PPM, Anatolia, Turkey 1956
Pera Museum Exhibition Catalogue
Yıldız Moran in Solitude
The twelve years encompassing the period (1950-1962) Yıldız Moran took photographs can be considered as one of the times in which political history had a profound impact on the definition of photography. In the early 1950s, the world was still dressing the wounds of World War II. Following the emergence of genocide photographs from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as the United States, struggling with the Jim Crow laws, maintained cultural diplomacy, its soul searching led to the exaltation of photojournalism and documentary photography, further strengthening a conception of photography that, since the Industrial Revolution, had been holding apparent “reality” as its basis over the seeing “eye.” While abstraction took the seat of honor in the art of painting, photography, in the general sense, was confined to the immediacy of the notion of documentation as the evidence of what was real and concrete.
Following the transition to multiparty politics, photojournalism in Turkey ascended to a throne it would not relinquish for many years to come. Ara Güler and Fikret Otyam began working as photojournalists during the same years as well. Semiha Es was appointed to photograph the Korean War in the same period. As the straightforward documents of a culturally and intellectually developing Republic based on man and society, photographs came to fore with their simplicity and propinquity.
Meanwhile, three important events that can be considered as the milestones of the history of documentary photography more or less coincided with the early stages of these twelve years in which Yıldız Moran continued to work: The establishment of Magnum in 1947, the first theoretical text that would consecrate photography as “document,” namely Henri Cartier-Bresson’s L’instant décisif (The Decisive Moment) dated 1952, and the 1955 opening of the stupendous Family of Man exhibition curated by Steichen. These three events catered to the sublimation of post-war humanism as well as the cult of external reality from different perspectives, and, by extension, the confinement of photography to a documentary level.
In short, by the time Moran became engaged in her craft, a kind of photography that conveyed what “already happened” directly, as it was, was revered in the world with the exception of a few, singular examples. There was great faith in the photograph’s value as reference, or, in other words, in the idea that it was an exact imprint of external reality and, after reaching its climax with Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida in 1981, this wave slowly began to subside. Nevertheless, many years were to pass until it was finally concluded that the photographer was as close to or as far away from reality as the painter at his canvas. The appearance took a backseat against reference; “what is “real” took precedence over the story.
Years before the idea that the photographic image could convey an event without representation or recount a tale without directly transmitting it, Yıldız Moran traveled to London for her education. In Turkey, photographic training was still at the level of additional classes or weekly courses.
Bloomsbury Technical College, where she spent her first year, has been established to meet the technical instruction needs of young women in cities at the turn of the century. Strangely enough, the school also included a department of Photography alongside Clothing Design, Hatmaking, and Tailoring. The frail, one-year program was quite possibly intended to keep young women behind in the field and inside the darkroom; concentrating on post-production procedures rather than photography techniques did not satisfy Yıldız Moran. The following year, she continued her education at the institution then known as Ealing Technical College & School of Art. Currently affiliated with West London University, the Ealing campus includes the Departments of Fashion, Graphics, Industrial Design, Photography, and Fine Arts. Apart from celebrities such as Freddie Mercury and Ronnie Wood, the school, which boasts photographers Tom Wright and Paul Merry, as well as renowned illustrator Alan Lee among its graduates, provides an impressive experience in art education. However, Yıldız Moran found the instruction at this institution too theoretical. In order to increase her technical knowledge through practice, she began working as an assistant to renowned theater photographer John Vickers. Trained under Angus McBean, the famous portrait artist of Great Britain, the portraits of Vickers carried traces of his master, who had photographed Agatha Christie, Audrey Hepburn, and Vivien Leigh. Thanks to Vickers, Moran benefited from the experience of a generation of successful British portraitists such as McBean and Cecil Beaton. Her portrait work at the studio must have played a significant role on her perspective over photography and her evaluation of her profession with a vision far ahead of the period in which she lived. For, engaging in a discourse in sharp contrast with the spirit of the times, Yıldız Moran had the courage to speak of photography as an art form.
In the 1950s; however, photographs were meant to be as real as crematoriums; they were expected to be the harbinger of news. Indirectness was not an option; photographs were supposed to be pragmatic, representing the reality they replaced or “what had transpired.” Yet art photographs were based on narrative rather than the representation of reality; a dialogue with the subject and the intention to disengage the photograph from a purely concrete nature and the nature of reference had come to fore. At this point, the fundamental idea was not that art photographs were better than documentary ones or that works that fell under the heading of photojournalism were, at first hand, devoid of the level of aesthetics photography could attain as a form of art. The opposite could also be proposed, of course. However, the idea of transitioning from the ungraded and objective aesthetics of capturing the moment, from the limited realm of activity in “taking photographs” to the vast universe of the liberty to “make or construct photographs” was a great innovation for Yıldız Moran’s time. Besides, nearly another forty years would elapse before this idea would reach perfection in its expression.
Moran states, “This [that photography is not an art form] may be true if the subject is an interview photograph of documentary nature. In order to conduct an interview, one has to reach a conclusion on the nature of the event. There is another side to photography, the subjective side. This side distinguishes the newspaper interview with the poet. You can use your camera in as many ways as you use your pen. (…) Since the camera is recognized as an objective means of perception, the notion that each photograph is an objective image prevails. Yet, the photograph can be significantly distorted depending on the angle and moment from which it is taken, as well as the perspective of the photographer. Then, it becomes a very dangerous weapon."
Leaving behind the documentary aspect of the frozen image and emphasizing the proclivities of the subject, as well as the means or intermediaries that should not be mentioned, these words are almost like the essence of highly contemporary discourse on art. What would the lyrical manual of Yıldız Moran’s personal weapon include then? What are the elements that construct the photographer’s subjective, literary language? In their application, upon which approaches did she build her theoretical ideas? Based on her Anatolian photographs (or “landscapes” in her words) she structured with an autonomous visual language, it is possible to say that the artist brought her professional discourse to life through three different processes: Content, Dialogue, and Technical Detail.
