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.
The Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa, Istanbul: The Creation of Space, Floor-Level Views, and Architecture Through a Normal Focal-Length Lens
Sometimes, I try to picture the growth of cities and the evolution of architectural styles as short stop-motion films or animations that capture at high-speed centuries of morphological change as unbroken flows rather than as fixed “chapters.” Envisioning in this manner helps me extrapolate and better understand processes and trends.
Creation of Space
In terms of Islamic architecture (or, more precisely, three-quarters of a millennium of Ottoman tradition and its immediate predecessors, the facets of Islamic architecture with which I am most familiar) my animated imaginings reveal a striving for larger, more open and unobstructed interior space and, finally, for the transcendence of enclosure itself. As to how to visual this in terms of design and technique, imagine a transition from flat-roofed or multi-domed structures supported by rows and rows of interior columns and/or piers to dome-on-cube structures made larger and larger in footprint, height, and volume by the addition of cornices, intermediate drums, and half- and quarter-domes to support central domes of greater and greater diameter, and to distribute their weight further and further outwards and downwards. At the same time, imagine interiors becoming more and more open, with supporting columns and piers banished first to the sides of structures and later integrated into interior and exterior walls. Finally, imagine walls themselves being perforated and made gossamer by rows upon rows of windows. The total effect: an illusion of the elimination of enclosure — of architecture itself, thus — and a metaphorical return to the original Muslim place of prayer, the open-air courtyard in the home of the prophet and founder of Islam.
A Floor-Level View
The photo above shows a late example of an open and soaring interior and walls made lace-like by fenestration: the Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa (1734) in the Haseki quarter of Istanbul.
The photo was taken with a Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5 mounted on a small pocket tripod with ball-head. At the time, I was experimenting with the use of normal focal-length rather that ultra-wide angle lenses to capture interior space. The challenge thereof was to select and portray a “slice” of interior that would conjure up the entire space; the benefit was the preservation of natural perspective. The use of a pocket tripod not only made me less obtrusive but also enabled portrayal of the mosque from near-floor level, the height from which the mosque is viewed at during prayer. Many years ago, a well-known European scholar of Ottoman history and architecture (Machiel Kiel) taught me the value of viewing mosque interiors as they were meant to be viewed, i.e. leisurely and contemplatively while sitting cross-legged on carpeted floors.
An Archway in Tarlebaşı, Istanbul: Orientalism in the Orient, a Statement of Occidental Identity?
The streets sloping downward from the north side of present-day Istiklal Caddessi to Dolapdere Bulvari in the valley below are dense with late-19th- and early-20th-century tenements and apartment houses. Most are in disrepair but many have recently been restored as the area begins to undergo the preservationist benefits and human dislocations of gentrification and discovery by “cool” young westerners some oblivious of the lives of their neighbors and some enthralled by the seeming “romance” of the poverty … of others.
The area was built up in the late 19th century by Istanbul Christians, Greeks mostly. It underwent a major demographic change following government-fomented anti-minority pogroms in 1956. With the forced exit of Greeks, the neighborhood became a haven for the traditional inner city poor and recent arrivals from rural areas: Turkish Sunnis, Kurds, Alevis, and Roma. The process of ghettoization was completed in the 1960s by the cutting of Tarlebaşı Bulvari, a multi-laned thoroughfare that served as a wall isolating streets immediately adjacent to Istiklal from those on the slope below.
A relationship between typology and geography characterizes the area’s architecture. As a rule of thumb, the closer to Istiklal, the larger the plot and grander the structure; the closer to Dolapdere, the smaller the plot and more modest the house. The neighborhood’s apartment houses tend to be situated on the broader streets and its tenement row houses in smaller streets and alleyways. The closer to Dolapdere, the fewer and more modest the architectural decorative elements. This makes the archway in the photo above all the more curious.
