Even after photographing most countries in the world, receiving the French Legion of Honor, being named one of the world’s seven “star photographers” by the British Journal of Photography in 1968, and taking classic images of iconic figures such as Picasso, Dali, and Hitchcock, photographer Ara Güler refuses to call himself an artist. But this is no insult to photography—it is evidence of his immense respect for the artist’s work.

Figures, action, and life

“Art is the realization of utopia in a person’s brain,” Güler told The Guide Istanbul at his Ara Café in Galatasaray in 2015. “So there is no art really. Art goes as soon as it is made. And not everyone can be a Picasso.” When the 87-year-old legend of Turkish photography speaks, his words have the same rough honesty, nostalgia, and humanity as his photographs. For Güler, who began his career as a photojournalist, photography is primarily a form of documentation, never purely decorative. “Photography is a piece of reality. Where there is photography, there is life, there is action,” he said. “I never take photographs without people. I don’t get excited by beautiful landscapes.”

Güler’s Istanbul portraits from the 1950s and 60s epitomize his fascination with humanity: a startled child peeks out from between Ottoman gravestones, fishermen in flat caps wait in their wooden boats, men graze horses beside a ruin of the city’s Byzantine walls, a headscarved woman passes bread through a ship’s porthole. These everyday moments, captured by Güler’s lens, take on the aura of cultural archetypes. Each person in his frame seems to tell a few words of their story, adding to the ragged jigsaw of tales that composes Istanbul and its people.

Now and then

Despite his birth to a wealthy Armenian family, Güler’s images often focus on the toil and domestic life of the working class. But with rampant development, massive immigration from the rural provinces, and an influx of foreign money, the city has changed at an alarming rate over the last half century—and society changes with its environment. “People have changed, faces have changed, minds have changed,” he says. “The intellectual life that used to be here has gone.”

Güler’s pessimism about the present might also stem from the incomparable quality of his own life. “Picasso, Chagall, Dali—that kind of person won’t come again,” he says. “They were of great benefit to the world. But I didn’t go to them as famous painters, I went to them as friends.” As for his own future, Güler trusts in the power of books to preserve his legacy. “The publisher Skira created the Picasso we know. Picasso exists today because of those books,” he says. Güler’s colleague Fatih Aslan has helped to publish a Turkish-English biography of Güler, Bir göz bir makine ve gerçek (One eye, one camera, and reality), compiling an intriguing mix of photographs, anecdotes, and personal history.

While this book will perpetuate Güler’s work in physical form, the spirit infused in his photographs will still linger in the doorways of dark houses, in the smiles of children, in the eyes of wrinkled men. 

Bir göz bir makine ve gerçek, as well as collections of Ara Güler’s work, can be found at most reputable bookshops in the city. Visit Ara Güler Archives and Research Center aTarihi Bomonti Bira Fabrikası, Birahane Sokak No.1, Bomonti; T: (0212) 335 95 95