Vanishing Point

A Photographic Opera in Four Acts Ahmet Ertuğ Text by W.M. Hunt

Vanishing Point

by W.M. Hunt

Van·ish·ing point, noun,

  1. a point at which receding parallel lines seem to meet when represented in linear perspective.
  2. a point at which something disappears or ceases to exist.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The artist sits. The music begins to play; it’s “Keith Jarrett at The Blue Note”, and the volume is turned up. The artist takes a seat on the divan directly in front of the speaker. He sits just so and listens intently. The writer follows suit. There appears to be some unspoken tea ceremony-like ritual to this. They are in the top floor salon in the artist’s Istanbul studio. They both listen.

After the music has established itself, the artist asks the writer if he notices how the lead shifts from the piano to the bass to the drums and back, artfully improvised.

The song is a classic, but it’s the jazz, the interpretation that the artist responds to, and this strikes the writer as how he approaches his photography.

Ahmet Ertuğ is the artist, and he seeks the sublime, which offers the possibility of transcendence, of disappearing. He loves architecture, Classic Roman and Ottoman and Byzantine. He trained as an architect and practiced as one for a number of years then gave it up for photography.

He is a formalist, and he loves structure - domes and columns, and deep perspective, the way the eye speeds towards an unseen vanishing point, traveling to a separate dimension. He looks for and photographs places that are sacred and secular temples of splendor where he responds to the matrices of line, an extraordinary intersection of curves and vectors. The artist also likes the explosion of detail in decor: mosaics, frescoes and painted ceilings, ornate moldings and pilasters.

The artist, the photographer, makes his negative, a large one, 8 x 10 inches or 20 x 25 cm with a large format Sinar p2 view camera, a modern generation of his other classic antique cameras with dark wood housings and brass lenses. It weighs over 20 kilograms and must be unwieldy when combined with a tripod, both bulky and balky. With a light meter he sorts through the highlights and the shadows of the space in front of him to find the medial reading to determine exposure time. He gets his reading then “adds a little”, finessing the work based on experience, imagination and intuition, like a baker who doesn’t time the cake but can smell when it is ready.

He looks at the focus to find the optimum spot. There is very little depth of field. This is why he likes to shoot down from above the horizon. He is ordaining the unique marriage between light and time and focus. It is all analogue, working just like his 19th Century predecessors.

Yes, it is film. The artist has more confidence in the old technology.

At the the back of the camera, the rectangle beckons, literally. The image is upside down, and he is under a dark cloth. He searches for fullness in the frame: magic and the balance. Sometimes it is uncanny, the symmetry. Click.

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The exposed films are developed in France in one of the few labs still capable of doing this, and the results are returned to Istanbul. In the home studio these get scanned on a sophisticated drum scanner, and the analog film is converted to a high resolution digital image file. The raw image is fine tuned for color and contrast adjustments in the computer by his assistants to his precise description. They become the Keith Jarrett trio managing the colors and amplifying or muting the light, which will yield delight.

There will be a final scan that gets printed, mounted and framed or published in one of his lush, luxe books.

The finished image is a revelation. It fills the quadrangle exactly. He plays all the right notes,he weaves the perfect carpet, he fills the glass full to the brim, etc. You scan it with your eyes, registering the information of the piece: a library, a theatre, a mosque. You search the matrix: the interplay of angles, the curves, the perspective all meeting, and the details and the color drawing you in closer. Sometimes there are bold swathes of negative space. The viewer becomes conscious of how every inch of the image is accounted for. There is nothing random.

When the writer or the viewer encounter the final product - the book page or the framed print, there is the initial impact of the work’s monumentality. The eye goes in low and to the middle and moves along the central axis. It scurries through, scrambling to devour the detail, the color and the line. We may discover a long library hallway, a domed mosque, or a theatre proscenium framing the view exactly.

This is unusual because most often the experience of looking is momentary, quick , like the shutter of camera. We see it, and we’re done. The experience here takes longer. It is meditative and considered.

Later the artist is eager to show the writer a special lens he uses. It is German, a 120mm Hypergon made by Goerz during 1910-20’s. The ingenious star shape fan in the center was designed to equalize the exposure from the center to the edges. It has a tiny propeller in the center of it that spins. This changes the optics; it prevents the light in the center of the image from flaring, from receiving too much.

It is ingenious. The artist is at work, seeking what Edmund Burke described as “an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling” [1]

* * *

The portfolio of images in this volume is subtitled “A Photographic Opera of Four Acts”. The artist’s connection to classical music is probably even stronger than to jazz. His father loved opera and ballet and introduced his son to them. He remembers a “hypnotic” La Traviata. He listens to Cecilia Bartoli, Renée Fleming, and lately Sonya Yoncheva on his impressive custom sound system, flanked by his equally imposing and dramatic photographs of the Paris Opera Garnier with its reds and scrolls and luminosity and the Teatro Bibiena in Mantua looking like a king’s royal toy playhouse. These are temples for listening like his studio.

But recognize that opera has another meaning that is as revealing about the artist. Opera is Latin for work. Work for the artist is transformative and complete. Work is his fulfillment. He dresses like a workman, in a daily uniform of a modest and practical cotton shirt and pants, with a foulard sort of flourish at his neck. The clothes are dark, and he says he feels transparent in this outfit behind the camera, like the Japanese "Bunraku" puppet players. There is an almost ritual-like completeness in his preparation and execution of the work. This is the heart and soul of this artist.

