A Global Approach to Photography Changing its Shell

* The text of the paper presented to the symposium on “The Photography from the Ottoman Empire to the Present” organized by the British Council at the Mimar Sinan University between the dates 23 – 25 October 1991.

There have been proceedings such as the symposium on “Photography from the Ottoman Empire to The Present” and other similar subjects from the Ottoman or Republic period that have been isolated from one another, that are much smaller in scope, even that deal with a single sub-topic, and that deal with and open for discussion the past and the present and that were expected to have multidimensional effects.

Together we experienced the drawbacks of this approach, the vicious cycle, the bottleneck in the debates brought on by this approach, very recently. In short, to emphasize, we created micro-pores and lost the whole.

In order to be able to assess photography today’s Turkey, it is necessary to comparatively approach the relationship between the Ottoman and post-Republican works. No one can deny that, in Turkey today, photography has entered our lives in a major way. However, it is not possible to participate in the arguments that the photographical displays that appear as a re-submission of reality are art. With a subjective approach, I believe that the reasons for this remain hidden in the depths of the past. For this reason, here today, in this paper, the past-maybe for the first time- will be studied in view of causality. This is one of the primary objectives of the paper.

The “Symposium on the Photography from the Ottoman Empire to the Present” held at a competent art institution where young people who will go on to form the dynamic society of the future and will convey the social culture-art accumulation of the present to the future are educated, has expanded the scope of the subject of this paper, so as to make references to the target audience. Considering this fact, the secondary motivation of the paper is to raise consciousness of the confused young minds imposed by only one of the possible understandings in the direction of strict theories in the recent past -and even today-.

The third and final objective of the paper is to emphasize that reaching photography and reaching art have very different dimensions.

Up to this point, I have summarized the main objectives of this paper. Now, I will try to provide insight that is separate at the macro level and occasionally intertwined for these objectives.

In our country, in the process of development, photography has settled in very quickly and found many areas of use. However, nine years away from the year 2000, it has not yet reached sufficient maturity and popularity when compared toother plastic arts of today. Without discussing the concrete reasons lying in the depths of the distant and near past, the attempt to place the claims that this powerful communication tool is also an art have been unfounded in our country. Conclusion: Loads of burning issues, vicious cycles, and the controversial appearances of photography are facing us.

According to the outcome of the papers presented in this symposium, investigating the historical perspective of photography in our country, photography entered the borders of the Ottoman Empire very soon after its invention in the west. Foreigners and minorities frequently recurrent throughout the symposium, living within the boundaries of the empire have made full use of the freedom offered by the sultans of the time. It is extremely surprising that the Ottomans, continuing to exert pressure on their own people, opened their doors to a vehicle featuring a high level of documentation, such as photography. Religious pressures, the inability of the Renaissance of the west to reach the Ottomans, the weakness of the almost non-existing relations of the audience with the west, the economic difficulties, the Ottomans’ lack of understanding or will to understand the importance of the potential outcomes of photography have left the monopoly of use of the vehicle, to minorities living within the borders of the Ottomans or the foreigners investigating the mysterious appearance of the orient.

The works performed at that time using the limited possibilities of technology and preserving the authentic document qualities are similar in terms of both the printing technique and the issues at hand, with the production in that period and afterwards of some youth emerging post-Republic or coming to the fore as of this period. The respect young Turkey had for art, that grew in the sequel of the depressed and dark political period of the 1910s, was directed towards painting and sculpture art, benefiting the most from the movements brought by Atatürk’s revolutions and accelerating their development process. These art branches, increasing their relationships with the western art, have not remained closed to new artistic trends such as fauvism, cubism, surrealism, futurism, abstract art, formed in Paris, a major cultural and artistic center, at the beginning of the 20th century.

The reason for the depression in the cinema the field of activity of which started to expand in the direction of public demand after the proclamation of the Republic, is similar with that of the photography that started to become a fact in the Ottoman period, nevertheless benefited from the technological possibilities of the west in the 60’s. Actually, the introduction of photography into our lives as a fact is coeval with the introduction of painting, sculpture, novel and theater into our lives in the western sense. I have emphasized this before. At this point, the main problem to focus on is:

The fact that the young people coming to the fore in the 60s were not able to innovate then and for a long-time period afterwards, -in terms of technical, aesthetic, and semantic insight- except for the subjects the foreigners going after the mystery of the Orient turned towards, in the Ottoman. The documentary structure of the past is preserved, and the doors opening to the west -on the basis of thought- were kept closed with strict conservatism. If we focus our attention on the young people who are beginning to come to the fore in this period, the reality that emerges is: The 60s generation, identified as the pioneers of photography art in Turkey, is literally self-taught. No power can, in any way, give the function of determining the artistic line of the country to the monopoly of one or several individuals. While approaching the 2000’s, Turkey is most probably the only country where there were efforts for the establishment of the assertion that, in its present sense, the documentary approach in photography is an artistic act.

