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Ara Güler and the Lost City of Aphrodisias

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The “Aphrodisias of Life,” photographed by Ara Güler

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

In 1958, Hayat magazine sent Turkish photojournalist Ara Güler to document the opening of the Kemer Dam in Aydin, Turkey. On the way back, his taxi driver got lost, resulting in the discovery of the ancient city of Aphrodisias, a cult center devoted to the goddess Aphrodite.

Because they could not find their way, Güler and his driver decided to spend the night in Geyre, a remote mountain village. While inquiring in the local coffeehouse about a place to stay, Güler noticed men playing card games on top of an ancient Roman column capital. Realizing that the town was built atop ruins, Güler awoke early the next morning and was led by children around the site, photographing the temple of Aphrodite, a hippodrome, and many sarcophagi. When he returned to Istanbul, he sent the images to the Architectural Review, and soon received a telegram from Horizon magazine requesting color photos and an article to go alongside the photo essay. Güler suggested Professor Kenan T. Erim as the author for this article. The New York University professor accepted the job and went on to devote his life to excavating Aphrodisias.

Aphrodisias by Ara Güler

The ruins of Aphrodisias, photographed by Ara Güler

When Erim began his excavations, archaeologists requested that the town of Geyre move two kilometers away. Güler has commented that the Aphrodisias he first visited was one of life: the people of Geyre put the relics to practical use in their daily lives. Now that the town has moved and Aphrodisias serves as a tourist attraction and excavation site, this “Aphrodisias of life” is gone. Güler says the site is now just history.

When he captured the vanishing town of Geyre, Güler accomplished one of his main photographic goals: to document change. Speaking about his images, Güler has said, “I have attempted to collect images of a vanished or vanishing way of life.”

Learn more about Aphrodisias and Güler’s effort to capture change in the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia, on view at the Sackler through May 4, 2014.

Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler’s work in the Freer|Sackler Archives. Follow the conversation using hashtag #AraGuler.

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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.

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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.

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