A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now

James Robertson, Sebah & Joallier, Abdullah Frères, Murat German


The city now known as Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and most vibrant metropolis, has for centuries been a major cultural and economic hub. Under its many guises—first as Byzantium, then Constantinople, and finally Kostantiniyye or Istanbul as the Ottoman capital—this place has witnessed a succession of empires, the migration of peoples, and astounding urban growth.

The exhibition A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now documents the many faces of Istanbul through images captured more than a century apart; first from the 1850s to the 1880s, when Western photographers vied for the honour of bearing the Ottoman sultan’s official seal on their albums and panoramas, and second in the present day, as interpreted in stills by renowned contemporary photographer Murat Germen. The merging of both perspectives brings the city’s current urban transformation into startling focus.

Europe’s interest in Istanbul throughout the centuries in commerce, diplomacy, and military matters is well documented. As the passion for Orientalism and the lure of the exotic swept the West in the 19th century, more and more Westerners sought out Istanbul as subject matter for paintings, sketches, and photography. The exploration of the city of Istanbul through the lenses of Western photographers also piqued the interest of Ottoman sultans. Some of the royal albums commissioned by the sultans and created by photographers such as James Robertson, Sébah & Joaillier, and Abdullah Frères were used as diplomatic gifts, giving cosmopolitan Istanbul prominence within the empire and beyond. They were received as far away as North America, with albums preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Harvard University, which portray the Ottoman Empire during Sultan Abdülhamid II’s reign. Like the images in this exhibition, they depict monuments of the imperial capital ranging from historic Byzantine and Ottoman architectural landmarks to panoramic landscapes and urban scenes.

Istanbul enjoys a unique geographical position, straddling the continents of Asia and Europe. This makes the city particularly attractive for panoramic photography, a format practised by the prominent photographers of the day. In the second half of the 19th century, panoramas of Istanbul were typically shot from the Galata and Beyazıt towers using single glass negatives. Twelve separate photographs were created by adjusting the angle of the camera for each. The photographs were assembled side by side into a single segmented panorama, which later was mounted in sumptuous leather bindings. In A City Transformed, panoramas by Sébah & Joaillier shot from each tower are juxtaposed with new panoramas captured by Murat Germen in 2015 from precisely the same locations, inviting fascinating point-by-point comparison of both content and technique.

The 19th century images in A City Transformed are organized thematically, featuring not only the royal and civic architecture, including historical palaces and other monuments, but also the life of the city’s inhabitants who experience in their daily lives the perennial chaos of a rapidly transforming metropolis.

Murat Germen’s contribution to A City Transformed underscores this. His Istanbul is a megalopolis of more than 14 million people in an area of about 5,400 square kilometres. (By comparison, the Greater Toronto Area has about 6 million people in an area of approximately 7,000 square kilometres.) He depicts the character of a nostalgic, romantic city believed to be nearly lost as it experiences all of the congestion, unemployment, and housing issues that such density generates. Germen highlights the mixed feelings a contemporary artist harbours in relation to historical subjects. His works also reveal how new digital and printing technologies have offered inventive ways to express ideas through photography in various scales. In his work, Germen deals with the urban structure of the city, encouraging the viewer to see what lies beneath the surface of a photograph. “I take cityscape panoramas and compress them horizontally,” he notes. “But the compression scheme that I use … intertwines urban components into each other. It looks catastrophic in a way.”

The exhibition presents photography as an art, as a souvenir, and as experimentation. These photographs document Istanbul’s transformation from the capital of an early modern empire to a modern megalopolis. Their historical and evocative values demonstrate the relationship between Istanbul’s current society and its history, and emphasize its distinct urban character.

A City Transformed marks the first time that a selection of photographs from the acclaimed collection of Ömer Koç, the noted Turkish collector and art philanthropist, will be shared with North American audiences. Moreover, it introduces new works by Murat Germen created specifically for this exhibition, in some cases commissioned to respond to Koç’s collection of historical panoramas. Together these works bring two eras into vivid relief while connecting Toronto audiences to the global conversation about the pace—and the price—of urban development.

 

Organized by the Aga Khan Museum in collaboration with the Ömer Koç Collection, Istanbul

Curated by Filiz Çakir Phillip and Bahattin Öztuncay