ARTICLES

SMILE / GÜLÜŞ, Cappadocia, Turkey 1956

Merih Akoğul

Pera Museum Exhibition Catalogue

November 2013

Yıldız Moran of Photography

The poetry of humankind in Yıldız Moran

 

“So many people fall

Yet the passersby do not see them.”

 

Read the first verses of renowned Turkish poet Behçet Necatigil’s beloved poem entitled, Solgun Bir Gül Dokununca (A Faded Rose upon My Touch). Starting with a concrete theme, Necatigil draws for us a road map into the extraordinary world of poetry.

 

As one of the oldest and most noble branches of art, poetry has given the biggest spiritual support to humankind rising throughout centuries. From legends to laments, people have sought refuge in the poetic structure of sentences and strived to express themselves in a more powerful and memorable way on a higher level.

 

Words may be familiar, yet there is still something else in Necatigil’s poetry that cannot be explained in the collective meaning of words. What they possess is a feature common to most works of art with a strong stance. Is it not, after all, the lovely taste that lingers in the mouth that makes us wonder about the ingredients of the delectable foods we eat? Still, the key is the one person who is able to bring together those ingredients in the right amount.

 

Theories of aesthetics and studies in different methodologies attempt to make sense of this refined sentiment we call art through words such as rhythm, harmony, melody, composition, rhyme, contrast, and symmetry. Yes, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes, but the science of aesthetics yearns to associate that with theories, viewpoints, movements, and schools through interpretation. Thus emerges the common language of art and, with the feedback received from society, art once again blends anonymously into society.

 

I believe that the first verses of this poem somehow overlap with Yıldız Moran and her photographs. She saw, identified, and shared many things that most of us did not; things we overlooked or did not take the time to stop and look at. Only thereafter, the clues of a different world were presented to humanity.

 

When we look at these photographs and re-read them half a century later, we see once again that we stand before a true genius of photography. We understand, contrary to popular belief, that poetry is sisters with the art of photography -rather than cinema or painting- especially when we see the poetry Yıldız Moran writes with the camera in her hand.

 

Being in the country

Back in those fascinating days, the world was perceived in black and white and people lived the moments that passed them by in the shades of grey. The fashion, decoration, cars, furniture, and signboards of the time presented an entirely different period. The universe was like a collection of the objects being photographed.

 

Having returned to Turkey at the age of twenty-two following the education she received in England, Yıldız Moran had gained considerable experience, particularly in studio-portrait photography. She successfully demonstrated this experience in the artist portraits she took during that period, all the while making a living for herself.

 

Yıldız Moran combined the photography experience she acquired at a relatively young age compared to the photographers of the period, with the rich archive of nature, life, and human photographs. The result was rather impressive. Not confining herself to studio photography, she captured on film a different side of the developing Turkish Republic with her travels across Anatolia.

 

Yıldız Moran’s education in England meant, that she was in possession of considerable technical and aesthetic information that no other Turkish photographer had at the time. This naturally gave Moran a considerable advantage. Yet, as she notes herself, she was faced with many problems with respect to the shortage of supplies.

 

In an interview she gave to Seyit Ali Ak, Yıldız Moran summarizes the relationship between technique and supplies in the process of creation as follows: “You have to think; design in your head what you will photograph and how you will photograph it, such that each technical problem between you and your subject is eliminated. You have to be in control of the conditions. You must seek the most recent developments, the newest opportunities. After I came back, and I believe even today, the biggest problem was obtaining supplies. You can’t find the paper you need, you can’t access the materials you want. Anyone working in Turkey is a kind of acrobat. You get the most unexpected results from the most undesirable kind of paper. This is such a technical handicap that there is no time left to focus on the content.” (Seyit Ali Ak, Erken Cumhuriyet Dönemi Türk Fotoğrafı 1923-1960, Seyit Ali Ak, Remzi Kitabevi, First Edition: April 2000, p.287)

 

Indeed, the experience Yıldız Moran acquired in a country like England, which paved the way in terms of the technical and visual revolutions it made in the field of photography, and the materials she had used, were far beyond the conditions of not only the 1950s but the 1980s in Turkey.

