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Ara Güler, a Turkish-Armenian photographer now in his 80s and living in Istanbul (pictured below), eschewed what he considered “art” photography, preferring to be a “visual historian” of Turkey.
In the 1960s, when he was a colleague of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka at the famed Magnum photo agency, Güler photographed contemporary street scenes. But judging by an exhibit of Güler’s work at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, he was fascinated more by Turkey’s past than its present—-its churches, castles, and ruins.
Some of his images, taken in 1960 and printed in 1965, are so timeless that they echo the look of images of Egyptian antiquities taken shortly after the birth of photography. True to his misgivings about “art” photography, Güler’s images aren’t showy; his mission seems to preservation, and in that regard, he succeeds, documenting everything from friezes that tell the Biblical story of Jonah to wedge-shaped linguistic carvings in a stone wall.
Unfortunately, the selection of images is limited; they come from a collection of a few dozen photographs donated to the museum by Raymond Hare, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey in the early 1960s. This means the viewer gets no sense of how these ancient treasures have weathered the past 50 years. Is it too much to hope that there’s another Güler waiting in the wings?
Through May 4, 2014 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.