A Chance Encounter with the Eye of Istanbul


Ara Güler is Turkey’s most renowned photographer, and indeed, one of its most celebrated artists. The son of an Armenian pharmacist, he was born in 1928. As a photojournalist, he visited Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kenya, and New Guinea, and took portraits of famous figures such as Salvador Dali, Winston Churchill, Sophia Loren, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pablo Picasso. However, Güler is most known for photographing the sights, landscapes, and people of Istanbul between the 1950s and 1990s. In half a century of documenting the neighborhoods and streets of his hometown, he captured over 800,000 images that now serve as a historical record of a city which was - and still is - in the midst of great upheaval and change. Due to his work, Güler came to be known as “the Eye of Istanbul.”

I love the city and I enjoy photography, so I happened to stumble upon Güler’s work when I first studied abroad in Istanbul four years ago. I clearly remember poring over his black and white photographs; amazed at how much the city has changed but also surprised at how much of its character remains eternal. It brings me great joy to get lost in his images, to recognize a street corner or the name of a neighborhood, and to notice the details, small and large, that have changed the city landscape over time: a pedestrian overpass near the Egyptian Bazaar that is no longer there, the horse-drawn carriages that have since vanished, the missing roof of the Galata Tower that was replaced long ago, the dozens of fishing boats in the docks of the Golden Horn that have now been replaced with ferries. To know the city and to study Güler’s photographs is to take a stroll through the decades, to another time and place now lost to the tides of history. In a recent documentary on his work, Güler seems to embrace this idea: “they call me a photographer, imagine that! Son, I am a historian. I record history.”

Having appreciated Güler’s work for quite some time, I kept seeing him everywhere I went. This summer, I worked at a Turkish university with my girlfriend, Shelby. Every couple of days, we would visit the campus bookstore, and each time, we could not help but admire a coffee table book of his photographs, simply entitled “Ara Güler’s Istanbul.” I showed Shelby the book, and she immediately took to it. Her first time in Istanbul, she got to know the city better and better over time, and already she was able to recognize many of the locations in the photographs. The book, full of black and white photos of Istanbul in the 1950s and 60s, effuses nostalgia, and it drew us both in. After some deliberation, Shelby convinced me we should buy it, and we split the cost. It was the perfect purchase to celebrate our time in Istanbul, our upcoming year of travel, and our admiration for photography.

A week later, we were perusing a bookstore in the middle of Istiklal, the main pedestrian street in Istanbul. Flipping through a magazine, I started to read an article about an American who lived in Turkey for several decades and wrote books and guides about Istanbul. The article mentioned Ara Güler’s work in passing: as luck would have it, the Ara Güler Photography Museum would open on August 16 - Güler’s 90th birthday - in an area called Bomontiada. I turned towards Shelby to share the news. We looked at each other and smiled. How perfect was it that just a week after purchasing the coffee table book, we happened to be in town for the opening night of his museum? We immediately had the same idea: we would go to the opening night, visit his museum, and attempt to get our beautiful new coffee table book signed by the man himself. The odds were low, but it would be worth a shot. At the very least, it would be a good story to tell.

So on August 16, we dressed up in our nicest clothes, brought along our book, and took a taxi straight to Bomontiada. We were with my old friend Louis, who was visiting from Paris for about ten days. We tried to get in to the exhibit, but evidently they won’t just let anyone off the street into the Eye of Istanbul’s museum on opening night. We had to be on the guest list. Slightly disappointed, but not completely surprised, we sat down at a nearby bar facing the museum, waiting for the man of the hour to arrive. Maybe we would still have a chance if we could catch him on his way in. Shelby clutched a green pen with the book open to the page we wanted him to sign, and we waited eagerly. As we slowly nursed our beers and anticipated his arrival, the crowd of Istanbul intelligentsia gathered in the square to mingle and share a few drinks. After about an hour, we noticed a commotion. As we looked over, we saw Mr. Güler sitting on a wheelchair, being pushed in through the crowd. He disappeared into the museum about as soon as we saw him; the people rolling the wheelchair understandably didn’t want the nonagenarian mobbed by giddy admirers like ourselves. A little more disappointed, but still not completely surprised, we accepted our fate, finished our beers, and headed back home.

A few days later, it was time for my friend Louis to leave Istanbul. Shelby and I accompanied him to his bus to go to the airport. Louis would be going to Nice, where my parents were living. In order to save us time and money, he kindly offered to take the coffee table book himself, and drop it off to my parents when he was in Nice. Not wanting to deal with shipping the book, we happily took him up on his offer. We said our goodbyes, he boarded the bus, and then he was back on his way to France.