 

The reason I strongly emphasize this issue is the obvious stylistic effect technique has over aesthetics in the institution of photography, which is linked to technology on one end, as a sublanguage. Apart from photography’s documentary character, Yıldız Moran had already grasped its connection with art as early as in her 20s.

 

Much like most other fields, the world of photography was also dominated by men. Although female photographers from Julia Margaret Cameron to the present were able to create an entirely fresh area of sensitivity, they were often excluded from this category due to the scarce number of women who chose photography as a profession. Yıldız Moran has, to date, been considered in the category of female photographers and this approach has been repeatedly debated in various settings. The idea that Yıldız Moran has been categorized unjustly prevails in the world of photography.

 

It would be more accurate to think that Yıldız Moran’s categorization as a female photographer is not based on the fact that this art had been dominated by men for years, but rather that this extraordinary sensitivity she brought down to earth is embodied in a woman. The instances delicately captured from her perspective present a collection of images that cannot be replaced by any other in the history of photography. That she remains unparalleled once again stands testimony to the - insurmountable- existence of this unique construct.

 

Due to the presence of a reserved otherness in her style and her reluctance to pursue a principal theme, Yıldız Moran is recalled less often compared to other photographers. For, she always worked for the invisible space of art. She never offered a tangible grip for her followers to grasp. An emotional code she added to her works prevented her from being copied as well. The most important reason behind her negligence was her refusal to engage in any mentor-disciple relationship; this is also the same reason for being eternally remembered and becoming an unforgettable part of history.

 

The world of photography owes much to Yıldız Moran for modestly presenting such an intriguing interface through photographs. Popular photographs and photographers of the time may no longer be remembered, yet Moran’s photographs increase in value with each passing day and become an indispensable part of our visual memory.

 

A part of the tradition

Much like other fields of art, photography is a way of understanding the universe. Moreover, it clearly and powerfully distinguishes itself from other arts. Using light and time in a markedly distinctive way compared to other fields of art, photography functions in its own way. It is based on documentation. The first thing it does is to capture, not even the moment, but what is there. It is first a craft; the artistic aspect follows suit.

 

Photographs used to appear slowly under a red light in the darkroom. Using current technological innovations, today’s photographers make it their mission to bring an invisible universe to the world and share a different structuring with their viewers. However, this easily repeatable character of modern photography puts it behind other arts in the phenomenological sense. The easy photography of the present wraps the world of images in a synthetic cape.

 

What once made photographs magically was in direct proportion with the process taking place in the darkroom. Assuming its final shape in the darkroom, the photograph intended, without any loss, to convey to viewers the features added to it during its shooting. Yet, the photographs taken today appear suddenly and create a shocking effect.

 

We must, therefore, start by analyzing where Yıldız Moran stands in the 175-year-old tradition of photography. Having been trained in the West, Yıldız Moran is the daughter of renowned linguist A. Vahid Moran; she was raised in a literary family. She was also part of a heightened understanding with respect to “language” due to her mastery of Turkish and English. The artistic intuition born out of this allowed Moran to perceive the world through the art of photography. What made her the “Star” (as her name “Yıldız” literally means star in Turkish) Turkish photography lies in Moran’s ability use the art of photography as a bridge between life and the passing of time. Yıldız Moran reconstructed her own existence with amazing naturalness through photography.

 

As photography is a sublanguage of visuality, the task was not too challenging for Moran, who was quite familiar with the possibilities of self-expression through language in the context of literature. Apart from deciding how to approach the subjects she has chosen, there was little else left to do. With the camera in her hand, she moved forward from the already finalized images in her mind; using the deductive method, she produced her works with eager determination.

 

To be remembered

All mortals seek immortality. Even those who wish to be forgotten yearn to remain “alive” in memory. Photographs are the best way to remember and not let others forget. Many things we have forgotten come alive upon seeing their photographs. In other words, nothing is forgotten so long as the necessary stimulations exist. The writing of history instigates recollection.