The development of modern technology, the expansion of information, the change in social structure have influenced the cultural content and brought about new values to replace a number of fundamental values. Science and art have to be influenced by this development and change. Otherwise, newer, more contemporary, more creative and more thought-provoking values cannot be produced. Let’s read the philosophy that the 60s generation was defending in the 80s, at a time when the world was changing so rapidly, in his own words:

“… First I need to mention some basic theories that I believe to be invariable in the art of photography. I think that photography is based on the quality to look at life from the right location, at the right time, a product wherein its reality and record aspects provide its feature of art and individuality.” ¹
¹ ÇİZGEN, Gültekin, Photograph Articles, İFSAK publications No: 14, Pg. 26

I leave it to the common sense of the audience, to what extent such a prescriptive and confined vision and depiction should gain acceptance, in today’s society, where not only the plastic arts, but novels, poetry, and theater have changed their shell too. Also, if a firmly believed and defended depiction starts with the words I think, there is contradiction, doubt, uncertainty in that defense.

It is undeniable that this firm and passive attitude will also have adverse effects on the developing dynamic youth. Though photography education in the West was taken up as a scientific discipline at the French Academy of Sciences in the new era, initiated with Daguerre in 1839, in our country this deficiency of 139 years was remedied only in 1978. One of the most important reasons why the strict position of the 60s generation reached the present day without any alternative, is undoubtedly that photography education was institutionalized too late. Today, if our country has not been able to create the mainstream celebrities, people like Atget, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier Bresson, Werner Bischof, Eugene Smith, Koudelka, the 60s generation needs to be questioned with its actual dimensions.

I would reply the question “… Why is Ara Güler’s photo-graphic image of ‘Woman and Allah’ still not surpassed.” ² with the question, “Why is it that Ara Güler, could still not exceed himself at that point, today although years have passed since the Woman and Allah?”
² ÇİZGEN, Gültekin, Photograph Articles, İFSAK publications No: 14, Pg. 28

In the general framework, the dimensions of the photography are explained by the variety of languages displayed in the areas used within the visual communication system. Functionally, photography serves 3 main fields:

1. Scientific field,
2. Professional field,
2.1. Its Documentary Function,
2.2. Its Artistic Function,
2.3. Its function for advertising (publicity),
3. Amateur field.

Due to the limitations that the title of the paper sets, it is the documentary and artistic function of photography within the professional field that interests us.

2.1. The Documentary Function of Photography

Generally, in the field of photojournalism, defends the principle of conformity to the nature of the object and aims to exert a shock effect on the viewer. Is affiliated with a certain level of redaction; that is, besides the visual image, there is an explanatory text regardless. In its documentary function, the language of photography aims to show us a moment, a place at that moment, an act occurring at that place in that moment, designated by I, the external subject, within the central perspective and time period. Its horizon is at eye level height, about 1.60 meters. Documentary photography can be used by amateurs for personal purposes without being affiliated with any redaction. Here the amateur gathers the memories to be passed on to the future and integrates these within chronological sequences. The amateur is a consumer, he does not produce; that is, there is no purpose to reach the artistic language.

The language of documentary photography in our country has often been attempted to be expressed artistically and has always been confused with the narrative-based, content-rich nature of photojournalism.

2.2. The Artistic Function of Photography

Is the transformation of a personal thought, into a visual language? The aim is to reach the artistic message using all the technical, aesthetic, semantic and pragmatic opportunities of photography. Its language is individualistic.

At this point, I would like to briefly focus on the concept of art in general terms before studying documentary photography, which is attempted to be placed as art object in our country and regards the intellectual approaches outside it as artificial.

Art in its essence incorporates tension, mutual conflict. It is not enough for art to rise from an intense and real life; it also needs to be addressed, designed and take an objective form. According to Aristotle, the duty of art is to refine feelings, to overcome fear and hurt; thus allowing the individual to rise above the chaotic order. To achieve this, all ties to life are left aside. In this relationship, the so-called temporary imprisonment, the taste, even obtained from tragedies, that is to say, taste that is the essence of entertainment, is an outcome of the liberator quality of art. Brecht, in this context, says:

“…Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality. Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him…”

In this alienated world we live in, where both feeling and thought plummet into an unproductive conflict by degenerating, facts should not be revealed in a noticeable bareness, in a way reflecting the alienated state of the subject and the people. Art should know how to enrapture the audience by appealing to their power of study to enable the decision to participate to the act rather than through immobile similitude. This means, far beyond watching, to transfer the audience to the intellectual platform by freeing them from the passive.

