one of the Pamuk photos

Book Review: The Light of the Bosphorus: Orhan Pamuk’s Photography in Balkon


By Erdag Göknar

Orhan Pamuk’s Photographs emerge from a specific and recurring moment. As much as they capture subtle aspects of Istanbul geography in and around the iconic confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, they also reveal the moments when the writer stops writing and is drawn away from his desk. Taken during a period of self-described dissatisfaction with his work — perhaps verging on writer’s block — these images are linked obliquely to novel-writing. The photos depict Bosphorus panoramas of light and monuments of Ottoman history, while their serial framings convey the author’s creative play and frustration. This is the contextual drama of Balkon, a collection of 568 color photographs taken from the “balcony” of Pamuk’s writing studio.

What do the pictures tell us? They were taken in the winter of 2012–’13 while Pamuk struggled in a state of melancholy with his novel A Strangeness in My Mind. Perhaps capturing the light of the Bosphorus and the way it limns the geography and architecture of Istanbul evokes a feeling of consolation. After all, this is the stage of all of Pamuk’s fictions. The photographs, arranged often in a series of two to eight per page, convey an affective aura as they depict variously: the snow-covered dome of the 16th-century Cihangir Mosque; triangles of phantasmal light over the historic Topkapi Palace; patches of white light falling near the Princess Islands; illuminated ripples on the surface of the straits; and the impressionistic disappearance into haze of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque — or conversely, their combined 10 minarets broadcasting an Ottoman legacy. Subtle shifts of light, often breaking through clouds in epiphany and revelation, are effectively captured in these sequences. Meanwhile, the novel-writing waits.

The small format of the Steidl volume somewhat limits the impact of some of the images, which beg to be enlarged: a nighttime ferry whose lights create a halo on the water, seemingly elevating and sacralizing it; a distant white boat to which twilight winter light clings like an object of salvation; a “rear window” shot of women around a table — the only one with people; black birds alighting on a mosque dome with its verdigris finial; and a fishing boat silhouetted against a field of silver and blue ripples. Looking at Pamuk’s pictures you might be persuaded that some eternal Istanbul reigns in a world of ideal forms. That’s not quite the case. In the mix there are refined and rough images — crisp and detailed, abstract and contemplative, gouache-like and figurative — with the cumulative effect of updating the Ottoman past in the Turkish present.

Another Bosphorus photo by Pamuk

The camera holds an iconic place in late Ottoman and Turkish modernity, and photography has been used as a vehicle to both articulate state power as well as to document the Turkish everyday, particularly as evidence of progress. Notably, the 1,819 photographs (51 large-format albums) of the Sultan Abdülhamid II collection, presented to the Library of Congress and the British Museum in the 1890s, reveal an anxiety about Ottoman modernity and the attempt to document it as a project of state power. The collection includes architecture, monuments, panoramas, and urban scenes, a majority of which were taken in and around Istanbul. There is no specific aesthetic concern here, but rather a bureaucratic one. The challenge of reconciling the modern with the historical legacy of an Islamic empire looms large, along with an unacknowledged anxiety about failure and loss. Pamuk comments on the affective role of photography when he compares Abdülhamid’s collection, in an analogy, to his mother’s family photo album:

I love these [Hamidian] photographs, devoid of human figures in which […] everything looks tidier, cleaner, and more modern than it is — just as in my mother’s album. I like to think that I’ve discovered in these strange photographs a range of emotions that neither the photographer nor [Abdülhamid] II ever intended to record.

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The photographic image, he implies, often reveals what it is attempting to conceal.

Pamuk received his first camera when he was 10 years old. In Kemalist Turkey, the camera and photography constituted a primary means of engaging in the secular modern. Pamuk states, “Our greatest shortcoming, we felt, was never being as modern as we wanted to be. So when posing for the camera, we strove to appear more successful and more modern than we actually were.” Pamuk contrasts this posed and representational function of the family album with the work of the great Armenian-Turkish photographer Ara Güler: “Until the photographer Ara Güler — whose photographs of the city in the twentieth century remain unsurpassed — began taking photos of daily life in Istanbul in the 1950s, […] it was rare for the human side of the place to creep into any photographs.”