The archway above shows no relation to Ottoman styles nor to the geometric motifs of Anatolian Greek towns and villages. In one way, it appears to be a fantasy interpretation of Mogul architecture. More likely, given the time and the place, it might have been inspired by the so-called Moorish Revival style that arose in the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Hapsburg annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina or, equally likely, by the eastern-influenced motifs of northern European Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. By incorporating an ornament inspired by the popular European orientalist fantasies of the time, could the Greek owner or builder of the house in question have been trying to assert his own modernity and self-styled occidental individual identity, this at a time of when Ottoman Christians were focused on national independence ala European nation-states?
More on this theme in subsequent posts…
Ghost of Commerce Past: Abandoned Storefront, Tahtakale Quarter, Eminönü, Istanbul
A boarded-up storefront in a boarded-up building, a ghostly survivor in a once-thriving neighborhood. The brick façade of the ground floor and wood-plank-covered exterior of the upper floors suggest that the building may have been built and owned by Istanbul Greeks a century to a century-and-a-half ago.
Mattresses, Brooms, and Art in Bulk, Tahtakale, Istanbul: Street Commerce Direct and Unadorned
Exit Istanbul’s famed Egyptian Spice Market in the direction of the mosque of Rüstem Paşa and the neighborhood of Tahtakale and one passes through a narrow street filled with slow moving crowds of tourists and local shoppers from throughout the city. The first few hundred meters of the street is lined with scores of shops selling fresh ground coffee, nuts and dried fruit, followed by stalls and workshops stocked with traditional wooden and metal kitchenware and folding tables, baskets, and other accoutrements de rigueur for street vendors. Continue further in the direction of Unkapani and the crowds thin out and the goods in the shops and stalls become more prosaic and spartan, necessities geared to the mundane needs of low income shoppers from the immediate surroundings. Artifice is absent, goods are displayed matter-of-factly — neither display windows nor vicarious seduction, no hawkers, just commerce at its most direct and unadorned.
Eminönü Waterfront, Istanbul: Invented Traditions, Pickles in Cups, Grilled Mackerel Sandwiches, and the Pitfalls of Nostalgia
Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve leisurely waded through the canon literature of the study of the emergence and solidification of nations and national identities: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Eric Hobsbawm’s Invented Traditions, Pierre Nora’s five-volume study of the national memory of France, Patrick Geary”s The Myth of Nations, and, most recently, Timothy Snyder’s powerful studies of identity and hegemony in Eastern Europe (Reconstructed Nations, Bloodlands, etc.), works that illuminate the translation of contrived national identities into viciously exclusionary and expansionist nation states.
A by-product of this reading is the realization that most “national” traditions — be they architectural, musical, dance, culinary, sartorial, folkloric, etc. — are either blatantly invented or appropriated from traditions shared in common with neighboring peoples in an attempt to establish the legitimacy and hegemony of one’s own group at the expense the identity and power of others. Invariably, such traditions are posited as being products of an imagined national “golden age.”
Pickles and Mackerel
So, what does the disquisition above have to do with pickles and grilled mackerel in Istanbul?
First, note the costume worn by the pickle vendor in the photo at the top of this post: a) an imitation fez made of cheap velvet rather than traditional wool felt, and emblazoned with the Turkish national crescent and star and with a stylized tulip, the latter a logo thought up for Turkey’s national tourism authority by a PR or “branding” agency; b) a mass produced embroidered vest of the sort sold to tourists in souvenir shops and bought in bulk by amateur folk-dance troupes; and c) a brightly colored waistband over wide pantaloons (the latter not visible in the photo).
A decade ago, the very same vendors dressed in normal street or work clothes and the carts from which they were sold were simple affairs of glass panes and unfinished or laminated wood.
Second, note the boats of grilled mackerel vendors moored at mid-distance in the second photo above. The boats are topped with canopies in the shape of stylized fantasy imitations of those that once adorned the excursion launches of the Ottoman elite — with the addition of multicolored neon and incandescent lighting. A decade ago, such boats were plain wooden skiffs with simple canvas or plywood roofs to block seasonal sun and rain.
I don’t remember exactly in which year this “make-over”of pickle vendors and mackerel boats occurred, nor am I certain why and at whose behest. My guess is that it was mandated by the local district municipality or by the tourism functionaries of the municipality Istanbul. More interesting is why ….
