Blog 43 21/11/2016 Constantinople Through the Eye of the Lens
Constantinople Through the Eye of the Lens: 19th c. Photographers.
I am often asked where I sourced my inspiration for “The Embroiderer”, especially Constantinople at the end of the 19th century. As a visual person I look towards old photographs. Photographs never lie, especially at a time when the written word was quite often biased. Bahattin Oztuncay’s “The Photographers of Constantinople: Pioneers, studios and artists from 19th Century Istanbul” was invaluable. This two-volume set is the story of how Constantinople became a Middle Eastern centre of photography. Oztuncay became interested in the history of photography, particularly in the Ottoman Empire whilst a student in Vienna. Istanbul has changed drastically since the 19th c. and the days when it was known to the rest of the world as Constantinople, but viewed as a collection, the photographs give us a sense of what life was like prior to the collapse of the empire. It was during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II that hanging portraits became a new novelty, especially in public buildings. This might seem commonplace to us now but in those days it was a revolutionary move. Mahmud was quick to understand the power of propaganda and reaching out to this subjects through portraiture and commissioned several artists to portray his image on everything from medals to diplomatic gifts.
The earliest known commercial daguerreotypes are thought to have been the work of a travelling French photographer by the name of “Kompa” in 1842. Around the same time, a German who called himself “Abresche” and who lived in the district of Galata started to take commissions. As Smyrna was the most important city after Constantinople, they also experienced a growing interest in the new art form and an article written in the 1842 issue of the Greek newspaper, “Philologia”, stated “…the daguerreotype art has lately become quite widespread in our city”. The invention of photography coincided with Orientalism and many early travellers to Constantinople were artists on their way to the Middle East with its exotic way of life and archaeological ruins combined with a growing middle-class wealth. It was inevitable that they saw the East through the Orientalist lens. The metropolises of Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Malta and the Middle East were magnets for this new invention.
Prior to the commercial photographers, in 1853, the engraver and die-maker, James Robertson, born in London in 1813, was appointed to modernize the imperial mint by Sultan Abdulmecid in 1841. As an engraver, he developed an interest in photography and embarked on a series of photographs which were later compiled into a book called “Photographic Views of Constantinople”. These photographs give a rare glimpse into an Ottoman world which up until then, still co-existed with the remnants of Byzantium. Byzantine walls, gates, monuments stand side by side alongside Ottoman mansions and fountains. Prince Albert, a promoter of the arts and new inventions, bought several of his photographs. Robertson’s studio was located at 293 Postacilar Sokagi in Pera until 1867. That same year he married Matilda Beato a woman born in Constantinople from a Levantine family. Together with his brother-in-law, Felice, he produced another book entitled “Jerusalem: Album Photographique de Robertson & Beato”. The address is still given as the Grande Rue de Pera. No 293. Along with the English photographer, Roger Fenton, in 1855 Robertson covered the Crimean War (1854-1855), the first war to be extensively covered by press correspondents. He and Fenton are ranked as being the first war photographers. There were others but these two seemed to have gained notoriety.
Ernest Eduorad de Caranza was a French engineer who also turned his hand to photography. Caranza was a specialist in gunpowder and was recruited to work in the Imperial Foundry. On his return to France, the French government awarded him the “Legion d’Honneur”. The following year the Ottoman court awarded him the Mecidi Order, fifth-class “…by virtue of the zeal and skill displayed by him in the promotion of the Ottoman Empire…”
Apart from Robertson and Caranza, the decades prior to and after The Great Fire of Pera (1870) and several other devastating fires, Constantinople saw a plethora of photographic studios opening up in the European area of Pera, most notably in the Grande Rue de Pera, the prestigious thoroughfare where the wealthy shopped in the new department stores for the most fashionable items of the day. When one reads the addresses – and those are only the ones that survive – it seems that almost every other building that wasn’t taken up by a department store or a couturier, was a photographic studio. Pera was also the place where the embassies, consulates and hotels were situated. Interestingly, apart from Pascal Sebah and Guillaume Berggren, most of them were either Armenian or Ottoman Greek, Abdullah Freres and Vassilaki Kargopoulo, both court photographers, being the most prominent.
