Foto Galatasaray in the Context of Female Identity

I met Foto Galatasaray over a year before the exhibition of the same name at SALT Galata, in Tayfun’s studio at the former Platform space. Tayfun’s rigorous research has yielded a project that strikes a delicate balance between completion and incompletion. The archive produces more meanings as time goes by, as the number of Istanbulites who engage with the archive grow and as the face of Istanbul continues to change. In order to treat Tayfun’s writing on this project with the same attitude and to extend the exhibition in time and space, m-est decided to publish all of Tayfun’s writing included in the book that accompanied the exhibition, published by Aras Yayincilik.

In this particular section, Serttaş touches on the importance of temporal particularity; while it is tempting to view Foto Galatasaray in our contemporary context—socially, culturally, politically—it is critical to situate Şahinyan, her images and her subjects, where they belong, removed from us in time and maybe space. Serttaş thus anchors contemporary artistic practices that employ visual archives—which include his own—not in reality per se, but in specificity.—Merve Ünsal

The true miracle of Foto Galatasaray is the magical experience that the modest studio left behind for the history of women. The eye behind the viewfinder is a woman, Maryam Şahinyan. The existence of this unexpected actor opens up the archive of Foto Galatasaray—uniquely positioned—to discussions of the history of photography. Photography, crowned as the most modern of all art forms since its inception, is in a contradictory relationship with the figure of the woman. The woman, positioned in front of the camera since the very beginning as an aesthetically beautiful object, never really went behind the camera. To begin, it is thus important to remember that not only studio photography, but all photography, was shaped within a uniquely patriarchical tradition. When the subject in question is the woman, she was not an eye that “looked,” but an object that was looked “at” for almost a hundred years, beginning this adventure imprisoned by a “pose” that was dictated to her.

When I heard that there was a woman who was a profesional studio photographer in the history of the Turkish Republic, the first question that came to my mind was whether Istanbul had a Julia Margaret Cameron that it meticulously hid from all of us. In the history of traditional photography, Cameron was almost the only one and if this story was true, how could it be that this female photographer was kept concealed? Was it that Maryam Şahinyan was also subjected to heavy technical criticisms for being a woman and preferred to take a step back? Was it that her photographs also had slight focus problems, minor nail marks and instantaneous refractions—hiding a deep, inherent relationship with artistic production? How could the identity and attitude of a studio be defined through the decisions of a female photographer? In that ominous moment when the photographer and the photographed are left alone with their instincts, whose role defined the scene that was to be staged? What kinds of privileges and coincidences would the female identity of the photographer add to that studio’s archive? Who won the struggle between the elegant hands of a woman and the large-format camera with a tripod that had thicker legs than the arms which carried it? Or are these elements that I’m considering not determinative at all? Was there a resource available on this topic? These were my first questions, foreshadowing many more to come, up until Maryam Şahinyan’s archive was reached and after all the images in the archive were analyzed, bringing into question her truly unique position. There were only a few examples, the history had not been written. This was an intriguging reference for not only Istanbul, but many Eastern European and Middle-Eastern cities surrounding Istanbul, through the particular position of this unique witness. We had a woman photographer whose archive had been fully preserved! More strangely, we did not know about it.

Today, Maryam Şahinyan’s 60-year photography career can easily be transformed into a feminist hero legend. But before approaching this period with today’s criteria, it’s helpful to look at the factors that shaped Şahinyan’s personal history and Foto Galatasaray in the context at the time. When thinking about Foto Galatasaray, it’s imperative to take into consideration the male-female division, rooted in early Ottoman lifestyle, extending into modernity. This traditionality founded on the distinction of spatial and instrumental criteria, specific to men and women, is the social ground on which Foto Galatasaray was founded. Thinking that Maryam Şahinyan had an interest in expanding the professional functions of women or that she wanted to add a new discourse to the feminist rhetoric would run the risk of creating prejudice. Thus, before identifying her position in the history of women, it is necessary to analyze the positioning of her female identity in that studio, under the specific and particular circumstances.

From the first technical inspection of the Foto Galatasaray archive, it was obvious that the majority of the subjects were women. What we were confronted with was a 10 to 1 ratio, an unrivaled difference when compared to other studios of the time. Considering the cultural circumstnaces, it was inevitable for this modest studio to become important for women, as female clients could not easily communicate with male photographers nor could they comfortably pose for them. Many female clients could easily pose for Maryam Şahinyan using all their facial experessions, baring their shoulders, leaving their hair down and sometimes, posing in their underwear. We are certain that the photographer being female gave many women the trust to casually come in and out of this studio. The principles of this sociological exchange between women goes far back, based on unwritten rules. When approached from this angle, it is crucial to underline that Foto Galatasaray was in perfect harmony with the conservative conditions of the time. The female identity of Maryam Şahinyan was advantageous when defining her portfolio of clients. On the other hand, we cannot deny her unique position in the history of women—she helped her father in the same studio as a child, leaving her education unfinished to pursue photorgraphy, supporting her whole family through the photographs she sold for a few pennies, never getting married.

Maryam Şahinyan is remembered as having a rigid disposition. With her short hair, the black apron she wore when she was working to keep her clothes clean, her white sleeves, she was witnessing an intense Beyoglu history as she worked in her studio by herself, while writing a story of resistance. Separating herself from the few female studio photographers in the history of photography, she was the only one who sustainably pursued photography for all her life. Maryam Şahinyan did not pursue a hobby in that studio for sixty years; she carried the unattributed responsibility of her profession. To my knowledge, she was never rewarded for this struggle. Today, with what remains of her and her sixty years, knowledge is being produced in visual history, from a male perspective. She compensates for what we neglected to record. For this miraculous compensation, we now owe a huge thanks and an apology to Maryam and her female friends…
—Tayfun Serttaş

Previously published on m-est:
Foto Galatasaray in Three Different Contexts
Two Introductions to Foto Galatasaray
Foto Galatasaray: Anti-memory

Publishing House : Aras Yayınclık
Languages : Turkish – English
Translation: Merve Ünsal
ISBN : 978-605-5753-25-2
Book Properties : Coated Paper, 22×25 cm.
Edition Date : 328 pages, 928 Illustrations, 1st edition, November 2011
Design: Eray Makal

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