In the midst of unseasonably cold and gray weather, an image from a springtime past: greenery bursting forth from concrete, and laundry emerging from houses, along a backstreet and stairway on the rise from the valley of Dolapdere to the ridge-top neighborhood of Kurtuluş — long ago known by its Greek name, Tatavla, and once the realm people of modest means from Istanbul’s traditional “minorities:” Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. (The Greeks were forced out a half-century ago; many Armenians and some Jews remain.) The bay-windowed house in the center appears to be a surviving traditional-style Ottoman-era family residence subdivided into apartments and with its original wooden facade covered by layers of plaster. The children standing in the foreground and seated mid-distance are quite likely Kurds, recent arrivals to the backstreets of Kurtuluş from the east of Anatolia.
Mondrian meets Dorian Gray: Patterns of neo-liberal disregard
The photos above and below not only capture the accidental Mondrian-like effect of relegation of the maintenance of building envelopes to individual tenants, they also reveal a Dorian-Gray’s-like picture of the inefficiencies of neo-liberalism and the cumulative effects of decades of rising economic inequality and shirking of collective investment in an important component of the infrastructure that enables and sustains us.
Thoughts on infrastructure in general and building exteriors in particularly:
Infrastructure has been a recurring theme throughout the twists and turns of my eclectic work-life: Subway transportation,* the third city water tunnel, and green infrastructure in my native New York; airports, harbors, and inter-modal transportation nodes in the Netherlands; telecommunications and “smart” workplaces in Western and Central Europe; monitoring of infrastructure projects in the broader European context; and the history of infrastructure in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
A broad view …
My view of infrastructure is a broad, social-democratic one; a take that does not limit infrastructure to the usual narrow scope of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. but that zooms out to include educational processes and facilities, health care delivery systems, the urban natural environment, and public housing — in other words, all that is critical to human activity and survival and implementation of which is beyond the reach of individual users and the efficacy of for-profit “entrepreneurial” activity (i.e. the so-called “market”) and outside of simple models of enterprise-based accountancy.
Envelope as infrastructure …
Building exteriors are infrastructure. The upgrading and maintenance of the legacy built environment are not just matters of patch-work attempts to achieve individual comfort and moderately lower energy bills. Attention to building envelopes is crucial to effective energy conservation society-wide, the slowing of climate change, and the reducing of dependencies on profit- and politically-motivated energy producers. As a side effect, it removes the visible stigmata of who can and cannot afford to insulate their dwellings.
Societal glue …
Across-the-board attention to building exteriors provides societal glue. The inefficient patchwork of apartment by apartment insulation is a sign of societal failure and ideologically-motivated narrowing of the responsibilities of governments, communities, and even tenants’ councils. In Eastern Europe, it is a visible sign of the abandonment of “we” in accordance with the cynical dictum of Margaret Thatcher and her like that “… there is no society.” Worldwide, we now foot the bill for such idiocy.
The mass construction of panel-block housing in the former Soviet bloc was a strategy for creating low-cost housing during the post-war period of massive migration to cities, constraints in housing stock, and minimal availability of resources. The aesthetic merits of such housing might remain open to debate but among the the practical result in Sofia, for example, was that by the final years of the communist period more than 80% of the population was housed in dwellings to which they had clear title of ownership, a major achievement by any account.
And failure …
The design and implementation of panel-block buildings was achieved according to a short-sighted logic that has been unsustainable for decades. On the positive side, the panel bloc approach cut costs through standardization and modular prefabrication. On the negative side, however, it gave no attention to insulation, heat retention, or cooling through shading. The period of mass construction of panel block housing in Sofia was congruent with a period of nuclear power and nominal charges for electricity consumption. Thus, if rooms were cold, one simply plugged in a few electric convection heaters. And, if enough heat was not retained, one simply turned up the heaters up another notch and run them longer. As to improving insulation: One could always cover one’s single-glazed windows with sheets of newspaper.
