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Constantinople, The Architecture Photographers of Constantinople
"It has been said in many books that inside Constantinople was ugly and filthy; this is wrong: every street corner has its landscape, each house its wonders and those who complained have not had the courage to confront the myriad paths of Stamboul..”
Maxime du Camp, Souvenirs and landscapes of the East (1848)
"The great bazaar of Stamboul is one of the sights that are worth seeing. it is full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces – and the only thing which one does not smell…, in the Great Bazaar is something which smells good.”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1862)
“…This Stamboul which I see in my dreams is strange to me, bigger, distorted, sinister; in haste I land in a fever to get to her, and a thousand things prevent me, and my anxiety increases as the time goes by…”
Pierre Loti, Fantôme d'Orient (1892)
In these three quotes du Camp, Twain and Loti pin down the contradictions that lured photographers to Constantinople in the 19th century. The city was cosmopolitan and exotic yet depraved and dangerous at the same time. Loti’s dream was Twain’s hellhole of noise and industry. It had splendid Greek, Christian and Muslim monuments rising above ruined streets. Newspapers like the London and New York Times diligently reported on the fragile diplomatic treaties set up between the European states and Constantinople but they knew that what really excited their readers’ imaginations were stories of Western women trapped in the harem, white slave rackets and naïve travelers disappearing forever in the maze of dimly lit streets. It wasn’t a city for the meek and easily upset but it was an ideal subject for photographers.
Some of the 19th century’s most famous photographers passed through Constantinople – du Camp, Roger Fenton, Gustave le Gray and Francis Frith for starters. Some stayed and established studios in the city, mostly in the two commercial centres, around the Rue de Pera (present day Istiklal) in the European quarter or across the Galata Bridge in Beyazit, close by the Grand Bazaar. Determining who was the first is difficult, not the least because Europeans were in the habit of adopting Turkish names as well as manners, but a French photographer named Kompa is mentioned as working around the Rue de Pera in 1840. Since none of his work apparently survives, he remains for the time being a rumour. One of the earliest we do have records for was Carlo Naya, who was advertising his services as a daguerreotypist on the Rue de Pera around 1845-46. He may have still been working in the city when James Robertson and then Felice Beato arrived in 1851 opened a studio together in Pera.
Robertson and Beato are the best known names among the early studio photographers of Constantinople. Robertson especially photographed the city assiduously and set a template for his successors. In a typical Robertson image an historic building or monument dominated the frame with light and shadow providing relief. Though he branched out into ethnographic portraits and panoramas of the Golden Horn, his most recognizable studies are of Islamic and Byzantine architecture.
We only have a rough idea how many photographers operated studios in Constantinople between 1860 and the turn of the century. Like any major city at the time it had its fly-by-nighters who set up a shop front and closed it weeks later, leaving no record of their existence. On top of that, Pera, where most of the buildings were built from timber, was prone to fires. One fire in 1870 destroyed several studios. Still, from the records we have it is clear that most studios in Constantinople were operated by non-Muslim citizens of the Ottoman Empire; Greeks and Armenians in particular. Among the Greeks we have names like Konstantinos Athanasiou, Basile Kargopoulo, Nicolas Andreomenos and D. Michaelides. Although they understood exactly what the European market wanted, their real legacy is that, because they were working primarily for their communities, they have left a record of the city’s inhabitants who were decidedly Western in dress and manners. Without them we could be forgiven for assuming everyone in Constantinople wore a veil, a turban or a fez.
The most significant photographers among the non-Muslim inhabitants were the Armenian Abdullah Freres and Pascal Sebah, the son of Syrian and Armenian Christian parents. Born in Constantinople in 1823, Sebah’s native understanding of the city gave him access to places denied to Europeans. He was one of the few for example given permission to photograph inside a mosque. He knew what imagery Europeans sought and supplied the usual clichés yet he was able to see beyond them. His archive includes the most thorough documentation of Constantinople in the 19th century, its back streets and other areas seldom visited by foreigners. By way of example, European visitors frequently wrote of the stray dogs lying about Constantinople’s streets as though they owned them yet Sebah was perhaps the only person to see the animals as essential to the character of the city and photograph them. His studio, ‘El Chark’, on Postacilar Sokak (Street of the Postmen) off Rue de Pera was reputedly the largest in the city.
Working from the mid 1860s to the 1890s,The Abdullah brothers, Viçen, Hovsep and Kevork, were as prolific as Sebah and like him were happy to exploit the European taste for oriental ethnography. Appointed court photographers by Sultan Abdül Aziz in 1863, the Abdullah Freres’ photographs of Constantinople incorporate a lot more social activities than the European photographers. In their images of public appearances by the Sultan, ceremonial processions and daily life of ordinary citizens they take a more recognizably documentary approach. It is common in their images for the people in the foreground to be as central to the composition as the buildings behind, an approach quite distinct from Robertson’s.
In 1876 Abdul Hamid II became Sultan. An amateur photographer himself, in about 1880 he commissioned the Abdullah Freres among others to document Turkey; it’s institutions, industries, the various cultures, architecture, musical instruments, more or less everything that was inherently Turkish. It’s largely thanks to his project that we know about some of the Muslim photographers in Constantinople, particularly Ali Riza Pasa. The photographs of Constantinople he took for the Sultan’s project take the same formalist approach as his predecessors though some, his most interesting, are almost entirely topographical, to the extent that significant monuments occupy a negligible place in the corner of the frame.
Although the European fascination with Constantinople didn’t wane, by the 1890s the market for photography was saturated. In 1895, Nicolas Andreomenos decided to strike out, give up portraiture and focus entirely on city views. The venture nearly bankrupted him. There were so many images of Constantinople floating about, originals and pirated copies, that he could scarcely sell a single print. An era had ended. He cut his losses and returned to the studio.