Review: We Will Live After Babylon, Ara Güler

By Liam Murray

“I am not an artist”


It was this claim, which Ara Güler repeated ad nauseam throughout his photographic career, which crept into my mind as I trawled the “Arts” section looking for his final published work, to no avail. Perhaps now only after his death, then, I considered, Güler might for once have finally cast off the role of his being anything other than “a mirror that reflects reality”.

But the fact is, that We Will Live After Babylon, a collection of twelve short stories written by Güler and published in a scattering of Turkish and Armenian-language literary rags in-and-around the 1950s, makes plain that Güler doth protest too much. This is a collection that shows not only an expectedly weighty observance of the real, but an artistic license and imagination that should seal the truth that Ara Güler was, indeed, an artist. 

His photographic works have left a trail of countless imitators to this day. Every weekend, would-be Gülerites still leave the comfort of their posh apartments in Cihangir and Moda to pick over the bones of what is left of the old and rugged Istanbul of Güler’s heyday, still on view in the slums of neighbourhoods like Balat and Tarlabaşı. But the results, in all their iPhone-filter glory, are leaps and bounds from the stark, yet irresistible moments captured by The Originator. 

Equally as comfortable at exhibition openings as in the many meyhanes of which he müdavimed, one gets the sense from Güler’s tone in interviews, constantly aiming to demystify his work and frame it as a simple product of technique, that it was in the company of straight-shooters irreverent to the art world with which he always felt more at home. So many of the character vignettes in his stories focus on society’s uncut gems: the penniless bar owner, the rudderless fisherman, the wounded veteran-turned-truck driver. 

Güler notes in his foreword that, like cinema and theatre, story-writing was an interest that was soon to wane into the distance of his early artistic life as photography began to consume him in ever-greater amounts. When admiring his prose, one thus cannot avoid noting either this background or the inevitability of the later shift. Even in one-set pieces, such as A Strange New Year’s Eve, much focus is poured onto minutiae and stage directions, while in pieces such as “Desert Moon”, one enjoys a telling engagement with colour and tone;

“Perhaps the moon will come out in half an hour. Now, in terms of colours, we have the dark blue of the sky and the black of the desert. But when you have been on the yellow earth of the desert all day, you unavoidably add some of that yellow to this black. Now we are travelling in the midst of the yellow-and-black. The moon has not come out yet, but it will.”

The way these short pieces wrap themselves up, or rather, intentionally fail to do so, shows more than a hint of the existentialism in vogue at the time, but I feel that this is a blind alley if one is looking to find Güler’s philosophies between the lines. In fact, I believe the often-abrupt abandonment of the scenes owes more to Güler’s love of capturing the moment. This, nothing less and nothing more.

It would be a crime, however, to view We Will Live After Babylon as simply a forerunner to Güler’s photorealism, when much of the work is highly surreal and – oft-times – stems into the realm of poetry. 

Examples abound. It is interesting to find, for instance, that it is one such stream-of-consciousness piece, devoid of time and space, whose title lends itself to the entire collection. In We Will Live After Babylon, the narrator introduces himself with delicious ambiguity;

“I’m blonde, white, Abyssinian, black. I was born in Greenland, Cape Town. Addis Ababa, Mumbai, Sulukule, Sydney, Leningrad, New York. Canada or Nagasaki... I am sixteen, twenty-seven, thirty-five or sixty-seven years old. I was born, that’s enough.”

The abstractness stretches itself even further in “The Lamp, Numbers and Love”, which takes place for the most part inside a gas lamp shining above the fictional ‘Number Street’, the inhabitants of which seemingly only referring to themselves in numerical form. It is a tale of love and sexual burning between what the reader is left to assume are two fairy-like creatures sheltering within the warm glass to escape the torrential rain. 

This departure from the real may seem uncharacteristic, even shocking, to those familiar with the photographer Güler, but only mild reflection is needed to see that he is ideally placed to do so. Güler gives away very little in the way of his own identity and background. It is a fact that can even escape the most bookish of Turkish culture vultures that Güler is ethnically Armenian and no hint of this is given even in the final story, which is a true and personal account of his father’s death and reflects upon the visit both men took to their ancestral home village in Anatolia. This characteristic is testament to the fact of Güler’s preparedness to embody the neutrality of his tools – whether the pen or the camera lens.

Similarly, Ara Güler’s political views are never hinted at in the text, either. Again, this is typical, given how obscure they were throughout his photographic career. Güler has striking similarities in his observance of neutrality with contemporary fellow photographer, Man Ray. Whereas the latter’s obstinate lack of interest in that which divides allowed him to slip seamlessly between the warring factions of the various artistic movements of inter-war Paris, the very same stance allowed Güler to document the rich and powerful, from Tayyip Erdoğan to Indira Gandhi, as comfortably as he would the blue collar-workers of Istanbul, from sailors to bar tenders, train-drivers, and more. He slipped between social circles, a spirit peering through the walls. 

My Father’s Story is a sombre ending to the book, given that Ara Güler’s decision to release these works came in the midst of a fervour of activity that saw him take the helm of the archiving and safe-guarding of his own work at the end of his life. After all, it was only months after the release of this book that the artist, then aged 90, would join his father in the Other Realm, all preparations having finally been realised. 

Güler’s resentment at being considered an “artist” made it important for him to take charge of the way his memory would be framed in posterity. However, We Will Live After Babylon, when taken as a snapshot of the photographer himself, in style and execution, unapologetically reflects the greatest of realities: That Ara Güler was, in fact, an artist in his own right. Perhaps, just not for the craft he is best remembered by.