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Tony Maniaty


In Istanbul: Ara Güler’s Kafe

The history of the world is the sum of the lives of everyday people, the atoms of this world. It was this magnificent world that Ara Güler sought to preserve. Bishop Sahak Maşalyan, at Ara Güler’s funeral on October 20th 2018, in Istanbul…

The day after I arrived, a terrorist attack killed six people. Istanbul: East and West, Asia meets Europe, the clash and blending of cultures. And the beloved home of Ara Güler, the legendary Turkish/Magnum photographer who documented this fabulous city over a lifetime, and died four years ago at 90. (Kidney failure and on dialysis, but he kept going.) The locals called him ‘The Eye of Istanbul’ because his focus was on the city he was born in and captured with absolute devotion. And what photographs! Even the word ‘timeless’ seems too short, too brief: these were eternal images. The cobbled streets, the smoking workers and street kids, the ferries plying across the Bosporus. All captured in monochromatic magic with a battered Leica and a pocket full of film. The pure joy of it.

And what remains? A body of incomparable work, without which Istanbul – as we know it, imagine it, dream it – might not exist; for so much has changed here, even between visits. Now it’s all big brands, fashion labels, design; seven years ago, my last stay, it wasn’t so globalised but expanding rapidly. When I first came in 1984, it was a city locked in some enigmatic past, a strange blend of Orientalism and Modernism, the ideals of Atatürk buoyed by hopes for greatness.

And now bomb blasts, uncertainty.

The times are fragile but Güler gave us permanence, a set of images so strong they defy the passing of time, the terrorists, even the passing of Güler. (He who hated being called an artist – ‘I don’t do art’ – preferring ‘photojournalist’, an archivist recording life as it exists.)

Today I make my way uphill – this district, Beyoğlu, is nothing but hills – to the Ara Kafe, which Güler opened long ago and where his photographs adorn the walls, and his memory lingers. At three in the afternoon, it’s almost empty, allowing me to reflect on Güler’s graphic images, always of this city. The shooter who captured celebrities – Picasso, Churchill, Hitchcock, Dali, for Life, Time, Paris-Match, Stern – invariably returned to these crowded, muddy streets. I sip my Turkish coffee, eat lokum. Every image triggers memories of others; his documentation of Istanbul is seamless and never-ending. A passion, an obsession, or both? Güler was no Proust in search of lost time, of nostalgia. Here, his work becomes image-time itself.

How many great photographers open a café, a meeting place? Maybe only one.

Güler and Istanbul, inseparable.

Tony Maniaty


Kafe Ara, İstiklal Caddesi Tosbağa Sokak 2/A, Beyoğlu, İstanbul

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