Editor’s Note: We were saddened to learn that the great photographer Ara Güler died in Istanbul, age 90, on October 17, 2018. Here is an article we published about him and his work in 2009. You can read a remembrance of him in the New York Times.
Istanbul, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, stands at the intersection of a multitude of cultures, religions and languages. At once modern and traditional, it’s a city that has fascinated and intrigued visitors for centuries.
Ara Güler (born 1928) is a native “Stamboulite”, who has been documenting his home city’s cultural and domestic life since the 1940s. Initially a reporter for TimeLife, Paris Match and Stern, as well as Turkish dailies and magazines, he has been a member of Magnum Photos since meeting Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1961.
In the early years of the 1950s Turkey underwent profound political and transformation along with much of the Mediterranean. Ara Güler is the leading figure in a generation of Turkish photographers whose pictures raised awareness of their extraordinary country abroad. He bore witness to these changes, photographing Istanbul, Anatolia, the country’s villages and magnificent archeological sites, assembing a rich and diverse body of work in which the uniting thread is the “human factor”: attention, respect, a certain compassion, accompanying always the wish to bear witness to the conditions of live and work for everyday people.
His images of Istanbul similarly demonstrate his deep love of the city and its inhabitants. They are a portrait of a city in constant movement, day and night, crossed and recrossed by activity on land and water, in the labyrinth of small streets in the older quartiers, as well as on the major arteries of the town centre and Golden Horn.
Ara Güler’s Istanbul, melancholy and fog-shrouded, is illuminated not by the ostentatious remnants of the Ottoman Empire, but by streetlights lit at nightfall, the reflections from rainy pavements, the headlights of cars climbing the hill toward Beyoglu, and the lights from ferries along the Bosphorus. This Istanbul is full of stories, of references to literature, painting and cinema, fields in which he has many friends. Güler says, “Our world was created by artists: I looked for them everywhere and took their photographs”. Marvelous portraits of Chagall, Calder, Bill Brandt, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Fellini, Bertrand Russel, Yasar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk, are in his archives, revealing a further aspect of his work and talent. Güler also travelled throughout the world, from Kazakhstan to Papua New Guinea via Iran, India, Kenya.
Today, Ara Güler prefers to stay close to home. Affable and charming, he travels nowadays via the visitors who travel to see him from all over the globe. From the Ara Café, a café on the ground floor of his childhood home, he watches, amused as the world swirls around him, complete with a neverending stream of visitors, even as his fame and continues to grow.