 

Many articles on Yıldız Moran lament over the fact that she is forgotten or not remembered enough. The certainty of this proposition is debatable. Many exhibitions of Moran’s photographs were opened at different times, awards were given, and interviews were conducted. In fact, Yıldız Moran’s problem in the world of photography was not about being forgotten, but not being understood well enough. The detached approach in her photographs complemented by the emotional aura created by the spiritual multilayeredness was impossible to be analyzed by the photographic and social data available at the time.

This gentle touch she added to her photographs gained much more attention particularly in the last decade in which a new perspective and a new way of reading was introduced to photography, and her endeavors were thus noticed.

 

In her interview with Sayit Ali Ak, Yıldız Moran summarizes her perspective on photography as follows: “I am happy that I received unexpected attention and I always tried to be worthy of that attention. Still, each person fights his/her own inner conflicts. The problem was to discover the concept of photography. To find and expand it. I had to push the limits of the art of photography in the way I chose and to move in my own direction. “

 

In order to correctly understand the place of Yıldız Moran in Turkish Photography, we must first recognize where she stood with respect to tradition and analyze the impact her education had on her.

 

Systematically speaking, hers is an unprecedented combination of two distinctive structures influenced by both the Anglo-Saxon and Turkish (İstanbul/ Anatolian) cultures.

 

On British photography

When we take a quick look at the history of photography, we see that it was born in France, developed in England, reached its technological peak in Germany, and became the national art of the United States. After the announcement of photography’s invention at the French Academy of Sciences in 1839, the world became the object of a new form of expression. Following the invention of the calotype process by William Henry Fox Talbot in England, photographs were no longer singular, but were able to be reprinted and thus became quickly widespread. This new quality of photographs lowered the cost per frame and photography once again rapidly broke away from the art of painting.

 

In the subsequent periods, the world witnessed two great wars and recovered slowly from both. The technology was gaining increasing momentum with the support of the economy. The world was now shadowed by the cold war. All the nations were getting stronger -both in science and art- at their own fronts.

 

With its giant leaps particularly in the fields of optics, mechanics, and chemical engineering, Germany lead the greatest logistical support to the world in terms of photography. The production of cameras and objectives also gained speed, particularly in Japan, once it began to recover rapidly from the repercussions of World War II. Particularly in the 1970s, Japan became considerably successful in the photography industry with the advancement in electronics.

 

When we turn to Great Britain, we find that the British Art of Photography possesses a strong tradition, much like literature and painting. The pictorial nature of portraits and landscapes of the Victorian Era, as well as the “realist” approach of Pre-Raphaelites, which almost prepared the groundwork for the future of photography, both instigated the development of photography in England -though it would be executed in black-and-white for many years to come- in a different context.

 

Both copying and stylizing nature in its own way, the 19th-century tradition of painting had begun testing waters in fresh territories in which physics, chemistry, and optics were used together. By that time, everyone was aware that the world was getting increasingly smaller.

 

What we generalize as “British Photography” in the world emerged, in fact, with the anonymization of the themes selected by photographers of Great Britain. This approach, which we can define as typical, may not overlap with the pattern we are trying to establish now. Nevertheless, while all these generalizations contain small errors, they can help better understand and categorize certain subjects. Similarly, in defining “German Photography” a collection of stylistically similar photographs come to mind.

 

Not only the selection of subjects, but approaches also carry significant weight in the creation of a movement. British Photography is the definition of a strange atmosphere in which large spaces are masterfully used, objects remain determinedly in place with a profound sense of tranquility, and the fantastical clouds embraced by the sky readily wait above mile-long beaches or infinite pastures.

 

In these photographs, we see children playing on the streets, adjoining houses, deserted neighborhoods, parks filled with old people, fishermen along the shores, trees bowed by the winds, and moments, seemingly frozen in time, particularly in landscapes.

