The Armenian photo studio and the mountain

Photo by Maryam Şahinyan, on the right the author’s father, Istanbul, 1959. Courtesy: Tayfun Serttaş and Yetvart Tomasyan.

A sense of belonging has always been a challenging issue for many Armenians because of their history built upon exile and displacement. As an Istanbulite Armenian born in the mid-1980s, I didn’t have as much a geographical distance from my own history as that of an emotional and bureaucratic one. While growing up, it was a struggle dealing with institutionalised history taught in Turkish schools versus personal, intimate conversations with family members at home.

After obtaining degrees in interior architecture and photography as well as simultaneously developing my artistic practice, I realised that my concerns remained consistent as identity politics were always at the centre of my artistic production. I eventually focused on studio photography, an area where Armenian identity, spatial awareness and photography intersected. When photography first arrived in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century, religious constraints of Islam and Judaism meant that Christian minorities such as Armenians or Greeks were the ones able to advance in this profession early on.

Although the contemporary practice of studio photography is vastly different, the photographers worked back then with what seems like a religious devotion to the craft. Always anchored in a single location – at the same spot behind the camera – they photographed thousands of figures in slightly varying spatial arrangements. These included hand-painted backdrops conjuring up exotic landscapes or royal interiors fit for high aristocrats, styled with objects or architectural fragments which all collectively contributed towards displacing the subjects from their otherwise rather dull and monochrome reality. The studios therefore facilitated a voluntary kind of escapist fantasy for those who were photographed through this manner.

Photo by Maryam Şahinyan, a Young Girl in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, in 1941-1943. Courtesy: Tayfun Serttaş and Yetvart Tomasyan.

Maryam Şahinyan, the first woman studio photographer in Turkey, ran the studio “Foto Galatasaray” in the heart of Istanbul from the 1930s until the 1980s. This was quite unusual at that time because women were usually the subjects of the gaze, positioned in front of the camera and not behind it. Şahinyan’s studio became my entrance point for this wider research.

The studio as an architectural space was acting almost like a membrane between personal memories captured inside and historical events happening outside.

When I finally got access to her archive, I received a deeper glimpse into the processes underlying and history of Şahinyan’s work. I even found a photograph of my father taken in 1959 at her studio, which was a thrilling coincidence, encouraging me to go further. Şahinyan’s studio was sparsely decorated but clearly well-thought-out regarding the spatial arrangement and the use of simple props. In her seemingly infinite number of images, the figures slowly receded and a larger narrative emerged in its wake. This narrative clearly pointed towards exciting connections between studio photography and the socio-political upheavals of Istanbul during that period, such as Istanbul Pogrom (the state-organised riots against Istanbul’s minorities in September 1955) and migration from rural towns to the big cities, for instance. The studio as an architectural space was acting almost like a membrane between personal memories captured inside and historical events happening outside.

As part of my photographic series Void​ which came out following this research in 2014, I eliminated figures from Şahinyan’s photographs and all that remained instead were eerie spaces. The erased figures were then projected on settings that I had built. While mimicking Şahinyan’s studio space, I aimed to take the displacement to a further level, emphasising the tension between figure and space.

Hollow, from the series Void, 2014.
Insider, from the series Void, 2014.

This series gave birth to the idea of Foto Yeraz​ – “dream” in Western Armenian – which I submitted as a proposal for Beirut Art Residency. The idea consisted of a fictitious, vacant photo studio, where figures are absent while spatial elements such as large scale backdrops and props still continue to exist. In fact, they transition from functioning as objects into performing as the primary subjects instead. I was fortunate to spend six weeks in Beirut to research and produce work on this topic. It was the perfect location because Lebanon was one of the major hubs for studio photography, when many Armenians carried their businesses after leaving their hometowns during the genocide.

Bourj Hammoud, a neighbourhood originally built as a refugee camp in 1915 by the exhausted survivors of the death march in Deir ez-Zor in Syria, and still populated mainly by descendants of the exiled Armenians, represents an attempt for socio-economic reconstruction and cultural survival for this dispersed community.

I definitely felt a kind of belonging that I never really experienced before, a sense of belonging in the outside world

As an Istanbulite Armenian, who grew up in a strictly Armenian-speaking household, wandering around Bourj Hammoud was an intense experience even for me. Most signboards and even the graffiti are also inscribed in the Armenian alphabet, along with Arabic and Latin. I definitely felt a kind of belonging that I never really experienced before, a sense of belonging in the outside world, the public space, rather than just being limited to the private spaces of houses.

Mountain of Foto Yeraz, 2016.

Consisting of several photographs taken in Bourj Hammoud, Mountain of Foto Yeraz serves as the main backdrop to Foto Yeraz, the fictitious photo studio. Following the fragmentary and metaphoric nature of backdrops, storefronts, signs and various textures accumulate to form the shape of a mountain, reminding the viewer of Mount Ararat and the dream of returning home. Yet the rupture between the two parts of the backdrop hints at a failure in completion of achieving this dream.

While getting acquainted with Bourj Hammoud, I started going in and out of shops, restaurants and photo studios with a strong kind of social confidence, and befriended many in the process. Apart from numerous enjoyable conversations, one encounter particularly remained with me. I happened to meet an Armenian studio photographer, whom I asked about backdrops; he belittled my Armenian accent which, for him, had a touch of Istanbul in it. To me, his reaction was an unfortunate example for the complexity and confusion now rife in the contemporary Armenian identity. It was disappointing to see that people, who once shared the same land for centuries, were now scattered around the world and instead of holding onto each other couldn’t tolerate slight diversities.

George Dervishian at Studio Sunset.

I nevertheless valued this experience because shortly afterwards, I walked into “Studio Sunset” few shops down the same street on Arax Street and became acquainted with its owner George Dervishian. He was born in 1949 in Aleppo, and first began studying photography in a famous studio of the city, then in a studio in Beirut, where he settled at the age of 22. Before reluctantly switching to digital photography in 2008, his small studio carried out traditional photo practices and still holds onto its classic studio appearance, even though people nowadays only walk in for passport photos with mostly monochromatic backgrounds.

Interior view of Studio Sunset.

As a witness to social and cultural transformations, Studio Sunset, just like its name, represents the fading characteristics of authentic photo studios and Dervishian’s workspace finds itself as a backdrop in Foto Yeraz.

Through this project, I wonder and raise questions about why a profession which facilitated the creation of fictive places was this popular among Armenians. Why did they hold on to it for so long, even after having left their former lives behind and moved to other countries? Was it an act of mourning or longing for somewhere else, as those varying backdrops once symbolised? Were they trying find their way back home again, or is the idea of home a dream for Armenians? While thinking about all these questions, through my work, I will continue to search for the answers.

The installation photographs were taken at Beirut Art Residency.

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