Two introductions to Foto Galatasaray

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.

We first published Anti-Memory, Tayfun’s apt introduction to the project—an archive of photographs that exposes and confronts the lack of memory and becomes an antagonizing force. Below are the two introductions written by two people who are intimately involved with the project. Karin Karakaşlı elaborates on Foto Galatasaray through a very personal, first-person narrative; her experience as a subject in photography studios sheds light on the behind-the-scenes of Maryam’s work as the reader is drawn into the narrative of what happened before and after these images. Karakaşlı’s narrative invites the readers to participate in this intimate process and the images transcend the condition of being social and cultural artefacts. Vasıf Kortun’s text contextualizes this archive in the context of research-based, artistic, institutionally supported practices. What does it mean to allow the interjection of an artist in urban history, in the unfortunate absence of a pluralistic writing of history? What are the responsibilities shouldered by the artist, as an individual and a cultural producer, and the institution that opens its new space with such a project? Anticipating maybe SALT’s own institutional responsibility, Kortun frames Tayfun’s project within the newly founded parameters of SALT.
—Merve Ünsal 

Indivisible singleness, crowded loneliness
For Maryam and Tayfun
—Karin Karakaşlı

When I was growing up, my mother would take me to Foto Atlantis on my birthdays. I remember very vividly, when I was four, five, the hellish moments of fear in the dark studio, the lights that appeared over my head and Master Keğam who would disappear behind that odd instrument. I would call this calm man who would also document my teary moments, Keğam Dayday, meaning “Uncle Keğam.” We could also call this a call for help—the sound of “a” extended to eternity. This calling would foreshadow crying fits that would end in sobs. But was it possible for Keğam Dayday to have mercy? He would give me one of the toys that he saved for moments of emergency. I would look at the horse that would rock back and forth where I put it, sniffing. There was no solution, that streak of lightning would explode. And they would say the same thing again, “Don’t move!”

In later years, I learned to love this family ritual. When I was in mischievous poses, Keğam Dayday would frequently come out from under the machine’s cloth and walk over to where I was. He would often adjust my head to the right or left and lift up my chin. What remains from him is precisely that touch—of his thin, skilled hands.

What does a person do when they are most affected by something? They immediately bang it into fragments of their own story. When I stepped into the universe of Maryam Şahinyan’s photographs, I immediately thought of the moments I spent with Master Keğam. All of a sudden, with a bang… Foto Atlantis should also have an archive, of course. What happened to these photographic records when the shops closed?

Realizing that the Armenians were involved in photography since the times of the empire, what was suprising about Maryam Şahinyan’s being a photographer was not that she was Armenian, but that she was dedicated to this profession as a woman and that she stubbornly spent half a century in that studio, starting in 1935.

Could you even dare to imagine the photographs that were made possible in Galatasaray—a most cosmopolitan neighborhood of Istanbul—for over fifty years? Furthermore, imagining that this change could exist between an ottoman and a wood chair. How many people would sit on an ottoman for over fifty years, how many people would stand next to that ottoman? It is thus that the ottoman and the chair become coordinates; they define the latitutude and longitute of life.

Maryam is obviously not a judgmental woman. She made those sitting across from her comfortable. Maybe this is why I liked her so much. In 1971, a young hippie woman who tied her tight shirt right under her breasts, wearing bell-bottom pants, celebrating freedom, would be followed by a modest, conservative family portrait. It is obvious that they just came to the city from the countryside. The woman has an embarassed smile. She is holding on to her purse tightly. Her long, flowered skirt is her best outfit. On her feet are shoes that are worn-out but recently polished.

Maryam really likes long hair. She lets young brides’, little girls’ hair down on their shoulders like capes. It is as if she whispered a secret into their ears, “Don’t hide this beauty, love this thick hair.” The hair is thus transformed into a part of the outfits and a precious jewel. And the women whose hair has been appreciated start to look different. They like the selves that they see at that moment, as they are, however they are.

Across from me is a woman, with a cigarette in her hand, lying on the ottoman. How did Maryam know that this woman could lie on the couch as such? Or this upright man… Did Maryam also tell him to look like that, to stand like that?

