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.
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.