Immediately after seeing Louis off, Shelby mentioned she needed to use the bathroom, so we stopped at the nearest hotel. We entered the Point Hotel Taksim, just a block away from the bus stop. Shelby went to find the ladies’ room and I sat down in the lobby to bide my time. Looking around the lobby, I immediately noticed a collection of large, black and white photographs of Istanbul from the 50s and 60s. They were all Güler’s. Intrigued, I walked around to examine the photographs, and noticed a book by the reception desk. As it turns out, the hotel had partnered with Ara Güler to exhibit his photos in all the common areas, and to showcase one large photo in each room. All in all, over 300 Güler photos were displayed throughout the hotel. The hotel owner had commissioned a book to celebrate the partnership with the artist, and in the book, Güler explained the story behind each of the photographs displayed in the hotel. When Shelby got back from the bathroom, we read the entire book from front to back, and shared a laugh about how he kept randomly popping up in our lives. We had just sent Louis off with the book we had bought, and somehow, five minutes after seeing him off, we stumbled into a Güler-themed hotel.

In the introduction of the hotel’s book there was a biography about Güler: how he originally studied theatre before dropping that for photography, how he hung out with budding artists in his high school years, how he met Henri-Cartier Bresson in the 60s. What was most interesting to us was an exceptionally revealing tidbit: there was a street not too far away named “Ara Güler Street,” which was the street where he had grown up, and the three-story apartment where he spent his childhood was now converted into the “Ara Café.” Shelby and I exchanged looks again, and we agreed: we would go check out the cafe. We wanted to go see where he grew up, and besides, we kept stumbling upon random directives ushering us to go see his work. We put the book back at reception, and started wondering the Istanbul backstreets towards Ara Güler Street.

We arrived after about 20 minutes. It was in the complete middle of Istanbul, right where Istiklal bends in half, across the street from the famous Galatasaray Lisesi, a prestigious French-curriculum high school for the wealthy elite. Sure enough, we spotted the apartment building-cum-coffeeshop ahead. Ara Café is a nice establishment - it has vines growing around the signage, relaxing music, and plenty of outdoor seating for its patrons. We walked towards the café, pointing out the many black and white photographs hanging inside.

Suddenly, we noticed an old man with white hair hunched over in a wheel chair, chatting with a few friends and playing backgammon.

I could not believe my eyes. We had stumbled upon Ara Güler himself - the Eye of Istanbul. The man sitting before us was a living legend, Turkey’s most famous photographer, Istanbul’s foremost documentarian. It seemed that for weeks, we had been unwitting participants in an unintentional scavenger hunt, and we happened to stumble upon the prize.

We sat down right behind Güler and marvelled in hushed tones at the irony. Less than two hours beforehand, we had dropped off our coffee table book with Louis, never thinking we would get another chance to see the famed photographer. All of a sudden, we happen upon him. What are the odds? We bit our nails nervously. Should we buy another book? The first one wasn’t cheap - and do we really need a second copy? What if he doesn’t sign it? And what about shipping it home? After a little back and forth, we decided, fuck it. We’re buying another book.

Shelby ran off to get another copy - bookstores are plentiful on nearby Istiklal Street - and I waited discretely behind a man whose work I had been admiring for years. My job, if he and his entourage were to leave, would be to distract them long enough for Shelby to get back with the book.

After a few long minutes, she came back with a brand new copy in hand. We breathed heavily; we were nervous! We had been discussing and admiring this guy’s work for quite some time. We had missed him at the opening of his museum, and we really wanted him to sign our book. Now, we were totally caught off guard by the chance encounter.

So, how are we going to do this? We discussed our roles. Pointing out that Shelby was more charming than I was, and that she probably had less of a chance of rejection, she agreed to take the lead. Shelby would ask him to sign the new copy, and she would also do most of the talking. I would just try not to make an ass out of myself.

We stood up and approached the table, book in hand. He looked up at us, and one of his friends motioned for us to hand him the book. “Good evening Mr. Güler. Do you speak English?” Shelby asked, placing the book on the table.

“Of course I speak English!” he exclaimed, his voice raspy with age, like an argumentative cobweb. We smiled. His friend opened the book up to one of the first few pages and placed it in front of Mr. Güler.

“Ah, this is my most beautiful book,” he remarked. We beamed with pride.

“We know you had a birthday a few days ago,” Shelby remarked. “Happy birthday!”

“Thank you,” he said, as he picked up the sharpie. One of his friends gave us a piece of paper and instructed us to write down our names, so we wrote down: “Shelby” and “Greg.”

Mr. Güler looked at the piece of paper and began slowly scribbling in our book, his hands shaking in concentration.

“We went to your museum the other day,” I said, trying to make small talk.

“Did you like my photos?” he asked, an ever so sly smile creeping across his face. Of course, we responded. We didn’t feel it was worth mentioning that we never actually went inside.

When he finished signing, he thanked us, closed the book, and then handed it back. We thanked him, and sat back down at our seats. Like little kids on Christmas, we flipped open the book to see what he had written. It read:

DEAR SHELBY GREG

MERHABA

Our book was signed! However, there was no signature, and no name. Shelby and I exchanged glances. She turned around once more. “Thank you for writing our names,” she said. “But Mr. Guler,” she smiled, “you forgot to sign your name!”