ISTANBUL — “The beauties of nature appear to come alive between the hills in heavenly shimmer; the soothing coolness of green gardens filled with olive trees, cacti, and tamarisks,” Frédéric Auguste Antoine Goupil-Fesquet wrote upon arriving in Gaza in December 1839. An early practitioner of the daguerreotype, invented mere months before in his native France, Goupil-Fesquet had set sail from Marseille on a seven-month sojourn around the Eastern Mediterranean — the first known photography road trip.
Nearly two centuries later, 10 Turkish photographers set off to follow in his footsteps, traveling to the same cities Goupil-Fesquet and his artist companions — painters Émile Jean Horace Vernet and Charles Marie Bouton — visited to capture them with contemporary eyes. At the Pera Museum, an exhibition on the two journeys, A Road Story: 80 Years of Photography, contemplates how places and the way we perceive them have changed since the 19th-century dawn of photography.
With few of Goupil-Fesquet’s fragile daguerreotypes having survived to the present day, the exhibit paints a historical picture of the region using text excerpts from his published travelogue, reproductions of a set of lithographs based on his images — primarily Orientalist portraits and street scenes of the “exotic” East — and black-and-white photos of the 29 places on his itinerary, taken later in the 19th century.
The images by the contemporary photographers, curated by photography historian Engin Özendes for their varied visual languages, range from Cem Turgay’s surreal, cinematic scenes in neglected neighborhoods of İzmir, Turkey, to Sinan Koçaslan’s documenting of daily life amid ancient ruins and the scars of modern conflict in Baalbek and Beirut, Lebanon. The exhibition features work by contemporary photographers Coşkun Aral, Laleper Aytek, Ali Borovalı, Murat Germen, Sinan Koçaslan, Yusuf Sevinçli, Alp Sime, Lale Tara, Serkan Taycan, and Cem Turgay.
Murat Germen’s photos of highways, high-rises, billboards, and container ships in the Egyptian cities of Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, and Suez — arranged into grids and classified under headers like “Globalism/Expansion” or “Post-capitalism/Precarity” — stand in particularly stark contrast to the images taken by his predecessors. “I first conducted a detailed study on the political history of the country to create a thorough list of places to photograph,” Germen says in describing his approach. “The main purpose was to document the traces of colonialism in a country where imperialism left a very deep scar.”
Not all of the cities were able to be revisited. Photojournalist Coşkun Aral was denied entry to Gaza and had to use images he’d taken there previously. To represent Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, Aral chose photographs from his archives dating back to the 1980s, writing that “this is how we should remember them.”
Other photographers spent months getting visas or were prohibited by local authorities from shooting certain locations. “Though travel took a long time back in the 19th century, in some ways the original tour wasn’t so difficult,” Begüm Akkoyunlu, head of temporary exhibitions at the Pera Museum, tells Hyperallergic. “Back then, photography was a curiosity. Now it can be sensitive or risky.”
Since Goupil-Fesquet’s journey, photography has also become democratized and ubiquitous, a fact that created its own challenges for some of the Road Story artists, such as Ali Borovalı, who assignment included the wildly popular, and much-photographed, Greek island of Santorini. As Borovalı wrote in his exhibit text: “The difficult thing today is not dropping anchor on this shore, but taking a fresh look at it.”
A Road Story: 80 Years of Photography, curated by Engin Özendes, is on view through March 1 at the Pera Museum (Meşrutiyet Caddesi No.65, 34430 Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu, İstanbul).