A remedy unlikely to effect a cure …
I do not follow news from Bulgaria closely but in a conversation last week I heard that one-by-one private insulation of individual apartments recently has been made illegal. Also, it seems, there are now European-financed programs for the insulation and renovation of apartment building exteriors. But, as always, there’s is a rub, things turn out not to be so simple. To qualify for European-financing, buildings must first be organized as legal entities, this requiring the assent of each and every apartment title-holder. Also, residents must contribute a portion of total costs. Not least, the organization of such requires good-will towards one’s neighbors and familiarity with the law, as well as a degree of experience with navigating official channels. A single hold-out or contrarian can block the process. Thus, available funds flow more readily to smaller buildings with fewer and more prosperous and educated residents, rather than to higher-need towering apartment blocks with scores upon scores of apartments in the lower-income neighborhoods of the city. For the moment, thus, it is uncertain whether the remedy is likely to effect a cure.
* Specifically, subsidized, affordable subway fares as a means for ensuring work-forces and customers to the private sector, for maintaining well-trafficked streets, and drawing the city’s ethnically and economically diverse population out of their homes and into cultural institutions. Coincidentally, a similar argument was recently advanced by infrastructure advocate and scholar Alex Marshall. Marshall’s excellent book The Surprising Design of Market Economies contains a passage about the social nature of infrastructure that may (or may not) have had its origin in an approach to the definition infrastructure that I shared with him during a conversation at the Regional Plan Association in New York in 2010.
Photographic footnote: The wrong tools for the job
On the basis of the photos above, absolutely nobody — me included! — would ever confuse me with the likes of, say, Andreas Gursky! Indeed, the photos above were taken with the wrong tools in the wrong way and then processed in a manner no less inappropriate. I’ll explain …
First, each of the photos was taken hand-held rather that tripod-mounted, a self-deceiving arrogance when working with strong verticals and horizontals and when confronted with a large two-dimensional object to be positioned parallel to the film- (or sensor-) plane. Second, the photos were taken from ground-level with the camera pointed upwards rather than from a neighboring building at a height roughly to half the height of the subject.
The result? An amalgam of vertical and horizontal distortions (keystoning, pitch, yaw, etc.) beyond the reach of the correctional powers of image processing software, especially when working within the small confines of a laptop screen. In Lightroom, for example, one can easily correct for vertical distortion and rotate an image, but add horizontal adjustments plus some compensation for barrel or pincushion distortion to the mix and the shapes within an image begin to contort and vertical and horizontal lines to squiggle — and this atop the irregularities and lack of true verticals and horizontals in the subject itself, in the case of panel block buildings the results of attention to speed rather than precision during construction combined with the effects of gravity and the elements as the years pass.
So, for now, I’ll view the images above as “studies” and next time will head out with my tripod, my old folding field camera fitted with a lens and film back, or with my ever older combination of a legacy Nikon analogue body and perspective-correcting shift lens. In the meanwhile, my excuses.
More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation
Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own. The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.
Murals: For Whom and Why?
In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods. I received two responses:
The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself — but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves. Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and searches for subject matter. For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness. The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts. Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby. The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.
Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places. One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.
Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten. Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists? Or, after all the fun, publicity, and self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others? I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge. Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.
Internets Celebrities to the Rescue
It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam. Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted. The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.
At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters. Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered? I’m not yet sure which.
Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush. Among the Internets Celebrities’ many works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter. I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.
A Virtual Plate of Chicharron
The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors. In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike. My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered. Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!
Further to a previous entry on the presence (and, to me, mystery) of a spate of apartment-building-height murals, psychedelic in style and puzzling in content, in the adjacent Sofia neighborhoods of Poduyane and Hadji Dimitar, I’ve posted a photo of a third such mural above.
