It seems as if I have known the name Ara Guler all my life, at least from my high school days. He was a well-known photographer going back to the 1950s in my memory. I have never met Ara Guler although I have seen him on several occasions. A scruffy-looking Istanbulite with an eye that was made to see the city. He was known as the Eye of Istanbul, and rightly so. He was a prominent name and personality with Armenian heritage and was loved and admired by most for his work and for providing visions of Istanbul that was slowly disappearing.
He started working for the Yeni Istanbul newspaper in 1950 and his work was quickly recognized as outstanding. He received commissions from domestic and foreign publications, traveled to many parts of the world, photographed celebrities, and joined Magnum with the invitation of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud.
Although Guler photographed many faces and places, in black-and-white or color, his most significant works for me are those of Istanbul in black-and-white. It is perhaps because I felt I knew the places and the faces he photographed. The narrow cobblestone streets, old wooden houses, street merchants, kids playing on the streets were familiar to us all. In fact, I was born in such a house, on a street with big stones, carefully laid to sit snugly against each other. I have seen the sellers going by with trays of yogurt carefully balanced on sturdy wooden support on their shoulders; the ever-present simitci, sellers of the typical street snack similar to bagels; porters carrying huge loads on their backs balanced on special shoulder supports. So, when I see a photograph by Ara Guler of these characters, I remember the places where I saw those faces.
He won many awards, showed his work at prestigious places in many countries, published books, directed a documentary, and among many other things even owned and ran a coffee house in Galatasaray. Located in a narrow alley—alluding to his name Ara—the walls of the building he owned and where he lived were middle-gray! True to his photographic roots, he had the walls and the trims painted in shades of gray, where much of his fame rested, in B&W photography.
Ara Guler left a big legacy behind. A museum dedicated to his work will open in Istanbul. I am very happy to hear that. His photographs will remind what Istanbul looked like in its heyday to those who remember them. And, the same photographs may one day make the future generations realize that the character and allure of Istanbul came not from rushing crowds, but its living streets and breathing buildings.
Ara Guler passed away on October 17, 2018. This is a belated farewell to a man I have known very well yet not at all, admired his work without getting a chance to shake his hand, saw only from a distance as he stood on the street at the corner of his coffee house. He was a man of the old Istanbul, the city I miss and remember very fondly. And, I can still find it in his photographs. I invite you to visit the following sites to start exploring the works of Ara Guler, the Eye of Istanbul!
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