 

Another aspect that constitutes the unique atmosphere of British Photography is the way photographers approach their subjects. The photographer always maintains a respectful distance with his subject or object; s/he never gets up, close, and personal. British Photography neither stands too close to have to whisper in one’s ear nor stands far away to have to shout. With a determined voice, it says what it needs to say.

 

The aforementioned is evident in the early landscapes of David Octavius Hill, Ian Berry’s shots of daily life, and the photographs of Bill Brandt, which masterfully demonstrate the British social classes separated by definite lines. Rather than the contrast of black and white on two opposite ends, British Photography opts for the smooth transitions of middle grays and a reserved discourse. As the renowned British producer of film and paper, Ilford, for example, has based the overall image of its advertisements on photographs that emphasize these rich tones of gray.

 

A careful look at British photography reveals a slow flow of time and eeriness divided into extended moments. Sometimes with or without figures, the photographs reflect what we can describe as “British humor” often restoring to ironic points that make the viewer smile.

 

The first and most important connection between British Photography and the photographs of Yıldız Moran is the respectful distance she places between herself and the object she captures. Without over-emphasizing the harmony between rich fore- and backgrounds, Moran chooses the angles of her photographs. Particular to British humor, this condition of cracking the funniest joke like a most ordinary thing is also present in the photographs of Moran.

 

Another aspect of British Photography is its tendency to lead viewers to believe there could be a more striking moment or to say, “Even I can take this photograph.” Indeed, while this feature misleads amateur photography aficionados, it is defined as modest mastery by those who know to view photographs without prejudice.

 

Pretending to be humble, these photographs can be characterized more accurately with words like “simplicity” and “naturalness.” Moran, who acquired it from British masters that go as far back as the teachers she trained under, carried this skill to all stages of her short-lived career in photography. At the time, no other photographer in Turkey could have known that aesthetic and technical training Moran learned at school. Despite that, she demonstrated this condition of feigned ignorance in her approach to the Anatolian photographs she took in the ensuing years. Moran used this courteousness to hide her own knowledge and to amalgamate her art with the photographs she took.

 

England was the first country in which Yıldız Moran displayed her own photographs. The spaces in which her highly popular photographs were displayed at the Trinity College in Cambridge were the corridors where Isaac Newton, who blazed the trail with his inventions in the areas of light and optics, and William Henry Fox Talbot, who greatly contributed to the spread of photography, once walked as students. Perhaps, all these positive energies -from a metaphysical point of view- explain the form Yıldız Moran took during her journey through the tunnel of time.

 

Photographing Anatolia

The most memorable frames of Yıldız Moran are her photographs of Anatolia. How would she manifest, in her own country, the Western training and the Anglo-Saxon education she had received? She was born and raised in İstanbul. She knew well which sites to capture when and from what perspective. Yet, she was traveling to Anatolia for the first time and visiting areas she probably would never set foot again. How would she approach them? It was impossible to express an opinion without photographing this geography.

She would either let all her photographs rest in the calm shadow of Orientalism, as a Western traveler would do or, with a fresh synthesis, she would lay all her knowledge and sensitivity on the images she would encounter in the places she visited. Moran chose the latter; staying away from landscapes or photojournalism, she constructed he photographs meticulously such that they could be reborn in wider timeframes. Hence, she instigated a serious rupture from the photographic tradition that preceded her. Landscapes and current photographs accompanying the news in daily newspapers were popular at the time. When Moran returned to Turkey, Magnum, which brought an entirely new vision to documentary photography in the world, was still in its early stages. Hayat magazine would not be published for at least another two years.

 

A careful viewer could consider Othmar Pferschy’s approach to photography as the precursor of Yıldız Moran’s photographs. Having worked as a specialized photographer at the General Directorate of Publications between 1935 and 1940, Pferschy, who was of Austrian origin, had successfully identified the developing and changing Turkey and yielded the best examples of landscape photographs produced until then.

