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Istanbul

Balat, Istanbul, late-afternoon, December 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Late afternoon light. Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The birthday last month of a friend with a sharp and compassionate eye for the poignancy and ironies of urban details provided an impetus for me to cull the archives and print images including the ones above and below, both taken late afternoon some years ago in the quarter of Balat on the shore of the Golden Horn, Istanbul.

Changing Populations

For centuries, Balat and surroundings had been home to Jews, Armenians, and Greeks.  From the 1940s on, these “minority” populations, both of Balat, and of adjacent, once mostly-Greek, Fener, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, plummeted.  Traditional occupations, including those of Jews as boatmen and stevedores in Istanbul’s once-nearby port facilities (which, during the mid-20th century, in search of ample space, shifted outwards towards the urban edge) faded away, contributing to the departure of poorer Jews for Israel and better-off ones to newer neighborhoods north of Taksim Square, along the upper shores of the Bosporus, and on Istanbul’s Asian side.  Armenians followed similar patterns of migration within the city.  Greeks were pressured to leave Balat, Fener, and, for that matter, all of Istanbul en masse following the anti-minority riots of the mid-1950s and a series of expulsions and seizures of property thereafter. By the 1960s and 1970s, Balat became the province of a new wave of residents, emigrants from towns and villages in north and central Anatolia.

Recently, the population of the quarter has begun to change again.   Neighborhood ties have loosened and descendants of the new arrivals of two and three generations ago seek better housing elsewhere.   Developers have razed older structures at the northern edge of Balat and begun to build modern, higher-priced ones in their place.  Refugees from Syria, Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds, monied and poor, have found homes in the Balat’s still ample stock of dilapidated housing.   The very same housing supply provides a magnet attracting a first wave of gentrifiers with tastes for traditional housing near the urban core and with sufficient financial resources to purchase and renovate individual apartments or entire buildings.  Their presence is signaled by the openings of antiques stores and espresso bars.  Their arrivals and the arrivals of those in their footsteps cause local real estate prices to skyrocket.

Afternoon Light and Shadows

As some buildings are razed and others renovated, as established locals depart, and as gentrifiers pursue their dreams of authenticity and refugees build new lives in the face of uncertainties, memories and echoes of those who lived in Balat long before  them vanish.   Decades of newer residents walk past shuttered synagogues, underused churches, and Jewish and Christian communal buildings only peripherally conscious of what was once central to the lives of those who they replaced.  One thing still remains constant, however … the afternoon light, ricocheting off the facades of Balat’s east-west streets and shrouding its north-south ones in shadows.

Row Houses, Balat, Istanbul. Late afternoon, December, 2011.  The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses is one of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul's most densely populated Jewish neighborhood.

Late afternoon shadows, row houses, Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses shown  is a of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood. Click on image to enlarge.

Rowhouses and Sea Walls Saved by … Automobiles!

Six or seven years ago, I joined a friend/colleague from the architectural department of one of Istanbul’s universities to trace the remainders of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls in the court yards and backstreets of Balat closest to the water’s edge.  Over the centuries, progressive silting, intentional landfill, and the construction of a shore line roadway and green space had stranded extant fragments seawalls a few hundred meters inland.  The purpose of our survey was to ensure that historic seawall fragments would remain untouched in the face of a proposed real estate development project that would transform rows of houses, like those below, into upscale townhouses by restoring their facings but fully gutting, enlarging, and rebuilding their interiors.  Ultimately, the project did not go through.  Ironically, it was done in by the automobile: to wit, Istanbul residents of the income levels the development consider automobile ownership and parking within meters of their doorsteps as an entitled prerogative.  The narrow streets of Balat simply could not provide sufficient access and parking space.  Automobiles to the rescue, thus!

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn: (Halıç in Turkish), a long, narrow body of water — an estuary actually — that, wedge-like, splits into two the core of the European side of the inner city of Istanbul.  In Byzantine times the Golden Horn served as a safe harbor, shielded from currents and the depredations of raiders.  In times of danger, an iron chain barrier was stretched across its entrance-way, providing security that in the end proved illusory (in the face of not being able to sail into the Golden Horn, 15th-century Ottoman conquerors simply dragged their boats up and down the surrounding hills entered the Golden Horn from its banks).

