“Everything starts with light” – An Oral History of Ara Güler

“Everything starts with light” – An Oral History of Ara Güler

939 623 Drew Chambers

Ara Güler’s first published interview incited a riot. He’d taken his Graflex Speed Graphic, paired with a flash, to the Kumkapi ports of Istanbul under cover of the morning’s darkest early hours. On the waters of the inland Sea of Marmara he would watch and document as fishermen trawled the waters searching for smelt on the surface, or bream in the saltier depths. 

His photos of the Kumkapi fishermen were made for the local parish newspaper Jamanak, and though he made them early in his career, they’re among his most gripping work; pensive, cap-adorned men smoking cigarettes as they cut the Marmaran chop, Istanbul’s mosque silhouetted in the far off distance. Later these men would storm the Jamanak offices accusing Güler of portraying them as alcoholics. Güler would recall, “I wrote that they drank spirits for the hell of it, and the blighters stormed the paper.” 

Though unsettling, Güler’s piece on the fishermen set the tone for the remainder of his career. Güler would go on to reject the notion that what he produced was art and shirked time and time again any title that pushed him into that realm – he even took exception to the title of “photographer.”

“I am a photojournalist, not a photographer; I certainly am not an artist. I shoot what I see. I don’t do art. I transmit what is natural, what I see to people. That is called photojournalism. A photographer is very different from a photojournalist.”  

These words are strange coming from a man who would in his lifetime be declared “Master of Leica” by Leica (an honor given to only thirty-eight photographers in history). But perhaps Güler’s admonishment to those that would deem him “artist,” is more appropriate given the existential burden he bestowed onto his so-called “photojournalist.” A sort-of ubermensch, Güler’s photojournalist “rushes towards death … [and] records history with his camera”; the photojournalist is “tasked with transmitting the life of the era, its arts, traditions and customs, what people are involved in, their joys, their sorrows to future eras.” 

For Güler, then, the photojournalist is one tasked less with creation and more preservation – but that preservation will ensure the life of moments and epochs for millennia to come. 

From the Turkish Life to Cartier-Bresson’s Magnum 

Güler grew up living the posh life, a pharmacist’s son. As a child, he would swim at the beach in Florya and as an adolescent he rode horseback while wearing his Borsalino hat. It was evident that Güler’s interests lay not in medicine or law, as his parents might have hoped, but rather in something more creative. 

Ara’s first love was the cinema. His father had gifted him an Ernemann Kinox projector and the local shop Ipek Film would happily let Ara trod off with ten rolls of film for free, just to clear space for new stock. Güler recalled that he “was absent from school and flunked for three years to play films.” This was the way of his life, until Ara nearly perished in a cinema fire. He was the last person to be saved from the roof of the burning cinema, and with that, his filmmaking days were over. 

If the cinema would not have him, maybe the stage would. By twenty, Ara had written nine plays. His ninth, A Strange New Year’s Eve, was published in small newspapers, and it was then that journalism caught Güler’s eye. 

At twenty-two, Güler bought a Rolleicord II. Soon after, he transformed his father’s pharmacy storage warehouse into a darkroom. After working for small papers like Jamanak, Güler sought a wider reach and more prestige. He found himself working at Yeni Istanbul, a new and popular paper that stood out from the traditional red mastheads of the other papers with its novel, blue header. 

Güler’s camera and apparent photographic ability meant he covered myriad stories, from sports to crime to culture. He took photos at breakneck pace, blowing through five rolls of film a day, compared to his peers’ typical pace of one roll in the same span. He devoured release after release of Camera and Leica Photography magazines, which compelled him to acquire his own Leica. The journalists that Güler admired did their work using Leica cameras, so he too decided to work with a Leica. He remembers every detail down to the serial. “It was my first Leica…Leica IIIb, number 382418, 1938.” 

What might have been Güler’s big break came on a serendipitous night in 1954. Upon perusing the list of new guests at the Hilton Istanbul, Güler happened across the name of Tennessee Williams, the famed American playwright. Chance, raki, and maybe charm on Güler’s part led to Güler photographing Williams in his hotel room followed by a night of socializing, drinking, and a midnight dip into a hamam (a heated Turkish bathhouse). But the paper for which Güler was writing, Hurriyetdidn’t want the photos. 

Disillusioned with the Turkish newspapers and what he perceived to be a disinterest in quality photography, Güler took his talents to a publication that cared more about images than copy. Hayat was known as the Turkish equivalent to Life magazine. The quality of the stories and copywriting was poor, but the magazine prized its aesthetic, central to which was high quality photographs. 