 

From the 1930s onwards, Othmar worked with great discipline and regularity and took photographs that reflected, in the most aesthetic manner, the official ideology of the Republic. His photographs were used in a plethora of areas, ranging from banknotes to stamps. Inevitably, Moran, much like everyone else, was influenced by the photographs that represented Turkey’s new visage in those years and many more to come. The power and official stance in Othmar’s photographs gave way to the lyricism of life Moran’s frames.

 

In Yıldız Moran’s photographs, people assumed their places -without any intervention- not as ordinary objects in a brand new world created from her perspective, but rather as true heroes “making” the photograph along with the setting. Neither power nor sheepishness; Moran’s photographs of İstanbul and Anatolia only reflects “lineage” photography.

 

Rather than resorting to startling frames, grotesque approaches, or optical deformations wide-angle cameras create in the foreground, Yıldız Moran redefined her own vision of photography through an unpretentious gaze. The answer to why present-day photographs with impressive techniques lose their power sooner and more rapidly than minimalist photographs is hidden exactly here.

 

Moran perceived the world almost like an Existentialist. She treated time not as a photographer, but rather as a philosopher. Her decision to give up photography and the implementation of this decision happened in the same way. Most importantly, she never regretted her decision. She was confident that her works would be appreciated and fully understood one day. She was right. Much like what Walter Benjamin notes in A Short History of Photography, one of the first, most beautiful and detailed texts on photography in the world, “Spirit, conquering mechanics, gives a new interpretation to the likenesses of life.“. (Walter Benjamin, Fotoğrafın Kısa Tarihçesi [A Short History of Photography], translated by Ali Cengizkan, YGS Publications, 1st edition November 2001, p. 33)  It is now the perfect time to face the “likenesses” in Yıldız Moran’s photographs.

 

The question that most begs to be asked of Moran’s photographs, in general, must be, “Why that particular moment?” For, Moran places the answer to this question not inside, but outside the photograph. The answer only reveals itself in proportion to the culture and experience of the person reading the photograph. Similarly, the origin of Umberto Eco’s “Open Work” is the need to have qualified viewers -rather than the artwork or the artist- for art to exist.

 

Not an end, but rather a new beginning

Yıldız Moran entered our world of photography -and left it- quietly as a college girl and young woman of the Republic. Her frame of mind and command of language were reflected in her photography as a totality of refinements. Looking back from the present, the years in which she took photographs and quit photography were, in a way, the Belle Époque of photography. Moran maintained her photographic existence without joining any movements or relations; she remained in harmony with the flow of nature and life. She was right in the end.

 

Yes, true enough, Yıldız Moran was neglected; however, hundreds of other artists suffered the bitter fate of oblivion during the same period. Neglect is a general characteristic of Eastern societies. After all, not being understood in one’s own time is in the nature of art.

 

Yıldız Moran was a courageous woman. Dedicating her life to her three children, she relinquished, at the time, the right to become the greatest living female photographer of Turkish Photography. The mere twelve years filled with photography, the sixty years from her introduction to photography to the present, and the eighteen years that have elapsed since her passing encompass a unique world that cannot be told by numbers alone.

 

Despite the numerous photographers that came after her, Moran continued to be valued in the same way. Albeit small, a group of photography aficionados always surrounded her. Had the photographers of her time, in particular, managed to stand before her work with more patience and less prejudice, photography in Turkey could have progressed much further.

 

The silent revolution she made in photography was far ahead of its time to be understood. As the works of someone with a different awareness, these works, along with the subconscious from which they were nourished, would not be appreciated unless the aesthetic conditions of their time were revived. Similar to intelligent metals returning to their original shape upon meeting the conditions of its production, the photographs of Yıldız Moran once again found the form they deserve today.

 

Letting her art take its own course in time, as she was not the representative of any school or guild, Moran once again has her name written in history as one of Turkey’s most important photographers, even when she is no longer with us.

 

Today, seeing how, through the Yıldız Moran:  Timeless Photographs adorning the halls of Pera Museum, Yıldız Moran’s works are truly understood and appreciated fifty to sixty years after their production is the repay of a belated debt and a great source of happiness for the photography community.

Merih Akoğul

November 2013

© 2019 Yıldız Moran