I’ve selected the photo not just for its bizarreness and whimsicality nor for the issues it raises as to the ownership and aesthetics of the public realm. Rather, a close examination of the building on which the mural is painted summarizes a full set of urban issues which I have been researching, conceptualizing, and visually portraying over the past months and into which — ideas for grant support, anyone?!? — I intend to delve further in the time to come.
Specifically, note the balconies on the right-hand face of the building, some open as per their original design and others closed-in to expand private space. Balconies, as I hope to explain in subsequent posts, are interstices between public and private space, and Sofia is a city of balconies. How balconies are, or are not, used reveals much about the history of and changes in social and politic environments and individual responses thereto.
Also note the monochrome, but vaguely Mondriaan-like, effect on the walls of the building in the photo above, an effect more pronounced in the photo that I’ve added below. The question of why such buildings have been insulated apartment-by-apartment rather than building-by-building, and what this tells us about societies and governments, is one that I have also been examining and visually documenting of late. Although the aesthetic effect of uncoordinated action by apartment owners on their own relieves monotony and adds color to the public realm, devolution to the individual apartment owners is the most inefficient and inequitable means of preserving public health and comfort and of cutting heat-loss through building envelops, possibly the most weighty contributor to energy consumption/inefficiency in the built environment. Hopefully, more on this as well.
I have no nostalgia for the 1960’s. I was not a hippy. I liked jazz and R&B; indeed, white rock music seemed to work counter to my biorhythms. I was into the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements and couldn’t comprehend psychedelica. I looked and felt ridiculous in bell-bottomed,”hip-hugger” trousers and “love-beads,” and — alas! — I didn’t “ball” at Woodstock. The rise of graffiti in the 1970’s also left me cold. For many of us native to the “inner city,” the proliferation of graffiti was an added degradation and a upsetting sign of social atomization and the break-up of consensus, an aggressive imposition without consent onto the visual fields of the many by the out-sized and aggressive egos of a few, and a notice of abandonment by those outsized-ly enfranchised, economically and politically, and at a safe remove from urban grit.
Nevertheless, I smile at the murals portrayed in the photos above and below, two among several that have appeared recently in the working-class quarter of Poduyane in Sofia, Bulgaria. The murals add a touch of brightness, whimsicality, and edge — I just hope that they were done with the participation and consent of neighborhood residents!* Not least, the murals pose at least one iconographic improvement: A few years ago, the only apartment-block-height “artwork” adorning building exteriors in Poduyane and the neighboring quarter of Hadji Dimitar were giant banners silk-screened with the smug, scowling face of the pint-sized leader of Ataka, Bulgaria’s disturbingly popular antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim, neo-fascist political party. Give me psychedelica any day!
* If any of you who happen upon this site know something about who did the murals and/or how they were conceived, approved, implemented, and received, please get in touch.
Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts. At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling. At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.
Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors. In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.
Spolia at its most prosaic
The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian. In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.) In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers). In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.
Liberation from the terror of design
Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me. Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms. Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration. In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable. For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.
I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling. The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents. In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.
Further to my recent post on eye contact in photography, two photos taken two decades apart on opposite halves of the globe …
Java to Brooklyn
During the second half of the 1970s, while working from the Netherlands for a large international engineering company, I spent repeated months-long stretches in Indonesia documenting oil- and gas-related construction projects, organizing participation in technical conferences, liaising with government agencies, and using my seeming abilities to “go native” and step into the worlds of others to build mutual understanding and confidence and help to win project contracts without resorting to the flagrant corruption that was the calling-card of Western business at the time and that plagued Indonesia in the Suharto era. When I had weekends free, I joined Indonesian colleagues in escaping the noise and congestion of Jakarta. In those days, camera-bearing foreigners were few and far between in non-touristic locales in rural Indonesia and a word of a sincere smile and word of greeting and on the part of an outsider brought very hearty responses in return.
