Avant-Garde Approaches in Turkish Photography

* Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts Photography Department “Monday Meetings” conference text. Photography Art and Turkey, Istanbul 1995, Pg. 48-54

Today, April 17, 1995, Monday and it is around 4 pm. I am celebrating an extraordinary event of an ordinary day, with joy. What is this event? I would like to say hello to the Department of Photography which was established as required by law despite the delay under the roof of the Faculty of Fine Arts of our University, leaving aside the discussion on the extent to which the 5th article of Higher Education Law numbered 2547 has accelerated the aimed widespread art education.

There is avant-garde on the menu a little before the end of an ordinary day. Before passing to the theoretical and practical examples of the avant-garde tendency in the development process of photography in our country, I find it necessary to make an excursion in the historical past.

Historical Process

Although our knowledge on how and under which conditions photography entered the borders of our country is very limited, if the 1830s are considered to be the starting point of the practical application of the first photography works based on the partnership of Niépce and Daguerre in the west, according to the data from internal and external sources, we know that it started to be used in the Sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876) era as a technical innovation in the Ottoman borders, especially in Istanbul, very soon -about twenty, thirty years- after that date. However religious pressures, the inability of the Renaissance experienced in the west to reach the Ottomans, the lack of communication between the society with the west, the economic difficulties, the Ottomans’ lack of understanding the importance of the potential outcomes of photography for the future, have left the monopoly of this technical vehicle, to minorities or the foreigners investigating the mysterious appearance of the orient.

The Situation Post-Republic

Our country would need to wait for a longer period of time for photography, that started to become a phenomenon in the Ottoman period, to gain technological and aesthetic values beyond its basic function. The period after the 1900s is a dark period in terms of photography. The cultural staff of the young Republic of Turkey, which flourished after the depressed and dark political period of the 1910s, witnesses the signs of revival. To give an example: The cinema, the development process of which is accelerated by photography, is an event that has begun to expand its field of activity in proportion to the demands of the public and has entered to a great extent, the daily lives of people. In the same period, the contemporary world used photography as a tool of visual communication while at the same time provided a versatile development by utilizing the artistic accumulation of this tool. This versatile frame of mind of the West has begun to be understood in our country only after 1960. The documentary approach based on the philosophy of reproducing the objective reality gained functionality in this period. The art of painting and sculpture, utilizing the revitalized cultural / artistic environment after the Republic the most, accelerating the developmental processes, has tightened its relationships with western art and did not remain closed to new art movements that emerged in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century such as fauvism, surrealism, futurism, abstract art. When we examine the versatile development process of photography in our country in the 1960s and the following period, we can see that the documentarist structure which started to be used in the Ottoman period is preserved, that the doors that opened to the contemporary world are kept closed by an obdurate conservatism in the theoretical context. As the result of the passive structure of this rigid attitude,

its adverse effects on the developing dynamics, the attainment of an institutional structure for education, which is the most important of the prerequisites so that photography can fulfill its social and artistic function, adapt to contemporary thought and to exchange data with other plastic arts, has been delayed by about 150 years.

1980 and After
Abstract / Expressionist Period

Unlike many other concepts and disciplines that were given numerous definitions, interpretations, and evaluations (both conventional or non-conventional) in the transition to the contemporary order, photography could not break out of the habit based on seeing the raw reality that the naturalist and/or realist approach suggests, until the 80s.

In the West, the first avant-garde tendencies in the artistic context parallel to the developments in technological structure, begin with the experiments for which methods other than the usual are practiced by Christian Schad, Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray in the 1920s. Artist and theoretician, Nagy argues that the photography undertaking the function of re-presentation of objective reality must demonstrate more creative, more innovative works and also succeeds in this.

Just as it is in all plastic arts, photography must also attain new means of expression and enrich its own visual language in order to sustain its existence. The definition of pioneering / avant-garde work or experimental work with its usual concept in the literature, has been brought forward for the work that goes beyond the predetermined traditional process within the boundaries of the photography, aiming to reach another internal reality beyond the conventional process of everyday life, that attempt to overcome the fear of exclusion, dependence and obligation. The work produced in line with this understanding, of course, does not aim to address a broad mass of audience, to create materials for visual perception-based photographic products. But without such works, I believe that the art of photography will surely be in a vicious cycle.

The pioneer/avant-garde or experimental understanding, aiming at the realization of interdisciplinary communication with the language based on thought, which in fact finds that the traditional photography in our country is inadequate in sending the superficial visualization, plain-semantic photographic representations and reproduction of reality logic to art, makes its constructive debut early 1980. I would also like to emphasize that my exhibition Truth and Fantasy held at Mimar Sinan University Osman Hamdi Hall on January 1980 and the work produced for it (you will also see in the examples I will present from my personal work shortly), represents important milestones ensuring this understanding to become popular and to settle in our country.

Since photography in its general description is a two dimension visual determination of the multidimensional objective reality, experimentality brought by the vitality observed both in the theoretical and the practical field during the ten year period from 1980 to 1990, has been realized on two different planes under the conditions of our country: In the first plane photography uses all technical, aesthetic, semantic and pragmatic opportunities of the tool by surpassing the objectivity of objective view. This plane is abstract/expressionistic. In this expressive dimension, a trend directed towards the reconstruction of the photographic indicators at intellectual platform is observed. The second plane is the conceptual plane based on the concept that objective reality is entirely surpassed. Researching the third dimension, spatial arrangements, photo-installations are evaluated in this plane. However, in this context, the photography audience that produces work in the experimental sense has not yet created a name, except for a few names. It is also not surprising that those who use this plane are usually of plastic arts origin.

Despite the increasing interest in experimental understanding and acceptance by a wider audience over the past 15 years, it cannot be asserted that this art has been utterly freed from obscurity and misunderstandings. It is quite natural that the main reason for this is that the audience, that adopts certain features of traditional photography as a habit and therefore are based on naturalistic approaches linked to visuality, that are easily understood as they carry an objective meaning, and found beautiful as they are easily understood; finds the pioneer/avant-garde or experimental approach odd and cannot separate it into its meanings. If this is the case, we can come to the conclusion that “art is not for people who have no spare time for art education.”.

There is only one way for both science and art today to really reveal newer, more contemporary, more creative and more thought-provoking values, and this path passes only through experimentation. If you can carry out the experiment in the context of contemporary art philosophy, you can most likely create artwork.

With respect and love…

April 17, 1995

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