From Harbor to Relic

In Ottoman times, the Golden Horn was a gateway to docks, wharfs, entrepôts, and workshops that lined its length and to the thriving markets on the slopes above it. By the early-twentieth century, as manufacturing functions moved further afield and maritime traffic increased and ships grew in size, the harbor function of Istanbul was displaced outward, first to nearby Karaköy, then to the late-19th-century Anatolian rail-head at Heyderapaşa. Later, as Istanbul sprawled far to the east and along the shores of Sea of Marmara, the harbor function shifted even afield to new lower-density industrial zones and truck traffic transfer nodes offering proximity to highways and ample space for handling containerized freight.

From Conduit to Barrier

As its utility declined, the Golden Horn changed from a conduit to an inconvenient barrier to be traversed.  By the start of the 20th century, a floating pontoon bridge across the Golden Horn facilitated movement to and from the commercial neighborhoods of Galata and Eminönu on opposite sides of the mouth of the Golden Horn.  By the end of the century, the pontoon bridge was replaced by a fixed structure and two additional bridges had been built, one for local automotive traffic and the as part of a ring-road highway bypassing the inner city. Last year, a fourth bridge, for pedestrians and Istanbul’s growing underground metro system, joined their ranks.

Axes of Infrastructure and Subjectivity of Trajectories

Recently, I’ve been doing some longer-form writing on the subjectivity of our mappings of urban geography and on the effects that radical changes in axes of public transportation have on our trajectories, imaginings, and horizons.  As a user (as well as an observer) of public transportation, the opening of the metro bridge and the axis of underground transportation it enabled, suddenly allowed me to move in only minutes between locations that had once taken an hour or two to reach.  Now, I can visit in a single morning or afternoon I can visit parts of the city that I previously had to schedule for separate days.  Better yet, I can now jump back and forth between disparate worlds.  The new metro line  transcends social disparities and well as space. Stylish Nişantaşı and working class Fatih, physically at opposite ends of the city, geographically and in terms of worldview are now neighbors time-wise.  The Istanbul of traditional religious faith and economic activity is now of a piece with modern, secular, high-tech and high-income Istanbul.  Rapid public transport across Golden Horn creates a breach an aquatic and cultural “Berlin Wall”  I look forward to observing the outcomes.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic Postscript

Framing…

These last  days, while commuting back and forth between the Asian and European halves of Istanbul — a city of broad waterways, vistas, and dramatic light reflected on strong currents — I’ve come to long for the telephoto lenses I’ve usually eschewed. For years, “normal” or near-“normal” focal-length lenses — 80mm on 6×6, 135 on 6×9, 35 and 50mm equivalent on APS — have been the longest that I’ve used.  None of these lenses enable me to transcend distance, compress perspective, or pluck far-away subjects from their surroundings.  My “work-around” has been to frame faraway subjects within the contours of serendipitously present foreground objects.  Not the best solution, perhaps, but one that can result in unusual  compositions and juxtapositions as well a consistency in “language” of perspective and field of view.

Earlier this week, an acquaintance of many decades, Doc Searls, posted a nice weblog post featuring images and quotes from my recent entries on Bubkes.Org.  In his commentary, Doc suggested that horizontality is the defining characteristic of human perception and, with this, of photography as well.  I disagree … I’m a partisan of the vertical.

To continue reading (about squares, oblongs, verticals, men, and pumpkins) click here or on the “Read More” button below

Read More

Boat-launching, fishermen's shanties, Shabla Lighthouse, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100, +1.4x, "50mm" tele-converter. Click to enlarge.

The infrastructure of local, coastal fisheries: Boats, boat-launching rails, and fishermen’s shanties, Shabla Lighthouse, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100, +1.4x, “50mm” tele-converter. Click to enlarge.

As a chill, gray autumn begins in Istanbul, I am warmed by recollections of the late-day glow of sunlight on the Black Sea coast at summer’s and of the fish that began to run last month and now run in even greater abundance;  fish that pack local market stalls; glistening and oily, strong-tasting fish, their names shouted to passersby by fishmongers — diminutive, mackeral-like istavrit and far tinier anchovy-like hamsi; small,delicately-colored, bluefish-like çinekop, and meaty, sleek-skinned and red-gilled palamut (bonito). I’ll leave it to  speakers of Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek to argue over which languages the etymologies of these names belong to and — of far greater importance — which fish taste better grilled and which fried, which baked and which salted or cured.

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.

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