Two decades later, in the mid-1990s, I spent a few years based in my native New York. At the time, American clients and employers were underwhelmed, and even condescendingly contemptuous, towards work experience gained abroad, a reaction seemingly cut from the same cloth as present-day America’s counter-factual preoccupation with denigrating the economic, social, and technical achievements of the European Union. And so, between work assignments and research projects abroad, I temporarily stepped back into the world that had shaped me in the first place — the pre-service-sector, pre-financial-sector New York of small, low-overhead businesses and of heavy physical work, skilled and unskilled — a nostalgic retreat that would be impossible in the face of the high-rent, high-cost-of-living, low-chances-for-mobility economy of present-day New York.
The woman in the photo that follows had just arrived in America and was about to enter the bottom rungs of laboring New York and care full-time for an elderly couple lost in the fogs of Alzheimer’s. An unusually heavy blizzard provided her with her first view of and outing into snow. Indeed, the snow blanketing the great lawn of Prospect Park was so ample and so pristine as to even attract cross-country skiers, one of whom can be seen in the background just to the left of the subject.
Two ways to focus
The fastest way to focus? Well in advance! The photo of the woman in the park was taken with a camera that I miss tremendously: A Minox 35, a tiny 35mm camera, not much taller or thicker, but appropriately wider, than a film cassette and resembling a black plastic, small-scale reproduction of a Zeisss Ikonta, fold-out lens and all. The Minox had an excellent 35mm-focal-length optics and a very accurate aperture-priority metering system, but it offered absolutely no optical focusing aids of any sort, neither split-image nor matte-glass. One focused the Minox by estimate, setting the perceived camera-to-subject distance on the numeric scale on the lens barrel or using the depth-of-field scale to match aperture to hyper-focal distance. The benefits: An uncluttered viewfinder and absolutely no focusing or shutter lag, focus having been set prior to lifting the camera to one’s eye. As to the two ways to focus? One could chose to estimate and set the distance in feet … or in meters!
Two fallible cameras
The downside of the Minox 35 was its delicacy. I went through three in a decade and a half. The metering system failed in one, the shutter in another, and a light leak and faulty film advance mechanism crippled a third. Even less robust, however, was the camera with which I photographed the Javanese villagers, the first iteration of the Olympus OM-1, a camera that was not up to the rigors of the heat and humidity of Indonesia. Within weeks of purchase, the rubber focus grips on the barrels of the Olympus’s lenses (35, 50, and 100mm, as per the classic combination of the time) had come loose and the lens elements of each were obscured by a proliferation of fungus — this quite unlike the medium-format Mamiya and 35mm Canon and Nikon equipment that I’d before and after.
Two worthy links
In my recent post on eye contact (linked to above), I weighed the balance between eye contact drawing out subjects and prompting them to manifest themselves vs. manipulating and overwhelming them with the presence and persona of the photographer.
Last week, I witnessed the transcendence of this dichotomy in an exhibition at Gallery Photosynthesis in Sofia, Bulgaria of near-life-size prints of magnificent, technically-masterful, full-length portraits taken by Bulgarian (Plovdivian/”Filibelı“) photographer Sonya Stankove.
Sonya Stankova took the photos in the late-1980s/early-1990s. At the time, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Stankova was working in a photo studio in her native city of Plovdiv, where hundreds of queued each day to have their photos taken for passports required to leave Bulgaria in search of opportunities, real and fantasized, abroad. Every now and then, when a customer struck Stankova’s fancy, she asked if she could take a second photo for her own collection. She would then slide a fresh full-frame sheet of film into the large-format wooden view-camera the studio ordinarily used for passport-sized photos, engage the subject, and squeeze the shutter release bulb, keeping the lens open for an amount of time estimated by intuition. The resulting photos captured the individuality of the subjects and, displayed together, provide a documentary view into the place and time they were taken.
To close, I (figuratively) zoom-out further to consider the ultimate question underlying photography in the digital age, via a link to the eclectic weblog of “The Online Photographer,” master-printer Michael Johnston. The subject: “Why take more photographs at all?”
