char. Once there, Rene Char apologetically asked them to stay at a nearby hotel, since future president Mitterrand was visiting him the same day. The next day, Char showed them a huge basket full of fresh vegetables, and gave Lütfi two eggplants from the basket. Lütfi came to Stockholm carrying those eggplants.

Paul Celan
Paul Celan

For days Demir Özlü and I kept saying "Let's eat Mitterand's eggplants. Now!" We didn't. Eventually, the eggplants went bad.

Lütfi's friendship with Rene Char also starts with a pantry item. After a shoot, Char asked Lütfi to send him the photos and the bill. It must have been about 1961. Lütfi mails the pictures, but instead of an invoice he sends a note saying "Send me half a kilo of olives instead of money, cannot find them in Sweden!" 

Olives. Such a meaningful symbol of our civilisation and our art.

I am sending my dear friend the biblical olive branch the dove brought back to Noah as a farewell gift.