For Moran, who once said, “If the meaning it contains is not enough, I will not photograph it no matter how perfect the light and composition," content is above all else. She puts humans at the center of meaning in the visual archive she brings from Anatolia. From the symbolic value of the scythed shadow of the villager (p.169) to the allegorical mirror games in multiple portraits, the people of Anatolia are construed with a humanistic perspective. Even if they are used merely as a speck on infinite spaces (p.173) or in portraits as part of the background, they are never reduced to the beautifying function of a figure. Both in individual photographs and in the entirety of Moran’s Anatolian archive, people attain an epical value.
Yıldız Moran can even sacrifice composition to will in order to reveal the power of content; she can play games with familiar ways of positioning. The little girl holding a baby with her back turned and seen from the profile is accompanied by another little girl facing the camera. Far from stealing the other child’s place in the frame or pointlessly distracting the gaze, the child facing the viewer in the background can be read as the future of the baby in her arms or the face of the child embracing her. Each child in the frame defines the presence of the other or its existence is confirmed by the others.
In the photograph of the man at the village barber, the child in the background, once again, not a scene-stealing detail, but the expression of a paradigm consistently encountered in Moran’s photographs of Anatolia. The photographer puts humankind’s existential solidarity before all else. Therefore, her frames include elements many might consider unnecessary details. Not only was she ever preoccupied with installing a certain subject in the fame and including details that would determine only the geographical or social context of the subject, but Moran, with the infinite sense of spacelessness across the Anatolian landscape, was able to completely disregard the rules that constituted the golden ratio of instant and documentary photography for many years to come. The photographs are not intended as documents conveying the lives of people from certain professions. Conceptualizing a universal existence, they are, indeed, the lyrical tools of a photographer who says, “What I mean by the message is the concept of that subject” and refuses to become a technical operator in charge of the image’s aesthetic coherence. Man’s solitude vis-à-vis nature or culture and diminutiveness vis-à-vis life appear in frames that play with the depth of perspective, sometimes taken from above or below, without settling on the eye level (p. 106).
From this point of view, Moran is a contemporary not of photojournalists, that began to unite through agencies or collective units, but rather of photographers like Diane Arbus or Robert Frank, who worked in solitude and, while focusing on the subject and its semantic value, disregarded conventional technical notions and the generally accepted rules of stacking.
As the second pillar of her language of artistic photography, dialogue entails transforming the subject of photography into a subject itself. Considering that the photographer stops being a powerful, objective eye, becomes a subject, and begins to interact with the other subject outside the studio setting, this approach is rather innovative for the 1950s. For Moran, dialogue with the subject is a very significant step that lends strength to content. “For me, the subject is the human being. I create a connection between two human beings. My photographer persona is never in the foreground. We meet, we talk, we share things. We establish intimacy.”
Although it may sound like a cliché today, this explanation is a very important step as a proposal to set aside the immediacy of the subject and to establish a relationship with it at the period in which art photography was equated with constructing a language of expression in harmony with unique content. Recognizing that the reality of expression is not the same as the reality of the document itself, the photographer thus establishes not a direct but a gradual relationship with her theme. She liberates her photographs from being proof of the theme’s existence. The theme is not an object at point zero; it is the human being becoming a subject as it stands not before the camera but before another subject. It is impossible not to think of Raymond Depardon, who waited for the 1980s to say, “Exchange should play a part in photography to grant people autonomies and liberties […] “I’ve been used to chasing the ‘incident for twenty years. I felt somewhat lost when I broke free. I must learn to look again.”
As for technique, the third pillar of her lyrical language, Moran has an endpoint. “Technique is perfected at one point; content, which has as many unerring rules, can expand infinitely.” Technical efficiency and equipment exist only to nourish the content once they become a natural extension of the photographer. In addition, the technique is not used to correctly capture the light or appearance of an instant; it functions as an intermediary that transmits the constructed language of photography. “If the person is an artist, then the question goes beyond technique. Technique serves merely as a medium.” For Moran, technical equipment is secondary, but the relationship she develops with her camera is similar to the one she has with the subjects of her photographs. Despite Vickers’ insistence that it can never be a professional camera, she refuses to part ways with her contentious Rolleiflex despite all impositions and arguments.
In a speech he delivered on the “short story” as Julio Cortàzar likens the novel to the cinema, he also establishes a parallelism between the short story and photography. In his speech, he notes that much like a feature film, the long-winded novel has a gradual effect spread over time and that it wins the boxing match against the reader with effective yet intermittent punches. Considering its restrictions and limited possibilities, the short story, on the other hand, must win the match with a knockout. Just as in the case of photography. Immediately thereafter, he defines photography as follows: “Taking a cross-section from reality within certain limits, yet allowing the said cross-section to create an impact like an explosion holding the door to a more boundless reality, like a dynamic vision that spiritually transcends the area the camera encompasses.” These words are not too far removed from the definition of the “concept of theme/subject,” which reveals itself as the ultimate goal and knockout punch in Yıldız Moran’s art of photography.
Coming to fore only in the last quarter of the 20th century, Yıldız Moran was able to extricate from external reality the face of narrative photography shadowed and obscured by its documentary character and thus succeeded in speaking of an artistic approach to photography. Her discourse on photography is just as striking as her photographs and fresh as though it were just articulated today. Moran’s unparalleled place in Turkish photography should be explained not only by her gender, her certified education abroad, or her solitary travels across countries she photographed, but also in terms of her deliberate choice to install the plain reality in her photographs behind her art in the golden age of documentary photographs and objective aesthetic.