While at Hayat, Güler had the chance to explore pieces he felt were actually valuable – touring Anatolia to cover pressing stories; being the de-facto-official photographer of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes; work with cultural figures like Halide Edip Adivar, the prominent Turkish feminist novelist. Point being, Güler’s life had become one defined not just by photography generally, but photography of public figures. 

It wasn’t long before Güler’s status started to rise. After Hilmi Sahenk, the chief of photography at Hayat, threw a Rolleiflex across the room at a managing director, Güler was chosen to replace him. With this new role, Güler found himself reaching an audience three times that of Hurriyet’s readership.  

Over time, Güler managed to branch out from Hayat to simultaneously produce material for other publications such as Time, which had opened an office in Istanbul. While working at Time, Güler became acquainted with what he called “European style journalism” taught to him by Bob Neville, an acclaimed American journalist and Time’s global news editor. In particular, Neville impressed on Güler that photojournalist must be empowered to be in the right places at the right times, even if nothing comes of it. 

When Pope Pius XII became ill in the later stages of his life, Neville dispatched his photojournalists to Rome to patiently anticipate the coming events and what would surely be a global story. But Pius XII recovered from that scare and so the resources poured into covering the story were apparently wasted- even so, Bob Neville received a fifty-thousand-dollar bonus. Güler understood the message communicated; being prepared for a story that falls through is better than not being prepared for a story that happens. 

Balancing Hayat for Turkey and Time for the U.S., Güler began to add more spinning plates to an already tenuous act. At the Cannes Film Festival, a story Güler would not have to be convinced to cover, he met Andrea Lakaz, editor of the wildly popular Paris-Match, a French lifestyle and news magazine which at the time had a massive circulation of 1.8 million. Paris-Match wanted Güler to produce interviews and photographs for them; when he asked his American bosses at Time they simply said, “go ahead, our market is different.” Another plate Güler would have to keep spinning. 

Around this time, Germany sought Güler out to add another plate yet. Stern, one of Germany’s largest news magazines, reached out to Güler to see if he would lend his eye and camera to their publication. Another quick conversation with Time.

“’I have been offered a reporting job from Germany, what do you say?’

‘We are the U.S., Europe is of no interest to us, do what you want.’

So, I accepted the offer.”

Due to Güler’s prolific work, he would often carry with him four cameras. One labeled Stern, another Hayat, another Paris-Match, and a fourth Time. Güler recounts that he chose which camera by whatever his intended audience would be interested in. The Stern camera would be used to shoot photos that would interest Germans. The Time camera would be used to shoot photos that would interest Americans, and so on. 

By 1960, Güler was working for Time, Paris-Match, Stern, and a fourth publication, the British Observer. This was the year that The British Journal of Photography cemented Ara Güler’s place in the annals of photographic history. Each year, the journal published a Yearbook in which they selected the world’s seven best photographers in a highly competitive and rigorous review process. Güler was chosen as one of the seven, among names like Walter Klein and Philip Jones Griffiths. 

Eventually Güler become associated with the legendary Magnum Photos cooperative. It was Romeo Martinez, editor of Camera from 1953 to 1964, who introduced Güler to Henri Cartier-Bresson, a co-founder of Magnum. Martinez, described by Cartier-Bresson as “the father confessor of many photographers who came to him begging for absolution,” managed to catapult Camera to higher heights than its already prestigious beginnings. Though not a photographer himself, Martinez used his knowledge of journalism and the art world to broaden Camera’s readership at the same time as he refined its mode and message. 

It was Martinez that gave showcases to photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and Bill Brandt – a range of photographic style was procured because Martinez loved the medium in its saturation. Cartier-Bresson felt that Romeo Martinez “knows each of us better than we know ourselves.” And so Martinez introduced one luminary to another. After meetings in Paris, a visit to Istanbul, and because of Ara’s growing journalist clout, Güler become a regular member of the Magnum cooperative. 

For Güler, Magnum was “prestige” and “a symbol to aspire to”- being a part of Magnum “was like a business card … [or] like having an American Express card.” Güler himself clarified, however, that his responsibility was never to Magnum, despite the fact that Magnum distributed the majority of his most significant interviews. True to form, Güler insisted that his first responsibility was to “representation, reporting.” Magnum was simply a seal of prestige on the work Ara Güler produced for history’s sake and history’s sake alone. 

The Choreographed and the Unchoreographed 

Ara Güler’s photography can be neatly divided into two subject matters; the common folk and the celebrities. Güler roved around the world taking photos of simply what was – a lethal train catastrophe in Catalca, a quiet morning in a Rajasthan temple, a group of herdsmen in Mongolia. 

