Vision and Representation: Photography in Orhan Pamuks: Istanbul: Memories and the City

By Santesso, Z. Esra Mirze | The Comparatist, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Vision and Representation: Photography in Orhan Pamuks: Istanbul: Memories and the City


Santesso, Z. Esra Mirze, The Comparatist


Since its rise in the late 1850s, photography, as an art form, has attracted equal measures of praise and scorn from critics: on the one hand its tangible proximity to real life and unmatched "recording abilities" seemed to herald a new era in artistic representation; on the other, it was seen as an inferior art form to painting, where specific training was required, and where the aesthetic and moral values of the artist were more readily apparent. Almost a hundred years later, the establishment of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (in 1940, under the curatorship of Edward Steichen) reflected the increasing dominance of those voices arguing for photography to be recognized as a legitimate form of art. Yet even this institutional confirmation did not settle the original debate about photography's inherent investment in reality, and the question of whether it was "a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality" (Nochlin qtd. in Wells 258). In 1975, the new curator of the Photography Department at MoMA, John Szarkowski wrote a piece defending this contested form as "a different kind of art," arguing that the goal of photography was to reveal the "private vision" of the photographer, and reflect an individualized interpretation of reality, rather than a mechanical documentation of it. For Szarkowski, the perception of the photographer was central in producing an aesthetic effect; the true substance of a photograph is not "what [it] is of, [but] what it is about."

Nevertheless, for all the respect that photography has garnered in many quarters as a subjective art form, it retains a certain reputation as a simplifying force, a complement or clarification to more ostensibly personal and interpretative art forms--including literature. In On Photography, Susan Sontag makes a clear distinction between writing and photographing, suggesting that: "What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are homemade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire" (4). Advocates of photography argue against this view (Sontag herself would eventually retract it), insisting that the interpretation of the photographic image--as with any other form of visual art--does not solely belong to the artist, but is rather a collaborative act that involves the viewer. Though separated temporally, the gazes of the artist and the viewer fall upon the same object to construe meaning. Therefore, we are justified in asking questions about the wisdom or even the efficacy of including photographs as "complements" to literary texts--not least because a growing number of literary authors interested in photography are asking precisely the same questions. With this premise in mind, I will in the following discussion analyze a particular literary work that challenges the notion of photography as a static medium, a work that includes photographs not merely as clarifying images but as complicating ones. Specifically, I will examine Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City, in which the seemingly loose connection between the narrative and the randomly (at least at first glance) inserted photographs suggest that the author is interested in something beyond the simplistic notion of photographic realism. Rather, I argue, he creates a medium within which the text and the image work together, sometimes to enhance and sometimes to challenge the experience of the reader.

Istanbul, which can be described as a kind of pseudo-memoir and Kunstlerroman, contains black and white photographs of the city scattered throughout the volume along with other visual components (sketches, engravings, and paintings) which provide an in-depth look at what for many Westerners is an unfamiliar urban landscape. (2) The placement of the pictures appears to have little connection with the narrative, which is based on the author's account of his childhood as well as his meditations on the city's past. …

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