The image above is from a series of photos treating mannequins in Istanbul, their manufacture and display, part of an in-depth look into the urban geography of a traditional sector. Mannequins, as I discovered, are designed and produced according to a complex web of typology and hierarchy — price-wise and according to the class, incomes, tastes, beliefs, cultures, and aspirations of the “markets” targeted to purchase the garments in which the mannequins will be clad. In a future entry, I hope to post more photos from the series and comment further.
Saturday’s bomb attack
For now, in light of the murderous bomb attack this past Saturday on Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi, I am posting this photo as an all-too-obvious metaphor for the dualiities and contradictions that enrich but also plague Istanbul — its peace and its violence, its tolerance and its hatreds, its physical location straddling two continents, and its seeming temporal spanning of the world views of multiple centuries.
The black-white duality of the mannequins’ garb also suggests the extremes of Istanbul’s and Turkey’s ruling AK Party and its leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan — a propensity towards confrontation, bluster, and intimidation that yields and masks a polarized polity at home, failed ambitions in the middle east, failed outreaches towards the west, and dual failures in dealing with complex conundrums of Syria and predominantly Kurdish eastern Anatolia.
Black-white contrasts also characterize the history and transformation of Istiklal Caddesi and surroundings. In Ottoman centuries Istiklal was a street of palatial Ottoman homes and western embassies and, by the early- to mid- twentieth century, a western-style avenue of shops, cinemas and entertainment, with backstreets sheltering tenement housing and offering drink, music, and food, as well as bordellos, “straight” and transvestite.
In recent years, Istiklal continues to change, becoming less and less upscale on the one hand, and less local and bohemian on the other, and more and more like an open air shopping mall, with rising rents forcing out independent merchants and restaurateurs in favor of chain operations with deep pockets and with historic buildings gutted, their restored facades masking modern shopping emporiums. In the backstreets, “vice” and seediness fade and “cute” coffee shops take their place. The flow of pedestrians, locals and tourists, up and down Istiklal increases each year, with the noticeable changes that the crowds seem progressively younger and the tourists as often as not (mid-)eastern as western.
Even in the midst of such changes, Istiklal remains the site of political demonstrations and of symbolic acts, both democratic in aspiration, ala the summer of 2013 (scroll through the following group of posts) and, tragically, murderously anarchic as per Saturday.
The black-white metaphor also points to another of the city’s contradictions. Istanbul is marketed as “multicultural” and “tolerant,” but the reality plays out otherwise. Few Istanbul Greeks remain in the city, its Armenian population stagnates, and its Jewish population ages and declines year by year as younger Jews leave for abroad. What remain of all three of the city’s traditional minority populations have moved to the comfort, anonymity, and security of neighborhoods far afield from the surroundings of Istiklal.
By chance, three of the victims of Saturday’s bombing were Israelis and the attack took place within fifteen minute’s walk of the lower reaches of Istiklal, the neighborhood of Galata which, a century ago, had been home to a large Jewish population and that still houses three of Istanbul’s regularly-functioning synagogues. The three synagogues operate under extreme security, precisely due to eventualities such as Saturday’s attack — indeed, one of the synagogues was bombed fifteen years ago and attacked by machine gun and hand grenade wielding murderers fifteen years before that. Ironically, at the time of Saturday’s attack, the visiting Israelis would have been far safer attending one of the nearby synagogues than enjoying the sybaritic luxury of a peaceful Saturday morning stroll on Istiklal. This too is amongst the contradictions and ironies of Istanbul.