I really wish I could touch that wooden chair just once. It is a chair that has seen a lot, that has a karma. It is a harbor of life where a lot of lives have come and gone. Babies have either sat on that chair or they stood up. Some of the women are barely sitting on the chair, some men are leaning back comfortably. When there are crowded families, the chair becomes almost invisible. There are some who stand awkwardly, indecisively, between the chair and the ottoman, putting a shy hand on the back of the chair, exposing this chair in its full glory.

Maryam loves siblings. She poses them with their heads leaning towards each other. You can trace the genetic history in this geography of faces. Where does one end, where does one begin. You learn about the sustainability of life through those siblings.

Maryam loves the different possibilities offered by life. Priests, nuns, patriarchs, archbishops have given themselves over to her able hands. Looking at it from one perspective, the photographs constitute an archive of spiritual figures. Istanbul’s truly cosmopolitan diversity is fully manifest in the thousands of images, probably due to Maryam’s position in the city as well as the trustworthiness she must have exuded. Children who were baptized and circumcised, students of schools for the minorities, Levantines, Greeks, Armenians, Jews flow before your eyes. The saddest and most magical thing is this: you deduce these things from the details in the photographs yourself.

The studio’s record book is lost, there is no name nor notes available. You find the people yourself, shrouded in ambiguity. Possibilites of life, lost.

Maryam loves brave, natural people. She takes pictures of families, but each family is posed differently in the photographs. In a photograph dated 1980, a woman is sitting in her husband’s lap with their son next to them. I stare.

Maryam opens up herself and her lens to other lives. There is a woman who is wearing an equesterian outfit, looking proud and there are military officers, in their brand new uniforms. There are women who posed in their bikinis and underwear; there are artists from groups of ballet dancers or performance troupes.

Maryam loves little girls. One of her favorite poses is to have them put one foot in front of the other, standing up, holding their bell-shaped skirts. How many of these girls are there over fifty years, somewhere between angels and butterflies? I can’t know, it would take a life time to look at, classify and organize all of Maryam’s photographs.

There is another pose where flower girls hold up their flared skirts on two sides. There are women who pose in front of panoramas, in long skirts.

What is the secret behind these poses? Is it the search for the content, despite the flow of time? On the karmic chairs are women who look like they are about to get up, followed by roughnecks surrounded by their crew. A young man has his jacket over his shoulders. Did Maryam put that there?

Maryam loves confrontations. She insists on having women faced with mirrors. The women’s images deepen in the mirror. I can’t say they are multiplied for certain actually. They are just deepened, increased. I can make eye contact with the woman who is staring at the mirror directly. Another has her head tilted in front of the mirror. I watch the woman who is bent over, looking at herself.

The photographs are examplary stories of demographic changes. After a point, there are five-in-one gold coins instead of cross necklaces. Insteaf of men wearing fedoras and coats, with gelled hair, there are man wearing their best jacket, reserved for bayrams, with their hair parted from the side and combed moustaches—timid men from Anatolia. Instead of women with fur-collared coats, silk gloves, hats with wide rims, tulles, scarves, there are women with head scarves, flower-patterned dresses, pants and jackets. Maryam accepts life as it is. Thus, everyone is in their most beautiful form that they would like to present to the world. This effort in and of itself liberates the stock poses.

I’m thinking about who Maryam would look at in a flowing crowd? Was there anyone that she couldn’t stop looking at? I decide on a beautiful man who was in a most unexpected photograph. In his poses are an intimacy, a sharing, which are just different. This young man has a shining smile, thick hair, warm, childish eyes, a lean body—image of a mortal immortal. It is as if he posed with anyone, whenever Maryam wanted. And Maryam knew this uniqueness.

I look for my own mortal immortals. My grandmother and my grandfather… They also have warm poses, leaning on each other, similar to the young couples’ poses in Maryam’s pictures. They were taken by others, but I keep thinking that I’m going to happen on their photographs in Maryam’s archive. It must be that this pose belongs to this era; it is a common taste that doesn’t start nor end with Maryam. I hear Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s timeless, spaceless poetry when I look at these people.

I’m neither inside time,
Nor completely outside;
A large, single moment
In the undisrupted flow.

These photographs are all indivisible singlenesses. They are fragments of life within themselves. I remain with a sense of loneliness. It is a feeling of loneliness among crowds. Maybe it is the same feeling that Maryam had when she closed the doors to her studio and went to her house. Maybe it is the photographs’ struggle to remain independent, to exist outside of the photographer and the subjects.

