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Lateral view of abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovche Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014.  Canon G10 pocket camera.  Click on image to enlarge.

Lateral view of an abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovcha Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Canon G10 pocket camera. Click on image to enlarge.

Ovcha Kupel, a suburb at the very edge of Sofia, Bulgaria.  For centuries, natural mineral water springs made Ovcha Kupel an ideal place for the washing of sheep prior to shearing — and thus its name in Bulgarian.  It the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as Bulgarian’s self-consciously attempted to adopt a central-European rather than “oriental” identity, Ovcha Kupel became a spa location and later, as until today, a center for rehabilitation medicine.  The old spa pavilion at Ovcha Kupel is derelict and crumbling, an irony as Sofia attempts to market itself as a “European Capital of Culture.”  But — and please don’t spread the word too far! — one of “my” places in Sofia is a walled-in plazh (“beach”) adjacent to Ovcha Kupel’s rehabilitation hospital.  Behind the wall of the plazh: mineral water showers (five plastic spigots actually), a mineral-water-filled pool big enough for a score of people to paddle and wade in, a “beach” of raked sand somewhat admixed with sin-bleached cigarette-butts and paper scraps, and a shaded lunch counter offering quite passable salads and delightfully cold beer.  New York’s Hamptons, the French and Turkish rivieras, and the island archipelagos of Greece are fine for those who can afford them.  For now, I settle for Ovcha Kupel.

Photographic Footnote

The photo above was taken with a Canon G10, a camera that I’ve relegated to the shelf but still occasionally blow the dust off of and take for a walk.  I still like the color palette that RAW files from the G10 renders but the poor dynamic range of the camera’s tiny sensor cameras can be seen in the blown-out sunlit areas at the right of the photo, which I’ve either enhanced or compromised further through a couple of quick attempts at remedial adjustment in Lightroom.

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.

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.

Late-19th-century "çarșı"-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

Late-19th-century “çarșı”-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Note the neo-classical decorative elements and prim domesticity of the curtained windows on the second story and the presence of an Apteka (pharmacy) on the ground floor. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

After the founding of an independent Bulgarian kingdom in the aftermath the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the city of Sofia was chosen as the capital of the new nation-state.  The choice of Sofia comprises a tale unto itself.  True to the nation-state model, from day-one newly independent Bulgaria was giddy with dreams of expansion, northward, westward, and southward (to the east, expansion was blocked by the waters the Black Sea).  Sofia, located near Bulgaria’s western border, would be at the country’s epicenter if Bulgaria would succeed in realizing its revanchist “manifest destiny” by expanding westward to the Lake Ohrid and annexing all of Macedonia.

At the time, Sofia had not fully recovered from a heavy earthquake and ensuing epidemics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The city boasted the palatial residence of the former Ottoman governor — soon to be re-purposed as the palace of a monarch recruited from a family of minor German “nobility”– and a main thoroughfare paved with ocher-colored bricks imported from abroad.  For the rest, however, Sofia’s streets were warrens of winding lanes centered around Friday mosques, neighborhood mesjids for daily prayer, churches, wells and fountains.

The first step in creating a self-styled European capital was to sweep away the old Ottoman neighborhood structure and cut a street plan in the western model.  The adopted plan combined a rectilinear street grid with a circular ring road and curving boulevards ala Hausmann’s plan for Paris.  The next step was true to the model of mono-ethnic nation state that Bulgaria was striving to become: “ethnic cleansing.  Gypsies and Jews, the latter comprising a full one-third of Sofia’s population of 10,000 at the time, were forcibly expelled from the city center; Jews to the newly cut parallel streets of  Üç Bunar (“Three Wells)” to the west of downtown Sofia, and Gypsies further outward to the far bank of the Vladaya river, one of several seasonally flooding streams that together formed a moat surrounding the city.

Amongst the new grid of streets cut from Sofia’s main north-south boulevard through the old Ottoman quarter of Sungur and out to Üç Bunar was Pirot, today Pirotska.  The downtown end of Pirotska eventually was lined with European-style apartment houses.  At the Üç Bunar end of Pirotska an older form of architecture still dominates: Two-to-three-story row-houses built in çarʂı (Turkish for “arcade” and “market”) style, with commercial space for shops and craftsmen’s ateliers on the ground floors and family dwellings on the floor(s) above.  Such çarʂı dwellings contributed to the re-shaping of Sofia by spatially integrating the functions of residential streets and  market quarters.  By doing so, they contributed to a culture of urban street life and the emergence of an urban middle- and lower-middle-class and paths to class mobility, both essential elements of democratic nation-building, an imperfect process in Bulgaria to this very day.

Broom sellers, "Women's" Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.)  Click to enlarge.

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in an old  “T*Series” twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and also puts a limit on how shallow depth of field can be.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh foodstuffs in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet crystallized.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions throughout the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enable the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constrict their choices.  The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks, and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms, are run by Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the Market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock.  From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that is more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” however, was to emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.

Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books about Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or cultured urban Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them — usually with story lines about rich Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes of greed.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and pedlars. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians and their like, as we used to say on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n d’r’ert!”

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