Vichen (Vincent) Abdullah was an Armenian and the son of a silk merchant from Cappadocia who later converted to Islam and became known as Abdullah Şükrü. Because of this he was ostracized by the Armenian community. It is not clear whether his two brothers, Hovsep and Kevork who worked with him, also converted. His studio was situated opposite the Hotel d’Angleterre, a prime location in Pera. Advertisements for his business were printed in French, Turkish, Greek and Armenian, a reflection of the cosmopolitan world at the time. The Ottoman Empire consisted of a multitude of groups coexisting together yet which still retained their individual identity and language and all businessmen would have been proficient in languages. As an official state photographer, he gives us an insight into imperial life. His photographs were of women from the Imperial family are a breakthrough in that they feature women of such importance without the veil and in European dress. The Princesses Refia and Fatma were two of his customers and according to bills presented at the time, his services didn’t come cheap. Abdullah’s works, including his panoramic views of the city rank as some the finest of his day. When he died, his funeral was paid for by the Privy Purse and he was buried in a cemetery in Macka reserved for high-ranking individuals. Among the Pantheon of famous names he photographed was Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Germany and the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria on their way to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Vassilaki Kargopoulo, an Ottoman Greek, was also appointed as imperial photographer. His studios in Pera are listed as Place du Tunnel No. 4 and Grande Rue de Pera No 311 “en face Cafe Petersbourg”. Little is known of his early background but as with Vichen Abdullah, it appears that he also converted to Islam and kept it a secret. This was still an era when changing religions was frowned upon and like the Armenians, the Greeks would have considered it an act of betrayal which is probably why there are no burial records or death notices in the Orthodox Church records or newspapers. However, his death was recorded in the Ottoman newspaper “Tarik” and his funeral expenses paid for by the Privy Purse.
Pascal Sebah, son of a Syrian Melchite Catholic family, was a landscape and portrait photographer. His first studio was in Tom-Tom Street but he later moved to the Grande Rue de Pera and also had a third workshop in the Cicek Pasagi (Arcade of Flowers), now a tourist spot but which still retains a wonderful character of the Belle Epoch years. After Pascal’s death, Polycarpe Joaillier became a partner and changed the name to Sebah & Joaillier. During the years immediately following the end of the Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic, many areas and streets changed names and Sebah & Joaillier’s catalogue show them as being at No 439 Istiklal Caddessi ( the old Grande Rue de Pera) – “Salons et Ateliers au Premier Etage”.
Bogus Tarkulyan also known as “Phebus”, the Greek word for “radiant” was another prominent Armenian whose premises were located at No 310 Grande Rue de Pera above the Pygmalion store. Besides the usual family portraits, he appears to have made a name photographing military and naval personnel, operatic and theatrical artists. Like so many others, his earlier studio was destroyed in a fire. In 1905, members of an Armenian Revolutionary Secret Society attempted to assassinate Sultan Abdulhamid. 26 people were killed and twice as many injured. Tarkulyan handed over his photographs, possibly along with other photographers, and the plotters were identified. Photography had now found another use.
Other notable foreign photographers of the period were: Guillaume Beggrem, a Swede whose studio was called “Photographie Parisienne” was first situated over a piano shop in Tepebasi Street in Pera. He later moved to No 414 Grande Rue de Pera. And Arthur Fruchtermann, an Austrian publisher was famous for his postcards.
When it comes to Ottoman subjects, there were quite a few, the most notable being the following: “Gulmez Freres” – Armenian, located at No 305 Grande Rue de Pera; Nikolaos Andriomenas – an Ottoman Greek who moved from Beyazit to No 283 Grande Rue de Pera. Andriomenas was highly regarded within the Greek community and exhibited his photographic works in Athens in 1905. After his death in 1929, his son, Athanasios, continued the business until 1955, a period of intense troubles between Greeks and Turks and which resulted in many more Greeks leaving Turkey for good. His son moved to Athens. Regardless of the animosity between Greeks and Turks, the Turks held him in high regard and commented that “he served the city and Turkey well”. And we cannot conclude this eminent list –of which there are many more- without mentioning the Hungarian, Anna Guichard, a rare instance of a female professional photographer. She also worked in Athens during the 1860’s.
The list of photographers is are too many to mention here, suffice to say that one can see what a thriving metropolis Constantinople was towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. After The Great Fire of Pera of 1870, it is estimated that 8,000 buildings were wiped out and the death toll was put above 900. Some of Pera’s wealthiest families suffered. The Au Bon Marche Department Store, Armenian Patriarchate, several consulates and embassies including the British, a theatre, the Hotel Luxemburg, a church and the German Hospital were all burnt to the ground. Add to this the photographic studios, many of whom never recovered, and we can see just how much was lost. A new Pera was to grow out of the ashes and with it, new photographers established themselves equipped with the latest in photographic inventions. As the Empire moved forward into a world rocked by wars and revolutions, we are indebted to the early photographers for giving us a glimpse into a lost world.
“Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth Century Photography” edited by John Hanavy.
“The Photographers of Constantinople: Pioneers, studios and artists from 19th Century Istanbul” by Bahattin Oztuncay
“The Orient in Western Art” by Gerard Georges Lemaire
“Orientalism: Delacrox to Klee” by Roger Benjamin
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
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