In the color of a dream
Every shape is numbed,
Even the feather drifting in the wind
Is not as light as I am.

Even us—showered with images every day—used to the modern times… We are fooled by the unique crowdedness of these photographs. We are looking at frozen moments, at times that will never flow by in the same way. Those times were the most natural for some, it was an unquestioned and known way of life. At one point, our indispensable photographs will be dispersed into the whirlpools of objects, destined for places we cannot even predict. Looking at frozen moments reminds one of death. This is where that feeling of indivisible singleness comes from. That stark reality where there isn’t even anything to fear. The soul calms down with this realization.

My head advising silence
The eternal mill;
Inside me has reached my wish
A bare-backed dervish.

Everyone spins on their own axis. Then they feel peccable circles in their lives. That realization triggers a decision. In hand, old photographs. What should be done? Unknown roads are taken with the fatal force derived from old photographs. You put up the photograph of an older family member that you feel close to or that of someone you don’t know but feel a soul affinity for, on your bedstand. You have a new beginning, inspired.

An ivy whose root I have
Is the world, I can feel it.
Blue light
In which I swim.

When I close my eyes, I see tens of people on that chair and ottoman, flowing in front of my eyes, like a sequence from a movie. Then I see myself. I’m in Maryam Şahinyan’s studio. Maryam takes off the hair pins from my hair. She brushes my hair for a long time. When was the last time someone else brushed my hair? I’m numbed. I direct myself towards the chair, she stops me. “You go on this ottoman.” She gently pushes me to the back. I’m wearing a long black dress. She fixes the skirt, the hems, the collar. She makes me cross my arms over the ottoman, I lean my head against my arms. Her head appears for one second from behind the camera. She brings that mirror to my side. From the opposite side is a woman with her head leaning on her arms. She turns my head to the right a bit and lifts up my chin. “That’s it, stay like this.”

I stare into the lighting that strikes.
—İstanbul, June 2011.

The archive cannot wait
—Vasıf Kortun

The archive of Maryam Şahinyan is neither the first personal collection of material SALT Research has been involved with nor is it likely to be the last. The particular case of Şahinyan demands uniquely different approaches to archiving, as should be the case for the transfer of any mass data from one habitus to another.  This includes considerations such as how to handle material that seems inevitable to its owner and at best quirky to most archivists, how best to form relationships between sections of the archive, and to understand how unique ecologies are inverted, re-sorted and re-configured in this transfer. Much is compromised when archive organizers loose the delicate negotiation between pre-existing generic ordering procedures and the idiosyncratic discipline of a particular set of material. New international standards, EU standards, and in general professional standards try to bring order to what can essentially remain happily in disorder.

Archives are too valuable to be categorically entrusted to institutions that preserve them in the name of public good. Such authors are handed the license to manipulate and monopolize archival discourse under the guise of scientific methods. They can comfortably perform arrogantly by keeping information from the public eye by citing their lack-of-readiness. Who bestows them the authority to do so? Certainly there is more to it than sheer custodianship or academic clout.

Institutions tend to open archives only when the pertinent issues they could divulge have lost vitality and their potential transformative energy. Nostalgia is a victor mourning for the vanquished, and those who offer archival material as nostalgia acquire immense cultural prestige. But, it is not merely enough to watch, or be a witness to a moment, a person, or a time disappearing. In a particularly biting scene in “Sweet Movie” the director Dusan Makveyev inserts abruptly a scene of documentary footage taken by the Nazis in 1943.  It is of the exhumation of bodies in the Katyn Forest; the 10,000 Polish officers massacred in 1939 by Soviet soldiers, an event blamed on the Nazis. The footage ends with a text: “Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never.” These words were written on February 11, 1944 to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign minister, by Sir Owen O’Malley, British Ambassador to Poland. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin decided never to speak of this mass murder. But, the corpse is a protagonist, and history does not hold much meaning unless its story is also recast to the future. It is often the Institution’s very own agenda, the way it broadcasts, the way it performs the archive that we watch so attentively. Many a good institution along with the rise of an online Cultural Commons are putting dent in what used to be this smooth, unquestioned space occupied by self-appointed gate-keepers.

