A PLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW by Ara Güler at FOAM in Amsterdam

Ara Güler (1928-2018), dubbed as “The Eye of Istanbul”, never ceases to mesmerize viewers with his contemplative black and white photographs. On 22nd June, FOAM Museum, Amsterdam, celebrated the ecstatic works of the Güler in their opening exhibition A Play of Light and Shadow.

Co-curated by artist Ahmet Polat in collaboration with the Ara Güler Museum, the exhibition is effectively divided into four sections The Iconic, The Historic, The Ambassador and The Personal. Visitors can easily walk through a coherent body of Güler’s notably iconic works which showcase Turkey’s resonant history as well as its impact across the world.

Born five years before the Republic of Turkey was founded, Güler observed a dramatic alteration to the landscape and livelihoods of Istanbul during his lifetime. His photographs taken specifically during the 1950s and 1960s serve as a testament to the hardships Turkey’s working class and the urban poor had to endure during the socio-economic changes. The stark contrasts of light and composition in the photographs of Istanbul’s streets, the docks and melancholic expressions of the city inhabitants not only contain an element of absolute artistry but also establish a profoundly tangible raw human emotion.

Although many regard him as a photographer, Güler insisted that he be known instead as a photojournalist; a visual historian and an eye-witness to Turkey’s evolving identity. Thanks to his photographs, we not only have access to a pensive narrative in each captured image, but also a historic chronicle of the country, particularly that of Istanbul. More than 800,000 photographs were taken in his lifetime and several contain architecture and monumental structures that no longer exist today following the redevelopments and changes to the city scape.

In The Personal section, Foam Museum further offers a glimpse into the prominent photojournalist’s early interest and love for photography where we can observe his experimental work of geometric forms, nature and light. These images, predominantly unbeknownst to the public, not only present his capabilities as a visual historian but also his talent as an artist and the means to which he can portray a subject.

The exhibition is further accompanied by contemporary photographer, Ece Gökalp. In After Anahit she explores the issues of cultural heritage, ecological devastation and changing geographies due to historical events. She investigates how photography can shape our perception of places which is complementary to Güler who, as a photojournalist, believes photography to be an instrument utilized to accurately reflect reality.

Güler’s exhibition at FOAM Museum continues through the summer and is a highly recommended visit. Whether you may regard his photographs as an art or as a documentation of history, they offer a marvelous and aesthetic insight into a moment in time that would have otherwise been lost and forgotten.   Anja Herrmann      23rd June 2023