Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ara Güler: Photos at an Exhibition

The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, Ani; 1965; Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives; A1989.03

The Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents, Ani; Ara Güler, 1965; Freer Gallery of Art
and Arthur M. Sackler Archives; A1989.03

Johns Hopkins University students Christie YoungSmith and Gracie Golden helped curate the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia.

When we signed up for “Photographs on the Edge,” a Museums and Society practicum course at Johns Hopkins University, we expected an unorthodox experience. The course description marketed the class as an opportunity to work as a curator alongside Smithsonian staff, researching the work of Turkish Armenian photographer Ara Güler to develop an exhibition. It was without a doubt an extraordinary opportunity for an undergraduate.

On the first day of class, we met our professor, Nancy Micklewright, head of scholarly programs and publications at Freer|Sackler. She shared a slideshow of striking black-and-white images to introduce the class to the collection we would be working with throughout the semester. Depicting medieval Seljuk and Armenian monuments throughout Anatolia, Güler’s images capture ruins as they appeared in 1965. Blown away, we wondered aloud how we had gotten the opportunity to curate images by Turkey’s most famous photographer. Professor Micklewright responded that only one student proposal would be presented to a group of museum staff for development into a full-fledged exhibition. “You’re going to have to come up with some really compelling ideas,” was the implication; we would have to think like real curators.

Planning the exhibition at the Johns Hopkins practicum.

Planning the exhibition at the Johns Hopkins practicum.

After splitting into three groups, we took several trips to the Freer|Sackler Archives to work hands-on with the collection and generate ideas for exhibition proposals. Conducting historical research and visual analysis and even drawing up floor plans, the groups produced three exceptional proposals. The first focused on Güler’s images of Akdamar Island, the site of an Armenian church built in 922 CE. The second attempted to emulate Güler’s travels throughout Anatolia, moving geographically among the 10th–12th-century Armenian sites found in his photographs.

Ultimately, the proposal we chose to advance centered on the photojournalist himself. Although he is well recognized in the art world, Güler rejects the idea that he is an artist, arguing that his photojournalistic images “capture the truth” while art is “fictitious.” Our exhibition, which opened December 14, examines this ongoing debate between document and art, asking viewers to draw their own opinions about Güler’s historically significant and aesthetically striking images.

As we originally suspected, “Photographs on the Edge” offered a unique class experience. Not many undergraduates are able to say they have guest-curated an exhibition at the Smithsonian. Working with Freer|Sackler staff to develop this concept has been a truly extraordinary and rewarding adventure.

Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler and the lost city of AphrodisiasIn Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia remains on view in the Sackler through May 4, 2014. Follow the conversation using hashtag #araguler.

Ara Güler: A Tale of Two Cities

Ara Guler in Aphrodisias, ca. 1964

Ara Güler in Aphrodisias, ca. 1964

Though best known for photographs of Istanbul, Ara Güler’s catalogue of more than 800,000 prints is also rich in images of landscapes and archaeological ruins, such as those he documented in Anatolia (Turkey’s Asian heartland) in the early 1960s. Throughout both groups of images, Güler manages to capture vanishing worlds. In Istanbul, traditional life is replaced by rapid development and urbanization, while in Anatolia the enemy is time, as illustrated by the crumbling of ancient monuments.

Güler sees himself as a visual historian who captures the life of his city as it undergoes change. His Istanbul has been the scene of popular protests, including the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977, a Labor Day rally that spurred clashes between political parties. More recently, he captured this past summer’s protests in Taksim Square about the proposed development of nearby Gezi Park, which elicited fear about the disappearance of Istanbul’s cultural heritage. Though more than twenty-five years apart, Güler captured both protests in dramatic photographs that verge on the cinematic.

Ara Güler, A family flees from the fray (Istanbul May Day Massacre) at Taksim Square 1977

A family flees from the fray (Istanbul May Day Massacre) at Taksim Square 1977

Despite the popularity of his images of Istanbul, Güler feels his real contributions to human history are his photographs of archaeological and historical sites. The diverse architecture of Anatolia not only features different traditions and styles, but it also represents the fusing of religions and peoples over thousands of years. Compared to his photographs of Istanbul, these quiet, often unpeopled images are universal meditations on time and history.

Today, Güler often can be found just a few blocks from Taksim Square in a café that occupies space below his archive. He always carries a camera with him, ready to add to the archive that contains hundreds of thousands of his images, including those of Antatolian architecture. A selection of these will be featured in the Sackler exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, opening on December 14.

Join the conversation with hashtag #araguler.

In the Swim: Dolphins in Ancient Egypt

Photograph of the Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, taken by Ernst Herzfeld in 1908, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

The Nile River with the Pyramids of Giza in the background, photo by Ernst Herzfeld, 1908,
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.3241

Alex Nagel is assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at the Freer|Sackler.

For every modern traveler to the southern Mediterranean, dolphins are a familiar image along the coast of North Africa. The ancients also loved dolphins, and dolphins, it seemed, loved them. The Roman author Pliny the Elder described how a dolphin at the settlement of Hippo Diarrhytos on the North African shore ate from people’s hands. The dolphin also offered himself to their touch, played as they swam, and often gave people a ride on its back. The Roman author Claudius Aelianus (ca. 175–235) described the dolphin as the king of sea animals. In ancient Greece, dolphins were prominently featured on coins, while in Hindu mythology the dolphin is associated with Ganga, the deity of the Ganges River.

Glass Dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

Glass dolphin, Egypt, Roman period, 1st-2nd century CE, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.855

A year after the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948) traveled the Nile River in 1909, Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), while on a trip to Egypt, acquired a collection of more than one thousand ancient Egyptian glass objects from the dealer Giovanni Dattari (1858–1923). Among them were two glass objects in the shape of a dolphin. Their original function is unknown, and today we can only guess what they might have meant to their original owners. Dattari, whom Freer had first met on a trip to Cairo in 1907, was an employee of a travel agency and also worked as a purveyor to the British Army in Egypt. His villa in Cairo was a welcoming meeting place for foreign archaeologists, Egyptologists, and businessmen. Dattari was well connected to excavations in Egypt and knew the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), who excavated at the extensive archaeological site of Amarna on the east bank of the Nile River. Today, almost every major museum on the eastern coast of the United States is a proud holder of materials from Dattari’s collections.

Look for dolphins and other creatures in the exhibition The Nile and Ancient Egypt, opening at the Freer Gallery on December 7 and remaining on view indefinitely.