In İstanbul, the Maryam Şahinyan Archive had been asleep, waiting to be surfaced and made meaning of for nearly a quarter of a century under the custodianship of Yetvart Tomasyan who rescued hundreds of boxes of photographs from being dumped in the alleyway garbage in front of Sahinyan’s studio Foto Galatasaray. This opening tale is an all too common story of a time when liquidation by financialization was not yet an option. Nostalgia-tourism had not yet hit its high-time in auctions, supported by hordes of dealers and archive peddlers who could see no harm tearing whole archives apart with the knowledge that divestiture produces a more profitable competitive market. Dealers also know that it is easier to sell under the radar to many individuals and many places rather than selling a whole archive to a major institutional caretaker. Fortunately, the Maryam Şahinyan Archive was in good hands and it remained complete. Here is a moment when patrimony does matter and excels as a good thing!

The next phase of the story sees the archive move on to Tayfun Serttas, an artist, activist and a researcher. Serttas had proven more than his worth with his meticulous research and publication project on the photographer Osep Minasoğlu [Stüdyo Osep] even if the practice and positioning of Maryam Şahinyan and Osep were worlds apart.

Little was known about Şahinyan, she looked like a diligent, no frills studio photographer with a methodological use of props and sets, poses and gestures that she employed with the rigor and precision of a conceptual artist. It was not possible to extract her presence from anecdotes, memories, or photographs. There were no stories to be retold, no sharp edges to be unearthed. She was a loner, who worked, and lived a quiet life in her own way. She was in essence indiscernible.

Maryam Şahinyan’s Foto Galatasaray was not as well known as other studios such as Foto Sabah or Foto Süreyya not to mention their 19th Century predecessors like Sebah et Joallier or Abdullah frères. Other than four ID card photographs of herself, Sahinyan was invisible, hidden behind a camera for a good fifty years processing over 200,000 images during this time. Her position appears neutral and yet how will the archive speak to the ethnic, social and economic transformation of her subjects?  How will it tell the story of the shift from the commemorative, painterly, democratic group portrait to the un-ordained passport photograph? How did her customer base shift? Can the archive be read as a map as it traces certain voids of communities such as those that are known to have occurred with the introduction of the property tax law in 1942 aimed at obliterating business that was not ethnically Turkish; the formation of the State of Israel in 1948; the government provocation triggering the lynches and lootings of 6 – 7 September, 1955; the military intervention in North Cyprus in 1974; or the opposite – a surplus of peoples from the unwavering exodus that moved from Anatolia into Istanbul? In the future, will dancers and performance artists produce work that mimics the body language and postures of the subjects Sahinyan shot? Will designers learn from the provincial creativity of the dresses and suits worn by her sitters? Will friends and kin or even the subjects themselves recognize themselves in their first communion, graduation or wedding? Will the onlookers be left speechless, angry, humiliated, joyful, or humored?

Early on in this process, Serttaş approached SALT to participate in the research of the archive and act as the partner institution for the development of the project. Initially and instinctively, SALT entrusted Serttaş with the composition of the archive and positioned itself only as a support structure, allowing the process to unfold and pursue its own natural course without an overly controlling position taking hold.  SALT did not want to “own” the archive, far from it, the archive should neither be propertied nor completed. In fact, for all its worth, the only true value of an archive lies is in its future use. Nothing more, nothing less. In effect all those involved wanted to learn the archive, learn from the archive and for the archive to learn itself again. SALT chose to participate in a more speculative, open-ended, gay, passionate and post-academic research that was at the same time deadly serious and resolute.

There are several roles that Serttaş as the interlocutor took on: the scientific restorer who cleaned, stabilized, digitized and digitally restored with his assistants many thousands of images for nearly two years; a researcher of the life and times of Maryam Sahinyan; an artist who has for the exhibition inventoried novel scenes of looking at the images and invented new narratives; and an activist who has mobilized the power of these images to tell a devastating tale of the lost communities of Istanbul.

After the publication of this book, and the realization of the Maryam Şahinyan Archive exhibition, the protagonists will not solely remain Maryam Sahinyan, Tayfun Serttaş or SALT, and the archive will not solely remain in the care of fact-obsessed academics. Instead, it will be opened online to the tagging and identifying of the photographed subjects by relatives and acquantainces, researchers and users.

Previously published on m-est:
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