I have not posted to this site since mid-year 2015. Conceptually, long-form reading (for research and for its own sake) led me to push short-form writing to the side. On the visual side, malfunctioning of my supposedly trustworthy digital camera, the increasingly complex logistics of purchasing and processing film, and a search for new photographic approaches and subject matter caused me to reconsider the worth of my backlog of images and of the platforms I’ve used for sharing them. But now, for the moment at least, I’ve decided to pick up the thread …
The photo above provides continuity to my last post to this site. The photo was taken in the Perşembe Pazarı (Thursday Market) — the centuries-old (millennia-old, actually!) ships’ chandlers and metal-working market at the mouth of the Golden Horn, on the waterfront of the old Galata neighborhood of Istanbul — in one of the narrow streets just behind the buildings fronting the water at the left of the panaromic photo of the waterfront featured in my last post. The street in question contains the stalls and enclosed shops of paint merchants, competitors grouped one after the next as per the guild-like arrangements of traditional markets. The paint merchants test and display custom-mixed colors by dabbing pointillist brush strokes and Jackson-Pollack-like spray bursts onto exposed retaining walls in the increasing number of vacant lots that scar the neighborhood as developers race to position themselves for the windfalls of inevitable gentrification. (For a waterfront street-scape taken elsewhere in Perşembe Pazarı click here.)
Eyes to eyes, squints to squints
For years, I have shied away from candid photography, especially (per my lifelong contrived contrariness to fashions of the moment) the recent rage for “street photography.” To me, hidden cameras and surreptitious photographers can too easily cross the line into cowardliness, trickery, and exploitation. My take is (or maybe was) that achievement of direct eye-contact shows recognition and attentiveness on the part of the photographer towards the person-hood of the subject. Eye contact enables the subject to manifest him- or herself in a manner either inherent to themselves or to themselves as they wish to be at the moment. In short, it leads to willful collaboration of subject and photographer.
Objectivity or self-deception?
Recently, I’ve begun to question my stance. I ask myself how much the achievement of eye-contact and the seduction involved therein are true techniques of environmental portraiture versus how much they might engender projection, surrogate self-portraiture, and/or transcendence of loneliness on the part of the photographer. More abstractly, I wonder whether whether eye-contact is a means for capturing projection rather than subject? Or, more banal, how much the search for eye contact is a but a hangover from, and a nostalgia for, the family snapshots of my childhood?
As to what spurred my questioning … several things:
1. The suggestion of Austrian sociologist Marietta Mayrhofer-Deak, a collaborator on a proposed project, that I reread Photography and Sociology, a 1970s essay by Howard Becker, the octogenarian sociologist, one-time jazz musician, and innovator in participant research into “deviant” behaviors, beginning with one of the first detailed participant studies of marijuana-smokers!
2. A second suggestion from Marietta that I re-examine the detached and clinical, but nonetheless telling and powerfully moving, portraiture of August Sander (the full collection of which can seen on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and
3. My recent perusal of photos of a series of analogue photos of architectural details — balconies, doors, windows, caryatids, stairways — that I took in Sofia, Bulgaria during a winter of political upheaval and economic collapse nineteen years ago. How much, I now ask myself, did the Sofia series actually portray its inanimate subject matter? How much did my choice of subject matter, viewpoint, and framing actually represent the grim pessimism and insecurity of the society at the time? Or, how much were the photos expressions of my own inner state and preoccupations, independent of subject matter and context? Did the photos tell larger tales of the objects portrayed, their contexts, and the times, or merely express the narcissism or autism of me, the photographer?
More on this — and a sampling of photographs from the series referred to — in subsequent posts.
(Disclaimer: I have not worked or resided in Istanbul since January, 2015. Since then, I have only returned to Istanbul for a two-week stay during which I did not visit Perşembe Pazarı. Thus, I do not know how much of the market area has been razed since nor have I attended to my usual practice of trying to return to provide the subjects of photos with prints of their own, regardless of intervening time. Anyone more up-to-date on the present state of Perşembe Pazarı is welcome to comment)
Neglected Field Camera
There is (or there used to be) a saying in Dutch that all that comes from afar is tastier (“Wat je veer vandaan halt is lekkerde” … or some-such). At first hearing, this might sound clever but its implications are unfortunate. Expecting greater satisfaction from afar can blind one to the satisfactions of all that is familiar and ready-to-hand. The scene portrayed in the photo above was a recurring vista along my routine trajectories during frequent stays in Istanbul over the last decades. Thus, in the spirit of the odd perspective of the Dutch saying, I neglected to photograph it with the attention it deserved. Many times, especially at dusk, when wending my way through crowds and passing by in a rush, I made notes to myself that I should return someday with a field camera, tripod, and roll or sheet film — reminders that I consistently ignored or postponed.