Güler, who died last fall, built an archive of over a million negatives. In Istanbul: Memories and the City, Pamuk included 200 of his pictures. In a recently reissued edition, Pamuk added over 200 more Istanbul photographs by Güler. In addition to conveying the important place of photography in Pamuk’s aesthetic life, Balkonreveals the strong influence of Ara Güler’s mid-20th-century black-and-white Istanbul, in many ways, the visual source for Pamuk’s concept of hüzün, the strain of melancholy particular to Istanbul and its inhabitants.

In the world of Pamuk’s fiction, doubles abound, and in some respects the unnamed double in Balkon is Ara Güler. Many of the images here recall “Güler framings,” oneiric instantanés of quotidian Istanbul, of ferries and skylines in a kind of homage. Recently, Pamuk wrote an obituary in the New York Timeslamenting the loss of this friend and cultural icon who was memorialized in the film “The Eye of Istanbul.” In the obituary, he states:

Ara Güler’s Istanbul is my Istanbul. […] The crucial, defining characteristic of an Ara Güler photograph is the emotional correlation he draws between cityscapes and individuals. […] For those who, like me, have spent 65 years in the same city […] the landscapes of the city eventually turn into a kind of index for our emotional life.

Pamuk’s photographs, taken at all hours, reveal an open secret about Istanbulites, who are often drawn to stare at the Bosphorus ritualistically, day and night. In an early chapter of Pamuk’s The Black Book, the Bosphorus famously dries up to uncover a cultural history of the city from Crusaders to mafiosi. The significance of this imaginative flight is that the author “sees” something in the Bosphorus, which becomes a magic mirror, a collective unconscious, or a cultural meaning between continents. Balkonbegins with an epigraph attributed to the journalist immortalized in The Black Book, Celâl Salik, in a column apparently published on Pamuk’s birthday in 1971 (when he turned 19). It reads, “Every photograph is not just the image of a frozen moment, but of the past and future too. Because to take photographs is to nurture hope.” By connecting these images to an Istanbul novel and alter-ego character that made the author famous in Turkey, Pamuk reminds us that the photographs are intertextual representations linked to his oeuvre. Among other intersections between image and text, the many seagulls and ferries in his Balkon photographs evoke the meditations in his nonfiction collection Other Colors, such as “Seagull in the Rain” and “Bosphorus Ferries.” Close readers of Pamuk will also realize the significance of the number 19. The number of photos in Balkon, 568, adds to 19 (five plus six plus eight), a number that appears throughout Pamuk’s work. Nineteen is the abjad numeral (or sum of the numerical values of letters) for the Arabic word wahid (vahit in Turkish), which means “oneness” in Sufi traditions of mystical Islam. Here, the photos symbolically unite the author, the city, and the literary text. They are all taken from the height of a minaret, literally as can be measured by the height of the two Cihangir Mosque minarets that appear in many images, which defines the divine perspective of the Islamic miniatures described in his novel My Name Is Red.

Large-scale exhibition formats of the photographs have been on display in Istanbul’s Yapı Kredi Art Gallery, an exhibition which will likely travel to the United States as well. Other renowned authors have recently opened exhibitions or published books of photography, notably Michel Houellebecqand Teju Cole (Blind Spot). Such photography at times mixes image and text, at others it documents travel. The literary eye is frequently drawn to archival aspects of photography. Of course, W. G. Sebald’s use of uncaptioned photography provides a sense of documentation and archival verisimilitude. J. M. Coetzee’s early photographs of apartheid South Africa reveal something of the context of his fiction — notably a haunting self-portrait of the author as an adolescent. Similarly, Eudora Welty’s snapshots reveal the lives of blacks in segregated Mississippi, among them the racist “pickaninny aesthetic” of two little black girls holding identical white baby dolls. And Lewis Carroll, whom Pamuk quotes three times in The Black Book, photographed the Liddell girls, including Alice and a recently discovered nude of Lorina.

In Balkon, Pamuk also relies on photography to provide historical and literary context as well as archival evidence. The photographs become part of the process of writing — the hidden act that Pamuk is engaged in while he clicks the shutter button to stop time. They constitute the nurturing negative space of the writing ritual. When we look at these arresting images of Bosphorus light exposing the cultural geography of Istanbul, we not only sense the multiple meanings of the word muse, but we also understand that image and text coexist as the lived duality of Pamuk’s literary modernity.

(Erdag Göknar directs the Duke University Middle East Studies Center. His most recent books include Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemyand Nomadologies: Poems. This review originally appeared in the May 19 edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books.)


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