The plain, semantic structure of documentary photography rendered it into an easy-to-use language in our country. Beyond any doubt, it is the documentary function of photography that conveys the closest approach to objective reality among the mimetic arts. The desire of the plain, semantic structure to re-present objective reality, drew the intense narrative-based, content-rich appearing documentary photography, away from the regular aesthetic dimension. Furthermore, this also corroborates the thesis of many aesthetic experts; “Why bother producing art work if the same reality -i.e. life itself- is to be repeated.” In the direction of this thesis, the approach that should be discussed most intensively whether it is art or not in our country is the documentary approach. Because, an approach that does not give the subject an opportunity to imagine a moment in a specified time period, while an act is documented at that moment, loses its aesthetic characteristic and acquires documentary characteristic overall. In order for a work of art to connect to the rules of reading general art history and transition to the status of an art object, it must be striped down from the contents of that work of art and an aesthetic legibility should remain. Only then can he connect to the rules of reading art and refer to art. The present controversial situations of the documentary approach in our country and yesterday’s Yeşilçam -Turkish cinema- are altogether based on this reason. Let’s see what Burçak Evren says on Ara Güler’s work:

“… The story in Güler’s photographs no doubt is not limited to this. A careful eye can see beyond one and a great story can stem from such a tiny matter placed into four corners …” ³
³ EVREN, Burçak – Yeni Fotoğraf Magazine, Issue: 1

People show three sorts of approach to objective reality in their shaping or visual activities:

  1. A realistic or naturalistic approach, attempting to reflect nature as it appears,
  2. Nature is idealized and reshaped in human thought. The objective is how we think of nature in the imaginary platform.
  3. The human by making use of the abstract concepts nonexistent in nature, such as balance, rhythm, harmony, contrast, wishes to realize the nonexistent in nature. This approach on one hand targets to transcend nature and dominate it, and on the other hand to overcome objective reality.

The naturalistic aspect of the documentary approach intensively used by the 60s generation, believes that the social conditions are treated with scientific objectivity. However this objectivity is deceptive. The naturalistic approach of photography to the representation of the reality seen as an invariable time lived, rather than a conflict between the past and the future, -as emphasized by Cezanne- can expose the artist to losing the whole. What does this mean? This means that there is no priority order with reality for the naturalistic approach of photography.

In our country, ideas were brought forward that reaching photography, that is, producing work with certain visual taste, and reaching art are often the same. The plain – semantic visual displays of the documentary photography transformed the audience into an image-producing machine.


In case artists of different branches cannot establish relationships, are unable to talk, converse, discuss among themselves, their art being deprived of the opportunity of inspiration from each other, origination and interaction in this country, in other words, if there is disconnection between photography and the other art branches, it is not possible to make mention of that art in that country. Whereas, every art branch can be activated by integrating themselves with other branches. The only art branch not being able to create, or to be more precise, not wanting to create this dialogue is photography in our country.

Over the past decade, -I guess it’s the destiny of developing countries- we have been experiencing artist inflation honored by AFIAP, Artist FIAP titles. On a side note, I would like to point out that my criticism is not directed at people who have received this title. My reaction is based on the lack of a pluralistic mechanism in which the FIAP / International Federation of Photography Art – Federation Internationale de L’art Photographique titles are evaluated in our country. Additionally, in our country in which field of art other than photography, is the title of certified artist being awarded by whatever private organization? This is an artificial development and the dimensions are creepy.

In order to talk about the existence and independence of an art field in this country, it is necessary to look at its relationship with the art market. Today these two concepts are an inseparable whole. Moreover, they complement each other.

In this country, those who find the courage to write reviews and critiques on photography are not even aware that they have chosen a cheap way, such as ugly and misleading guidance and information, based on an effort to pull the audience into the polemic. Moreover, if these people integrate a three-dimensional work of art and a two-dimensional photo-graphical display under a single concept, in a word, as a photograph, that is to say, if they can not set forth in their writings which is the tool and which is the purpose, the 60s generation should be questioned with serious dimensions. It should be a duty of the audience to awaken them from their half-drowsy states.

The situation shows that Nicephore Niepce had spent a vain effort to introduce his new invention and died in poverty. Today very few people know his name. I remember with respect.

October 1991

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