But beyond his photojournalism and street photography, Güler became the visionary behind one of the most impressive archives of public figure portraits. The personalities captured by Güler’s lens include Ansel Adams, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, John Updike, James Baldwin, and Indira Gandhi. 

Güler’s portraits are haunting. The photos are almost always shot on black and white film stocks—as Güler himself said: “We have black and white in our genes.” The subjects are most often unposed, but frequently staring the camera down as if trying to express in strain alone a message that will make its way from the light in that moment to the viewer’s eye now decades later. 

Güler’s best portraits come when he is looking down the lens into the subject’s face as they glare upward. These are the defiant captures of timeless personalities against the preserving agents of Güler, his camera, and his film. 

The same thing that compelled Ara to become a renowned celebrity portraitist is the same thing that impels his street photography, that is, his love of humanity. “There is nothing without humans,” Güler said. The temples, the mosques, the ships, the docks, the alleys, and the markets all matter less than and only because of the people that inhabit them: “It was never about what venue I shot. I shot pieces of life.” 

Güler maintained that long after he developed his last roll of film (which, for posterity’s sake, he developed with his own hands) his archive contained 800,000 to one million frames. The ones he clung to dearest were the ones taken in the cityscapes and landscapes of his home, Turkey. His photos of Istanbul are homage to the city. They do not depict the city with glitz or sanitation, they simply depict. 

Güler was known to have lamented the supposed loss of Istanbul’s roots. In a revelatory profile published by the New York Times in 1997, Güler mourns the lost “poetic, romantic, esthetic aspect of the city”; luckily for those too young to have witnessed the great Istanbul, Güler proclaimed, “I understand the smell of Istanbul.” His photos are of the swirling ethos of what Istanbul was and perhaps still is beneath the artifice of modernization. Güler’s Istanbul is the Ottoman yalis, the stone-and-plaster backstreets where children clamor, the men of the sea that give fervor to the city from dawn to dusk, and the solemn religiosity of a city marked by mosaic rather than monolith. 

Of his work, Güler said he completed only three major projects in his life; the biblical ark of Noah, the ancient Mount Nemrut, and the village built on the ruins of the Hellenistic city Aphrodisias. All three sites are located in Turkey and all three bear distinctly religious heritages ranging from Judeo-Christian histories to Greek goddesses. In his photos of these places, Güler photographs the past and, in doing so, commemorates the historical importance that his homeland had to the development of civilization. 

What persists throughout Güler’s extensive and varied portfolio is his desire to prove, not to create. With his photographs, he proves to you that Istanbul is beautiful, that Yarimburgaz train crash was cataclysmic, that Turkey is one of humanity’s birthplaces. 

Ara Güler on Photography

Güler was as opinionated about photography as he was good at photography, which is to say tremendously. The man owned up to fifty cameras, believed his best photos were shot with a Rolleicord (coincidentally), best liked Kodachrome (get in line, Ara), and would take with him up to five hundred rolls of film for one photographic trip. 

The following are the three most poignant claims made by Güler that I have come across in my reading. Rather than dissect and explicate them as if I am qualified to clarify the master’s teachings, I simply leave them here at the end as they were when he said them, straightforward and unexplained. 

“Photographs are not important enough to be hung on walls.” 

“A good photographer can take a picture with a sewing machine.” 

“The magic that enhances our world is nature, the cosmos itself. When light is spread, it is beautiful, when the light is gathered it becomes dark, something else. Therefore, the magic paint will always be present. This is light, everything starts with light.” 

More information on Ara Güler can be found via Magnum Photos

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Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers
  • Merlin Marquardt March 8, 2019 at 11:49 am


  • More of this please! An exemplary article about the world and practice around photography. Not just camera porn (although we all enjoy that too).

  • Outstanding piece Drew. Wow.

    “…When light is spread, it is beautiful, when the light is gathered it becomes dark, something else…”

    This means so many things, most having nothing to do with photography.

    On a lighter note:
    “A good photographer can take a picture with a sewing machine.”
    and yet
    “The man owned up to fifty cameras, believed his best photos were shot with a Rolleicord ..”


  • Excellent. More of this please.

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Drew Chambers

Drew Chambers is a former high school teacher and current master's student at Harvard University. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts with his wife and their perfect dog. Outside of teaching, reading, and writing, Drew spends most of his time listening to indie rock. He is happy when photographing.

All stories by:Drew Chambers