Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgaria, 2004.  Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, scan of 400ASA black/white negative.

The Last Generation of Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgarian Thrace, 2004. Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, digital scan of a 400ASA black/white negative.

In all likelihood, I’ll never stage nor capture a photographic moment as important or memorable as Art Kane’s  “Great Day in Harlem.”  On an afternoon in 1958, Kane assembled several score of the founding and emerging masters of jazz, plus a dozen or so young passersby, on the stoop and sidewalk fronting a tenement on East 126th Street in New York’s Harlem.  The photo was published in Esquire Magazine and became a legend in its own right.

A “Great Day” of My Own

The closest I’ve ever come to a “great day” shot was one cold winter afternoon in the small town of Meriçleri alongside the eponymous Meriç River (Maritsa in Bulgarian) in Bulgarian Thrace.  The subjects in my photo: The aging parishioners of the local Congregationalist Church.  The occasion: A humorous misunderstanding.

A decade ago, I was working part-time, on behalf of an obscure commission of the US Congress, implementing a survey of religious and secular monuments associated with the histories of several minority groups within the boundaries of what is now Bulgaria, amongst them Protestant Christians.  As part thereof, I tracked down and visited every single Protestant church in Bulgaria built between the 1860’s and the late 1940’s — the church in Meriçleri included.

A Congregationalist pastor in Sofia had called in advance to Meriçleri to arrange to have the church open for me to inspect.  Due to a bad phone connection the request came through garbled. Instead, the local contact called fellow church members to announce that a visiting pastor from America was coming to deliver a sermon.  Elderly congregants took put down their work, donned their provincial Sunday best, and turned out in force to greet me, a quite secular non-Christian.  Amongst the outcomes was the group photo above, taken on the steps of the church building.

“Reading” the Photo

The church  and congregants portrayed in the photo point to a complex tale of nation-, identity-, and community-building during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of its successor states, Bulgaria and modern Turkey included. They also point to a more obscure but no less interesting story: the symbiosis of aims and actions between American Protestant missionaries and the schemings of US foreign policy more than a century ago. But I’ll save both of these tales for another time and another context.

For now, I’ll end with a cautionary photographic confession …

Step Forward First; Focus Second!

I took the photo above late in the afternoon on a dark, rainy day.  To maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, I set the aperture of the camera’s taking lens in the near-open range, thus compromising depth-of-field — a poor choice considering the multi-layered subject matter.  After focusing on the row of people closest to the camera, for some now forgotten reason I took a step or two forward to recompose but forgot to re-focus.  As a result, the plane of focus shifted rear-wards, leaving the front-most subjects slightly fuzzy.

Regardless, a decade after its taking, the photo still touches me and still seems to manifest the solid presence and stance of the final generation of guardians of a once-vibrant, now-forgotten Balkan community.  Perhaps, thus, there is more to photography than sharpness alone.

Musician playing tambur, Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100.  Click on image to enlarge.

Musician playing tambur, Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul. An  iconic urban promenade through which millions of pedestrians pass each week.  Street musicians huddle along its edges, polished and amateur, youthful and worn.  The music of some causes passersby to break stride, that of others attracts small crowds and elicits donations of coins and even banknotes.

Who are the musicians?  The business card of the man portrayed in the photo below contained but a phone number and a single word: Kemanci, player of the Keman — a statement of identity and essence clearer and more revealing than any given or family name.

Two Photographic Moods

The photo above is a literal rendering, with strong blacks and whites.  The photo below emphasizes grays and was shaped using the digital equivalents of what in the days of physical darkrooms was called dodging and burning, the channeling and blocking of light between negative and paper.  Black/white digital processing is both a blessing and a curse: the absence of the physical properties of film and paper and of the effects of chemical processing, broadens possibilities but also eliminates worthy constraints and renders mute a valuable language of expression.

Keman player, istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Keman player, istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa Bulvari across from the Perpa wholesale complex upwards to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …

Unlike my native New York, which — despite  falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents  — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”

The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and  symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.

“Landed-By-Night”

In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer  new arrivals to the city.

Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to  geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.

At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time  (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus.  From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.

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Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics

Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.

Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views

Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception.  Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11″ museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).

It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I  also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics.  What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views.  Views, however, can be  ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined.  Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights of Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air.  I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.

I took the photo almost 15 years ago.  Where is the the street vendor today?  I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul.  I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large  prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma,  a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality.  Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level.  Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge spanning the waters of the Golden Horn; Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film. Click on image to enlarge.

The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul.  The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.

The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned.  Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul.  (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)

Houses and apartment blocks, wooden and concrete, at day's end.  Taken on a back street near the commuter rail tracks along the Marmara, Samatya (Psamatia) quarter, Istanbul, 2011 or 2012.  Toyo field camera, 55mm Rodenstock lens, color negative roll film in a 6x9 cm. back.  Click to enlarge.

Houses and apartment blocks, wooden and concrete, at day’s end. Taken on a back street near the commuter rail tracks along the Marmara, Samatya (Psamatia) quarter, Istanbul, 2011 or 2012. Toyo field camera, 55mm Rodenstock lens, color negative roll film in a 6×9 cm. back. Click to enlarge.

Every time my strained back — and equally strained wallet — prompt me to cease photographing on film using my heavy, tripod supported, time-intensive, medium- and large-format Toyo field camera, I ultimately find cause to reverse my decision.  Last Friday, while walking through the center of Sofia, Bulgaria, I spotted a photographer busy at work behind a beautiful, Chinese-made, wood and metal large-format view camera fitted with a wide-angle Schneider lens.  Later, at my desk, I reviewed some recent scans I had made of selected negatives shot over the years with my heavy but rock-solid Toyo.  The image above struck my fancy.  It was taken in the one-time Greek and Armenian quarter of Samatya (officially re-dubbed Koca Mustafa Paşa) along the suburban railroad tracks that follow the European coast of the Sea of Marmara. The mix of well-used buildings, the rugged urban greenery, the frontal portrait-like view, the absence of people, and the late-day light struck an emotional chord that I hope resonates.

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I’ve neglected this site since early February.  Obligations and commitments in Istanbul and the Balkans — including an enjoyable half-day tour and presentation on the historical and present-day dynamics of the city of Sofia, Bulgaria, that gave to visiting students and faculty from New York University — took up most of February and March.

In April, I left for a multi-month stay in New York, a city of immense parks street-side greenery — in this respect not unlike Sofia, where, as I write, the leaves of a tall birch tree brush against my window and the scent of the thousands of blossoming linden trees that line the city’s streets and shade it’s courtyards perfumes the air.

Late in March, the weather in Sofia was spring-like. New York, to the contrary, was enduring a seemingly endless cold-spell following a near-arctic winter.  Nevertheless, by May, trees and shrubbery came alive and blossoms burst forth.  The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

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(All photos in the series taken with a Fuji X100)

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