Waterside Commerce, Istanbul: Flower Vendor with Coat to Match
The red flowers are kokina çiçeği. Kokina is a Turkish loan word from the Greek kokinos, meaning “red.” In Istanbul kokina çiçeği are sold as New Years decorations, a custom borrowed from the city’s once-large and vibrant ethnic Greek population. Botany is not my strong suit, but to me kokina çiçeği resemble a variety of mistletoe — not only in their appearance but also in their function as mid-winter talismans. In many ancient cultures, mistletoe varieties — especially those parasitic to oak — were associated with virility, fertility, and regeneration, part of the reason why, in the Anglo-Saxon world, men and women who pass together under Christmas-season mistletoe traditionally were compelled to kiss. Mistletoe may also have been the “golden bough” that Aeneas took with him as a placating gift on his trip to the underworld and, thus, the inspiration from which Sir James George Frazer’s took the name for his famed late-19th- early-20th-century study of myth land legend. The flower seller, by the way, is an Istanbul Rom (Gypsy). In much of southeast Europe, urban Roma labor long hours in the ornamental flower trade, as street vendors and, less visible to the casual stroller, as wholesalers as well. Central and Eastern Europeans who accuse Roma of willful unemployment are blind to the those who labor at the base of the pyramid of urban economic activities.
When processing the raw file of this photo in Lightroom, I couldn’t resist the temptation to nudge the red-saturation slider slightly rightwards!
Waterside Commerce, Istanbul: Cotton Candy Vendor At Day’s End
Please indulge me while I repeat in short what most of us know quite well at length …
The last third of the 20th century saw the rise and flourishing of socialism for the rich, generously financed by the taxes of those in the middle and working classes. From America’s infamous Lockheed bailout in the 1970s to the billions of dollars in public funds poured into the craws of General Motors and banks “to big to fail” in the aftermath of the world financial implosion of 2008, large enterprises have been saved by funds cannibalized away from the expenditures on infrastructure and human resources on which our futures depend. Small enterprises and individuals, on the other hand, are allowed to go under. In Western Europe, semi-governmental lending institutions provide established companies with capital o expand and commence new ventures. Any one else who wants to obtain capital and buy time to go “entrepreneurial” is left to their own devices and fed 19th-century platitudes about self-reliance and free markets.
And now a few words about the photograph …
The photograph above shows a familiar presence in Istanbul: the wandering cotton candy vendor. His capital: a long pole, a box of pushpins, and a will to walk the parks and promenades of the city from dawn to dusk. His stock: a few dozen bouquets of spun-sugar “cotton candy” and a few score cellophane bags of cheap toffee. His income: minimal. But the uncontrolled economic chaos of Istanbul at least gives him a chance to earn something. In the US, he would be checked for his pedlar’s license, inspected for hygiene, and arrested for loitering if he stood still. In Western Europe, he would have to follow months-long mandatory courses in retailing and management. And, wherever he worked, if and when things went bad, he would be deemed “too small to be saved.”
A technical footnote …
One of the obsessions of many internet photography weblogs is the micro-second differences between automatic and manual focusing speeds of different makes and models of digital cameras. The photo above was taken using a notoriously “slow-focusing” camera — the Fuji X100 — by “zone-focusing” in advance in manual mode just as the vendor and I were approaching one another at a brisk pace. Slow compared to cameras used by sports and wildlife photographers, most certainly, but no slower than my 1960s twin-lens Rolleis!
Urban Patterns: Concrete and Shadows, Haseki Quarter, Istanbul
The unintentional geometry and textures of urban surfaces in a neighborhood under renovation. No additional words needed.
Streets of Kasım Paşa: Minaret Lost Amidst Concrete
The minaret of a small mosque is hidden amidst a forest of unadorned concrete structures built with minimal investments and maximum yields in mind, probably during the 1960s or 70s. Many such buildings only barely pass present-day vetting for earthquake resilience. The tall structure in the center probably owes its improbable form to being built on the plot of a razed characteristically-narrow 19th-century low-rise structure. The ensemble created by these unattractive buildings, however, has an undeniable, albeit harsh, beauty of its own.