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Taking Photographs in Instanbul

14 November 2017

From The Literary Hub:

In 1962, my father bought me a camera. My brother had been given one already, two years before. His was like a camera obscura, a black, metallic, perfectly square box, with a lens on one side and a glass screen on the other, on which you could see projected the image inside. When my brother was ready to transfer that murky image onto the film inside the box, he would push on the lever—click!—and as if by magic, a photograph would be taken.

Taking a photograph was always a special occasion. It called for preparation and ceremony. In the first place, film was expensive. It was important to know how many exposures would fit on a roll, and the camera kept a running tally of photographs taken. We spoke of rolls and exposure counts as if we were soldiers in some ragtag army running out of ammunition; we chose our shots carefully, and still wondered whether our photos were any good. Every photograph required a degree of thought and deliberation: “Does this look right?” It was around this time that I began to think about the significance of the photographs I took—and why I took them at all.

We took photographs so as to have something to remember the moment by. As subjects, we faced the camera and posed for others—mostly our friends and families but also our future selves—who would be looking back at this image months and years later. So really, we were having our photographs taken in anticipation of our own gaze back. When we faced the camera, we were “posing” for the future.

. . . .

In 1949, my father returned from a trip to America with a camera. On this trip, he’d also acquired a fervent belief in the importance of smiling for photographs. If we didn’t feel like smiling, all we had to do was say “cheese” (which we pronounced çiyz and which, we learned, was the English equivalent of what we called peynir), and it would look close enough to genuine smiling. It must have been then that I first began to reflect on the relationship between photography and reality, between representation and authenticity. A photograph supposedly taken to record the truth was in fact no more than a device with which to deceive a pair of eyes in the future.

. . . .

“Smile, Orhan; move to the right, Şevket; now all of you, stop fidgeting!” and I’d begin to despair of the photograph’s ever being taken. Sometimes, when we could no longer stand all the contrived solemnity, one of us would stick his fingers up behind his neighbor’s head to furnish him with horns, and soon, despite my father’s admonitions, we would all start prodding and poking one another. Much like the rest of Turkish society, which was self-consciously striving to become more westernized, our family found that our every effort to appear modern and happy seemed to end in frustrating affectedness and hollow ritual. The camera was both a symptom of this problem and one of its triggers.

. . . .

Even after all this hard work, we still had to get our photographs developed at a photo studio before we could actually see them. This too could take quite some time: Once the current roll of film was used up, someone had to drop it off at the studio, and return a week later to collect the prints.

. . . .

Every time I picked up a new batch of photos, I would feel momentarily disoriented. There were often long intervals between visits to the studio, and to be confronted all at once with memories of Bosphorus cruises, birthday parties, and holiday get-togethers that had actually taken place weeks or months apart, always left me with an eerie sense of recurrence. The clothes we wore and the places we posed in may have differed slightly, but the beaming optimism on our faces was always the same. When I compared the prints to the negatives, I discovered that some frames had been left out, perhaps because the image was deemed too blurry, too dark, or too faint. Thus I came to see that the joy of taking photographs must always be at odds with our yearning for authenticity.

. . . .

All those trips, weddings, parties, and gatherings we had so looked forward to and then relished had already come and gone, belonging now to the past. We were left with our memories, and the erratic record of these photographs. Like our other memories, everything we had experienced, seen, and felt would one day be forgotten.

. . . .

By the time I had turned 20, no one in my family was taking souvenir photos anymore. Perhaps this was because the family—no longer a happy one—had long since disbanded; gone were those childhood days when we would pile into the car for a drive along the Bosphorus, and neither did we have much happiness or familial joy left to display.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub which includes several interesting photos of Istanbul a half-century ago. The author is Orhan Pamuk and you can find his books here.

What a change from film to digital photos.

PG remembers the first time he saw a professional photographer using a 35 mm camera with a motor drive.

In contrast with PG’s childhood experience with photography, which was similar to that of the author of the OP, the studio photographer with the motor drive was taking photo after photo very rapidly while giving the model instructions on how to move.

