Soon after its invention in 1839, the daguerreotype arrived in the Ottoman Empire. The news was announced in the official gazette and, before long, a Turkish translation of Daguerre’s user’s manual was published. Camera fever swept Constantinople as photography studios clustered on its chicest avenue, the Grande Rue de Péra. A pair of Italian brothers called Carlo and Giovanni Naya ran the most prominent studio. A few doors down, a French couple announced that Muslim women could have their portraits taken by Madame Astras, and a Greek named Kargopoulo set up shop next to the Russian embassy.
That street is now called Istiklal, and Naya has given way to the high-street fashion chain Zara. But in one of its storied buildings (once home to a secret chapel, a club for diplomats and the Singer sewing machine corporation; now a research centre) a fascinating exhibition offered a glimpse into the Ottoman darkroom. ‘Camera Ottomana: Photography and Modernity in the Ottoman Empire 1840–1914’ focused on how the new technology fit into the imperial project of modernity, but stopped short of the easy positivism that would see the former blindly serving the latter; photography may have been a spur, symptom and vehicle of modernity, but not quite its handmaiden. A timeline at the entrance, starting with the present and receding rightwards into the past, playfully upended conventional notions of progress (unless it was a nod to Ottoman script). Or, perhaps, it was a visual clue to the show’s historical point – that local practitioners did not simply import a Western novelty, but creatively adapted it for their own purposes, often turning its conventions on their heads.
This obliqueness was typical of the curators’ general approach: enigmatic material was put in context but not overwhelmed with commentary. The show succeeded where it refused to ‘narrate’, following John Berger’s view, quoted in the catalogue, that ‘photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning’. In the same essay, Berger goes on to draw a distinction between private and public photographs; only the former are mementos ‘from a life being lived’, while the latter merely offer ‘information’, severed from experience. This show gave the lie to such strict divisions. True, much imperial photography was concerned with documenting the state’s technical achievements: images of mines and railroads celebrated the conquest of rugged nature by technology. But these records of modernization are also elegies: they can’t help but offer traces of the empire’s human landscapes. Mug shots are a case in point: Istanbul prisons were equipped with photography studios to help identify reoffenders. Preserved systematically in albums, their portraits now make for curious viewing: Amet the Lame and Ibrahim the Albanian stare defiantly into the camera, their crimes forgotten, their jaunty appearances intact.
The difficulty of separating the intimate from the impersonal was spectacularly illustrated in the show’s strangest item: an album documenting the results of surgeries carried out at a women’s hospital. Patients are photographed in domestic settings, their gowns parted to reveal long scars, their hands sometimes resting on an ornate table where enormous tumours stand jarred. Intended to showcase medical prowess (the surgeon’s signature loops across the bottom of each frame), these images are also haunting portraits of the survivors themselves, eyeing us calmly from beneath white hoods. (The captions bear the names not of the patients but of their captive growths: ‘uterine fibroid tumour’, ‘cancerous ovarian cyst’.)
These dignified portraits depart from more exoticized representations of Ottoman subjects. Instead of tired travellers’ fantasies, we learned that gendarmes posing with severed heads became a popular subgenre of studio photography; we were introduced to deaf pupils’ hands spelling out the phrase ‘Long live the Sultan’; to calotypes of gravestones, actors dressed as bullfighters and fisheries on the Bosphorus; and to the ghostly X-ray of an Ottoman soldier’s foot. Perhaps the show’s most inspired move was to cast its net clear of the Orientalist debate, into less familiar waters.
First published in Issue 174