Bruno Barbey’s Istanbul

Bruno Barbey has finally completed the Istanbul project on which he has been working so long. Now the exhibition, titled ‘Istanbul’, can be seen at Yapı Kredi’s Sermet Çifter Salon starting from April 16rd.

Bruno Barbey is a photographer who for 44 years has left his mark on Magnum Photos, founded 63 years ago by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues. Barbey, who transformed the black-and-white tradition by ushering in a new era with his impressive color photographs, bore witness to the events of 20th century history with his camera. Although he does not regard himself as a war photographer, he has worked in conflict zones all over the world from Palestine, Vietnam, Iraq and Cambodia to Ireland, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Iran.

Born and raised in Morocco because of his father’s job and eager like many boys to be a pilot, Barbey landed a scholarship to study in France and become the country’s youngest pilot. But soon realizing, as he put it, that ‘the age of Saint-Exupéry was over’, he enrolled instead in Switzerland’s École des Arts et Métiers, where he would study photography and the graphic arts. ‘The Italians’ was his first major project, a project in which he tried to capture the soul of a nation and which opened Magnum’s doors to him in 1966. Following his success with the ‘May 1968’ project, the artist photographed Poland during the turbulent days of 1979-1981. This project, which had a profound impact and was later turned into a book, is acknowledged today as having pioneered color photo-journalism.

Barbey pursued another of his important color photography projects in Morocco for approximately 35 years. The most recent exhibition, ‘Istanbul’, of this artist who is addicted to color and shadow, is open to visitors at Yapı Kredi’s Sermet Çifter Salon April 16 through May 30. Part of Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture, the exhibition includes more than 70 color photographs.

Barbey, who made a name for himself with the black-and-white projects he carried out in his youth, is equally proficient when it comes to color. His masterful use of light and color and the warm relationship he forged with Istanbul and its people can be felt immediately in the photographs in the exhibition. Among the items seen through the artist’s lens are the ferryboats that ply back and forth between Europe and Asia, the city’s historic texture shaped by its Byzantine and Ottoman structures, its multiculturalism, its vibrant nightlife, the Eurasia Marathon, soccer matches and bird markets. We talked recently with Barbey as the exhibition was being prepared.

How long have you been photographing Istanbul?
I first came to Istanbul in 1968 for a Vogue photo shoot. But that was a brief visit. I’ve been coming to Istanbul frequently since 2005 for the exhibition project. I’ve come in different seasons and stayed at least 2-3 weeks each time. Istanbul is a world heritage chock full of cultural richness, and this always evokes in me a desire to photograph the city and its people.

You said of the ‘Italians’ series that Italians have no problem with photography. “Being photographed doesn’t make them uncomfortable,” you said. Is the same true of Istanbullu’s?
Yes, it is. Istanbul people are very warm and kind. I experienced no difficulties of any sort during the shoots. Compared with other big cities the people of Istanbul lead a less stressful life, which makes it easy to work here. I think the difficult thing is to work in Morocco, where the camera is thought to bring bad luck, or in Paris where people are unbelievably reluctant to have their picture taken.

As a photographer who is addicted to color and light, what most attracted you to Istanbul?
Istanbul is a dynamic city compared with the cities of Europe. For me it is more interesting and more fun. Most of all, Istanbul’s young population and their dynamism have a great impact on me. There are still traditions that are preserved in the city alongside modernism. Since 2005 when I began my shoots, I have witnessed an incredible change in Istanbul. The number of metro lines is increasing by the day. The Marmaray Project to join Europe and Asia by a tunnel under the Bosphorus is going forward, giant projects are unfolding and new shopping malls and culture centers opening. The Bosphorus has a big effect on me too. It’s very enjoyable to photograph Istanbul people getting up in the morning and going to work by ferry.

All the Magnum photographers that come to Istanbul always make their way to Ara Güler’s office in Galatasaray. How did your friendship with Ara Güler begin?
Ara Güler’s photography is a part of the cultural heritage. Photographers at the Magnum Agency develop very close relationships. My friendship with Ara goes back decades. We spent a lot of time together especially when I was in Istanbul. I had an opportunity to discover Ara’s kindness and hospitality.

We have seen you happily using your digital camera in Istanbul. Are all the photos in the exhibition digital photos?
Yes, I took almost all of them with a digital camera.

How has the digital photograph affected your view of photography? Do you think it’s correct to make a distinction between digital photography and analog photography?
I always like to work with new techniques, because they always brings with them new styles of taking photographs. I was one of the first to use color film, for example. You can do interesting things by trying new styles. Digital photography enables us to take photographs under even the dimmest light conditions. Something we were not able to do with analog cameras.

When you embarked on this photography project, did you have specific goals in mind like holding an exhibition or publishing a book, or does the course the project takes determine those things?
I have traveled in many countries on all the continents. I have taken many short trips for the purpose of publishing in news magazines. If I have stayed more than a few times in a particular region this excites me and I say that I need more time to explore it. When I carry out an in-depth project, I leave something behind by holding an exhibition or, especially, publishing a book.

Recently you have been working in Brazil and South Korea. In what stage are those projects?
I have been making trips to Brazil for the last forty years. In 2008 I held an exhibition at the Pinocoteca Museum in Sao Paulo as part of ‘French Year in Brazil’. I also held an exhibition about Korea in Paris with six Koreans. I have a book project on Korea, too. I have also been photographing Shanghai recently for an exhibition project.

Do you think your new projects are getting away from photo-journalism?
I discovered photo-journalism when I first joined Magnum 44 years ago. I witnessed major socio-political events, I worked in conflict zones. But subjects with a historical, cultural and social aspect were always a priority with me. In recent years I have taken more interest in cultural projects especially. I would rather see the world’s beautiful sides for a change.

The golden age of photo-journalism is at en end. The old days when it impacted the public are far behind. How do you envision the future?
I got a chance to work during that heyday. Even if the number of those wanting to do journalism as in those days increases, the magazines that could finance that kind of journalism no longer exist. The speed of transmission of digital photographs keeps photographers from working on their won. Earlier, we would only communicate with editors from week to week. Now that period has been reduced to almost once a minute. Like many of my Magnum colleagues, I too would rather spend more time on fewer subjects.

Magnum focused on photo-journalism when it was founded 62 years ago. Today it has become a cosmopolitan organization that opens its door to photographers who work in a variety of styles. How do you view this transformation that Magnum has undergone in parallel with social change?
Photo-journalism has been in decline for a long time. Photographers are getting interested in new lines of work like exhibitions and the sale of photographic prints. As a result, many different styles have developed at Magnum, too. There is a trend from press photography to artistic photography at the agency.