When the camera ran out of film, an assistant handed the photographer a new camera, fully loaded and ready to shoot and the photographer continued his work while the assistant reloaded the original camera with film so he could hand it back to the photographer a couple of minutes later.

In addition to the 35mm cameras, a couple of expensive Hasselblad cameras sat on a table, loaded with larger format film so they would be instantly available if needed.

PG was working in a large advertising agency during this time and examined the contact sheets from the photography session a few hours later. Unlike the photos from PG’s childhood, each of which was distinctly different, the many of the photos on the contact sheet were very similar, sometimes appearing identical. The photographer had circled the photos he recommended with a black grease pencil, but there were sometimes (for PG) no discernible differences between the selected photo and the ones before and after it.

PG can’t remember the specific number, but he remembers reading that, thanks to ubiquitous cell phones,  more photos are taken in a single day than were taken during multiple decades in earlier times. Instead of the small slices of earlier lives, this generation and those that follow will experience fully-documented lives.

PG admits to being very happy that many parts of his college life and a few years that followed were not recorded in any way. He thinks it makes reform and repentance easier.

Here’s a mundane photo PG took with his phone a few days ago. He’s post-processed it a little to reflect . . . something deep and meaningful. Or not. Perhaps it should be titled, The Fully-Documented Life – With Cinnamon Roll.


Non-US, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), Photography

16 Comments to “Taking Photographs in Instanbul”

  1. No doubt there are professional photographers whining about all the indie art drowning out their ‘much better’ works.

    Much as trad-pub writers bemoan indie/self-pub work.

    And they’re both equally right and wrong. There is a lot of chaff to dig through to find the wheat, but not everything from the ‘pros’ is good and not everything from the indies is bad …

  2. Darn it, PG … now I have to drive to Panera’s and get a cinnamon roll.

  3. I picked up a digital camera (not a cellphone) and started getting serious about it circa 2007 just as every parent and grandparent decided the pictures they took of the kids at events, on their cellphones, were good enough, esp. without their reading glasses.

    Never got past semi-pro for the branch of photography I was in because the bottom dropped out of the paid end of that market.

    Snapshots just wanna be free.

  4. When I was a kid, I used to sometimes open up the case with my dad’s ’50s-era Leica camera in it just to play around with it. At the time, it was regarded as past its time and borderline useless because it was inconvenient to use compared with the Instamatic or Polaroid of the time.

    A year or so ago, I brought a shopping bag full of negatives I found in my parents’ closet and started scanning them. The pictures from the ’70s, taken on those “convenient” cameras, are all flat and not particularly impressive. But the slides my dad shot in the mid- to late ’60s on that old Leica are stunning. Even the most mundane vacation pictures jump out at you. My brother in mid-air, going off a sliding board. Me half-asleep on a raft. They have a life to them the newer photos just didn’t capture.

    I asked my mom whatever happened to that old inconvenient camera, and it was sold at a garage sale years ago. I’m not sure of the model because my dad’s gone, and we can’t ask him. But I’d give anything to have that camera now.

    • When I was in college in the early 70s I went through a pretending-to-be-Robert-Frank stage. My friends and I scoured Maxwell Street, garage sales, junk stores looking for old Leicas. I found one, can’t remember the model, but it must have been an M of some variety, for around $25 and took quite a few photos of the South Side with it, but my Leica, all my photos, and equipment disappeared by the end of the 80s. Sigh.

      • Really sorry to hear that—especially about the photos themselves. I make myself feel a little better about the camera by convincing myself that anyone who knew enough to buy our old Leica is someone who’s used it the way it should be used. At least it’s not sitting in case in a closet, I figure.

  5. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang praises to Kodachrome in the 70’s.


  6. Very artful transformation of your cinnamon roll, PG. I like it.

  7. I love your cinnamon roll photo. Very artistic. It would be wonderful for a book about cinnamon rolls, if anyone ever writes it.

  8. PG admits to being very happy that many parts of his college life and a few years that followed were not recorded in any way. He thinks it makes reform and repentance easier.

    Not to mention deniability. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course.

  9. You can get cinnamon rolls the size of a cake at many places now. Sort of like a puffier version of coffeecake.

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