Pleasingly Flawed Pocket Camera
One late afternoon, however, I did happen to have a camera in my bag while walking by — a small-sensor, pocket-sized Panasonic LX3, a camera that by current standards and tastes should be retired to the shelf. However, despite its limitations and flaws — miniscule sensor with attendant poor light sensitivity, digital noise, smearing, lack of sharpness, etc. — on the rare occasions when I still take the LX3 with me I find it capable of surprisingly pleasing results, including the old-fashioned-picture-postcard-like “feel” of the photo above.
The photo above portrays Galata from Eminönu, just at that time of day when the sky turns orange and pink and its colors are reflected on the silvery-blue surface of currents converging at the mouth of the Golden Horn. It shows Galata at its most monumental and most prosaic. At the top of the rise is the Galata Tower, a gargantuan remnant — rebuilt several times over the centuries and extensively remodeled during the 1960s — of former defensive walls and originally dating to pre-Ottoman Byzantium (1389) when Galata was a self-governing Genoese trading enclave.
Juxtaposed against the tower is the thin spire of the one-time British Sailors’ Hospital (1855). Just below and slightly to the left are the upper floors of the massive rear facade of a symmetrical dual structure originally built (1890) to house the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank and state tobacco monopoly. Designed to resemble an Ottoman-period wooden waterside mansion, the side of the building facing the Golden Horn and the hills of the old city of Istanbul on the opposite bank was conceived as counterweight of tradition to balance out the building’s self-consciously neoclassical and western-appearing street-side facade and main entrance-way.
Other buildings comprising the pointillist-like day-end physiognomy of Galata include late-19th- and early-20th-century commercial and residential structures and stark concrete structures built in the mid-20th-century on the footprints of past generations of buildings. At the water-side level are the warren of decrepit buildings, open spaces, and narrow streets comprising the Perşembe Pazar (Thursday Market), a ships’-chandler and metal-working market that has functioned since Byzantine times but that is now under threat of proposed redevelopment into an upscale tourist and “cool” restaurant, coffeehouse, and nightspot zone — necessary “progress,” perhaps, but “progress” that erases historical continuity, legacy trades, and economic functions that are tradition passageways to socio-economic mobility.
Afterword: Subjective Mapping
The photo also indicates places prominent in my own subjective mapping of Istanbul. It was on the bridge partially visible at the very far right of the photo that I was once involved in an accident that propelled me out of the world of work and income for a year but that also — despite surgery, pain, and other inconveniences — delivered me into an alternate world of reading, resting, exercising, and self-renewal. A miniscule protrusion slightly to the right of the Galata Tower appears to be the very tip of the pillow-like, orientalist-fantasy dome of the Ashkenazic Synagogue — opened in 1900 as the synagogue of the former Austro-Hungarian Jewish community of Istanbul and designed by architect Gabriel Tadeschi, also the architect of the Or-Ahayim Hospital in Balat — a place that I have visited on-and-off over the decade since my first work assignment in Istanbul in the late-1970s. Amongst the many worthy edifices — churches, office buildings, early apartment houses, synagogues, mosques, hans, and fountains — obscured by surrounding buildings and thus not visible in the photo is the late-19th-cenury neo-gothic Italian Synagogue, the Kal de los Frankos (Congregation of the Franks), where I enjoyed many pleasant Saturday mornings these past years and met a number of worthy friends and acquaintances .