Photo: Murat Germen, 2013. Courtesy: Aga Khan Museum.

A City Transformed: Aga Khan Museum’s Visual History of Istanbul

It’s been a hectic few months, and am glad to be returning to the writing table to reminisce about a fabulous, chilly February evening spent at the A City Transformed exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum. Photography has, for many generations, been one of the most powerful mediums of communication. As we move into the 21st century with 4K video, virtual reality, and other great inventions, photography will always hold its position as the daddy of powerful storytelling. From Steve McCurry’s infamous Afghan Girl (1984) National Geographic cover, to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) that captured the Great Depression, photography has continuously given us a perspective on the world, a way to understand the diversity that is comprised within it, and a way to experience the activities that have crafted the pathway of evolution for our planet.

While Editor Tess Flanders was being a total storyteller in 1911 when coining the now-overused phrase “it’s worth a thousand words”, that statement rings very true today. A photograph captures the momentary emotions of a particular scenario for all eternity, forever giving audiences a chance to relive the moment over and over again. It’s why photography is so valuable for historical purposes as it simply immortalizes a moment for safe keeping. Imagine all the historical events of our time that photography has impacted. From segregation to world wars, photography has been an important instrument in not just capturing the things that are important, but also making sure we don’t ever forget the lessons they represent.

Aga Khan Museum -- A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now
Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Hippodrome. Photo: James Robertson, 1854. Salted paper print mounted on card. Ömer M. Koç, Private Collection. Image courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum.

Now that I’ve gone all emotional about photography, I’m sure you can understand how excited I was when I got an invitation to visit the Aga Khan Museum and its latest exhibit A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now. Istanbul is easily one of the most iconic cities in the world, with so much history spanning multiple empires. An opportunity to see its rich economic and cultural history in visual form is not just spectacular, but an opportunity to really understand Turkish culture and the way in which it has evolved over time.

The exhibition is co-curated by Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip, Curator of the Aga Khan Museum, who gave all of us an in-depth history on the various pieces that were on display. She co-curated the exhibit with Bahattin Öztuncay, a leading scholar in Ottoman photography. His detailed studies about 19th century photography in the Ottoman capital and well-documented knowledge of people such as Ottoman Greek photographer Vassilaki Kargopoulo were integral to bringing this exhibition to life.

What you will find in the upper gallery of the Aga Khan Museum is no ordinary exhibit. It has taken the elements of Then and Now and really created a space in which you can see the contrasting history of Istanbul. To capture the historical elements of the city, the exhibition features 68 different historical pieces – including photographs, albums, and panoramas – from the private collection of noted Turkish collector, art philanthropist and businessman Ömer Mehmet Koç. These pieces feature the breath and diversity of photography from the period of the Ottoman empire, not only presenting different visual exhibits of life in Istanbul, but also the different photographic processes used to create the final product. From collodion prints to salted paper prints, the exhibit does feature a variety of photographic processes. Plus, the collection features a variety of Istanbul’s notable imagery, including historical locations such as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque taken by James Robertson in 1854 (see above).

Aga Khan Museum -- A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now
“Water-pipe smokers”. Photo: Photoglob Zürich, ca. 1890. With the tuğra of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Hand-tinted photochrom print mounted on board; binding: leather with gold tooling. Ömer M. Koç, Private Collection. Image courtesy of Aga Khan Museum

Something that caught my eye – and frankly shocked me – was a set of beautiful colour photographs that were printed in the late 1800’s. These images are hand-tinted photochrom prints mounted on boards, which were then bound together in a full leather book with gold tooling. Invented by Hans Jakob Schmid (1856-1924) in the 1880’s when he worked for the Swiss printing company Orell Füssli, the photocrom process involves the “direct photographic transfer of an original negative onto litho and chromographic printing plates” (Library of Congress). Füssli published these images under the imprint Photochrom Zürich, later changed to Photoglob Zürich, an imprint used on the images in this exhibition (see “Water-pipe smokers” image). It is a truly remarkable piece of art. To think that these photographs were from the 1800’s, to which colour was then manually added during the printing process, is just mind blowing. One look at these images and you would mistaken them for modern day efforts.

To capture Istanbul in more recent times, the exhibit features works by contemporary photographer Murat Germen. The cover photo of this article is one of his works that is being showcased at the gallery. In total, 19 of his photographs, 2 panoramas, and a digital animation are being featured. Comparing his works to historical images from the Ömer Mehmet Koç collection really provides an opportunity to see how Istanbul has evolved and how much of its history has remained intact.

A City Transformed is a beautiful exhibition that caters to multiple interests. Whether it be photography, history, or art, there is something for everyone at this exhibit. Make sure you catch this sophisticated exhibition before it wraps up June 26th, 2016.


References & Credits:

  1. Cover Photo: Photo by Murat Germen, 2013. From the series Muta-morphosis – Istanbul. Lambda C-print, provided courtesy of the artist to the exhibition. Image provided to us courtesy of Aga Khan Museum.
  2. Photochrom Prints (N.D.) Retrieved April 6th, 2016, from Library of Congress website:

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