Making the Modern Turkish Citizen. Vernacular Photography in the Early Republican Era
Author: Özge Baykan Calafato
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, UK
It is difficult to break free of the gaze that meets readers on the front page of Making the Modern Turkish Citizen. A gaze that is awake, attentive, decisive, and yet searching, cautiously challenging, and immensely insisting, underscored by tranquil features and a pair of lips that seems to be on the verge of a mischievous smile. Is it a woman? A man? Neither?
The photo portrait is part of a series of six that cultural analyst Özge Baykan Calafato bought in an antique shop in the Taksim Cihangir-neighbourhood in Istanbul in 2014. The photos were made in five different photo studios around the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, and the person in the portraits has such variating aesthetic (gender)expressions that you have to pay close attention to discover that it is indeed one and the same person in all six. The face and the hair have even been slightly retouched in some photographs. The nose, the mouth, small birthmarks and not least, the gaze, however revealing. But what else can with certainty be said about this person?
»Is it a man who enjoys dressing up as a woman? Is this a self-identified tomboy with indistinct features? Is the model an actor who relishes taking on an array of gender expressions?« Özge Baykan Calafato asks herself and the reader and refers to her great theoretical source of inspiration, Elizabeth Edwards#: Photography »deals not only with a world of facts, but the world of possibilities […] there is seldom a ‘correct interpretation’: one can say what a photographs is not, but not absolutely what it is.«
Through several years during the mid-2010s, Özge Baykan Calafato has collected a fascinating photo archive by trawling the markets of antiquities and rarities in Istanbul. She has catalogued the whole collection and submitted it to Akkasah – a photo archive at Mawrid, the Arab Center for the Study of Art at New York University in Abu Dhabi – under the title The Turkey Collection.
It is difficult to break free of the gaze that meets readers on the front page of Making the Modern Turkish Citizen.
Population and ideology
In her new book Making the Modern Turkish Citizen, she uses a selection of these photographs to analyse the relation between population and state ideology in the 1920s and 1930s Turkey during the establishment of the secular republic.
Through a thorough analysis of the aesthetic forms of expression, interpretations of the inscriptions that several of the photographs carry, an investigation of the (social) geography of the photo studios and the person gallery on the photos as well as their mutual social and class relations, Calafato encloses a new understanding of the relation between vernacular photography, nation building and identity formation under the Turkish modernisation project in the early 20th century.
Calafato carefully motivates her selection of photographs from the vast Turkey Collection for her study of self-representations among an emerging urban Turkish middle class in the 1920s and 1930s Kemalist republic. About the series of portraits of the inscrutable person from the cover of the book, she writes:
«The way in which these six portraits indicate different gendered selves is relevant in terms of what it has to say about how the Turkish modernisation project, which was directly concerned with redefining gendered identities, particularly for women, was negotiated in photography».
As this sentence illustrates, one must often read Calafato’s wordings several times to catch everything. She prefers interpolation and long chains of analytical points, and the book would have benefited from stricter editing. However, at times unnecessary linguistic complications in no way overshadow Calafato’s contagious excitement with photography as a historical source.
The overall narrative structure of Making the Modern Turkish Citizen is exquisite. For example, the reader, much later in the book – as well placed as it is unexpected – re-encounters the person in the portraits introduced in the beginning. Now with new and compelling information about who the person is, Calafato revisits her initial ideas about what the series of portraits actually expresses.
I am not quite convinced with this particular reading, and Calafato is often too ultimate in her evaluation of what photography is not. Nonetheless, through her narrative strategy, Calafato successfully gives the reader a sense of tagging along on a detective journey in the photo studios of the past, among amateur photographers, and among the people who populate these photographs left behind.
Whether or not you are interested in the specific time and (political) space which Making the Modern Turkish Citizen centres on, anyone with interest in historical method in general and photography as a source in particular will gain much from participating in Calafato’s investigation of vernacular photography in the early Turkish republican era.
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