Sackler Gallery’s photo exhibition proves a Turkish delight

January 23, 2014

Shoved into a tiny gallery in the sublevel of the Freer & Sackler Galleries, 24 photographs by photojournalist Ara Güler are on display in an exhibit titled “In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia,” curated by students at Johns Hopkins University.

Güler is widely considered to be Turkey’s most prominent and internationally acclaimed photographer. His work has been featured in Time and Life magazines, the London Sunday Times, as well as the Turkish magazine Hayat.

In spite of all of his success, Güler maintains that photography is not art. Squeezing one’s way around this tiny gallery proves otherwise. The dark gray walls in the space served to brilliantly highlight the photographs. The overhead lighting was focused on the walls, cutting out all other distractions.

The exhibit, composed of photographs from the early 1960’s, documents the historical architecture of Anatolia, the central region of Asian Turkey. This area has historically changed hands multiple times, from the Hittites to the Ottomans to the Byzantine Empire.

An  East-West dichotomy is present in Güler’s exquisite work. The exhibit is replete with centrally-planned churches, spires, and impressive domes. The photographs seem to have been taken on another planet. Images of incredible structures, covered in stylized bas-reliefs, are juxtaposed against arid and mountainous landscapes.

The exhibit is organized around themes that the Hopkins students felt categorized the bodies of work, from “magic” to “change” to “truth,” among others. The labels throughout the exhibit were patronizing and unnecessary.

Given all of these elements, the question remains whether these photographs are art or, rather, artifacts and records of history. From the perspective of a viewer decades after the fact, the photographs seem iconic images from a renowned photographer, undoubtedly showcasing substance and art. His images of cultural monuments in Turkey aren’t static. They create an experience.

With only 24 photographs, the exhibit is small, and you are guaranteed to leave wanting more. Güler’s work makes the viewer uncomfortable, challenging typical understandings of architecture, setting, and human impermanence, just as incredible art should.


Sackler Gallery
1050 Independence Ave., S.W.
10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily

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