When choosing the name of his website, Muhittin Bayram could have chosen something simpler – Old Istanbul, for example. Instead he chose Hayalleme, which means “imagining.” This reminds us that our view of the past is always framed by the present, colored by our own nostalgia and prejudices. More than just photos of old Istanbul, Bayram's website offers a meditation on our place in history.
Born in Greece, Bayram moved with his family to Istanbul at a young age. “We moved into an old wooden house in Beşiktaş. I fell in love with that old Istanbul feeling there,” he told The Guide Istanbul. Professionally, Bayram earns his living as a computer programmer, and began to learn more about the city during an assignment that required photographs from modern Istanbul. “That gave me a better opportunity to wander the streets. On those walks I started wondering who else had walked those streets before," he says. "Then I came across some old photographs and started comparing the old views with the same places today. Then I started searching for photos of specific places in the digital archives. Finally this curiosity took me to the secondhand merchants to look for old photos there.”
New media for old times
This quest for old photographs needed a public outlet, which Bayram created in his website Hayalleme.com and promoted through Twitter. He benefited from fortunate timing on social media. “Certainly there were Istanbul photo collectors before me, and in previous generations. But Twitter was a new medium. Earlier on you couldn’t share photos on Twitter, only the link. I started doing this just at the time when Twitter started letting you share photos directly. It drew a lot of interest, because most people didn’t know these old Istanbul photos or where to find them.”
One technique that has set Bayram apart from other photo collectors is his old-new montages. After studying an old photo, he goes to the same spot and takes a new photo from the same angle. By pasting the old and new photographs together he highlights the changes that have happened over the years.
His network of secondhand merchants lets him know whenever an interesting or valuable photograph comes into their shops. But even with these contacts, he has had worries that the stock of photos will not last long. “Actually I didn’t have that many photos at that time – close to two thousand. They were going to run out, but as people were interested I thought it should continue for longer,” he says. His discovery of foreign archives such as the American Library of Congress increased his collection significantly. Turkish archives such as SALT and the Sabancı Museum are also valuable resources, and Atatürk Library has recently placed its digital archives online.
The price of change
Of course, not all photos are equal in historical or monetary value. “Personal photos are more precious in my view. They might be photos that no-one [outside the family] has seen before. If there’s a famous person in the photo then of course it becomes much more valuable. If there is writing on the back, or if the photo is from a famous photography studio, then that adds value too,” he explains. The writing on the back of photos and postcards offers a personal context to the nameless images, and the messages can sometimes be surprising. “I remember one photo that had ‘Me and my car’ written on the back. The picture was of a man posing on his car,” Bayram laughs.
As the car photo shows, Bayram’s collection is not only concerned with permanent landmarks, such as buildings. It is possible to date his photographs quite accurately by observing the style of hats, clothes, cars, typefaces, and products. “A photo of the Hagia Sophia today and one from a century ago aren’t really different. The people in front of it change,” he says. “There’s something philosophical about it actually. You see how ephemeral we are – at one time some people were living here and now they’re gone. But we behave very selfishly, although we’re only on this earth for an insignificant amount of time.”
This selfishness also has an impact on the urban landscape. Sometimes it is not possible for Bayram to take a photo from the same angle as a photographer from 100 years ago, because new buildings have covered the view. “Everyone complains about all the tall concrete buildings being built, but given an opportunity everyone wants to do it. People look at the old photos and say, ‘Ah, how beautiful it was.’ Then they turn around and think, ‘I wish my granddad had bought that land and built on it.’”