The artist’s studio is a five storied palazzo in the heart of Istanbul in the Çukurcuma neighborhood. It is an uncommonly handsome, restored Italianate house with a number of bespoke salons on each level with Chesterfield sofas and objets although one has the sense that the music room is less public. The finished photographic prints are displayed in solid looking wood frames.

Here one can sit and look.

The writer imagines upper class tourists making the Grand Tour in the second half of the 19th Century stopping in photography studios in the Middle East, like this, to stop and purchase albums of images of the important local sites, the Hagia Sophia. Ironically the artist here has made his own grand tour, traveling east and in reverse, especially to Italy. The studios of Europeans like Maxime du Camp and James Robertson were established here, and the history of photography in Turkey is dense with practitioners like the Abdullah Frères and publishers like Kitabi Hamdi Efendi. Sultan Abdülhamid II set up a studio and commissioned a range of albums.

He loves Istanbul. The artist himself has lovingly reproduced a facsimile portfolio of engravings: “Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore, guimét les designs de M. (Antoine Ignace) Melling”, an album from 1819. Melling was influential in Ertuğ’s work on historic Istanbul. One of these exquisite albums lies open on a refectory table in a salon. The 19th Century engraving and photographic style was handsome and formal, a somewhat cosmopolitan hybrid of European and Ottoman, especially with local practitioners. It was the subject matter, mosques and minarets and the like that were foreign and exotic to these travelers.

These elegant viewing rooms on the four floors of studio building feel timeless. It’s quiet now, without the music. We sit - the artist and the writer - and then the latter wanders and looks.

The framed print and the book page are so big. How did he ever maneuver them into these rooms?The scale is daunting and confrontational as it is meant to be. It’s architectural. The artist wants us to inspect the detail, to go along inch by inch examining the image. That initial moment of sharp surprise upon arriving in front of the work is intentional. Stop. Gape. Breathe. Slowly take it all in, what the artist lays out in front of you. The work is charged with excitement: color and scale, fueled by the artist’s capacious pleasure in the marvels he is photographing and in how he is doing it.

The proportion of his film is 8 x 10 inches, but he is always pushing the limits of photography. He meets the challenge of the Hagia Sophia's colossal interior by experimenting with the antique super wide angle Hypergon lens to capture its vast space by exposing two film cassettes like a diptych. By sliding the back of the camera left and right, he can expose two films side by side in camera, within the huge image circle of the lens. This doubles the horizontal dimension.

Depth of field is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. The artist determines that aesthetically and artistically. The point of focus plays curiously. Our eyes find it instinctively, and we have some sense of in and out. But it is flat, two dimensional.

At first we are kept away, but the four sided plane draws you in and nearer to a portal that seems to open to a space just beyond, as if there were a room within. We can proceed into a sanctuary that is imagined, sensed. It is as deep as the door is wide. It’s as if DaVinci’s L'Uomo Vitruviano has stepped off a cubicle for us, the viewer.

This is a virtual place for meditation, for seeing viscerally, not simply with our eyes. We have entered in and vanished. This is the artist’s magic trick, disappearing.

You float in this space, gliding along shelves of books, draped curtains or balcony rails, dancing with the pastel colored mythologies on walls and ceilings. Degrees of brightness and shadow lead you, sometimes counterintuitively, going into the light, a limbo of transcendence. American playwright Eugene O’Neill describes it “like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.  For a second, you see - and seeing the secret are the secret. ” [2]

The writer has asked the artist if there are journeys in classic literature that attract him, like The Iliad, Siddhartha, epic tales from Turkish folklore, but he insists no.

This is his fantastic voyage.

* * *

Part of the music the artist plays is in the colors; the theaters with their deep red velvets in the swags and seats, and the various golds, all testify to past histories honoring the excellence of performance. The libraries have dark woods; the spines of books are white, brown and beige, almost golden; these are our histories. The sun pours in from above or the side. The artist’s long exposures show us more than if we were actually standing where the artist and his tripod are situated.

He can position himself as the diva looking out at the house or as the regent in the central box looking back. Or his point of view can be the head librarian, somewhat elevated, considering the endless shelves and vast space. Or it can be that of the visitor, again a bit higher than eye level, allowed to wonder at maps and desks and chairs and lines of books.

Organic similes abound; it’s like the ribs of the whale, the giant butterfly, the beehive perfectly filleted.

The viewer’s eye dances to the artist’s music. The experience becomes physical, beyond aesthetic. The journey is exalted, spiritual. The soul soars.

This ardor on the writer’s part may feel hyperbolic so to reign it in, let it be said that the artist, at the very least, takes you, the viewer, out of yourself if only for a millisecond.

That’s what an artist does.

* * *

Ertuğ’s images play as large framed prints on the wall and as pages in his lavishly illustrated and produced books. It is likely that more people will experience the work on the printed page than in galleries or museums. The artist has published at least two dozen books in his career. The quality of his images translates to the page beautifully. The care in the production of the books is impressive. The scans, the different papers, the special Japanese inks. the binding are all top tier. The full assembly of a book involves craftsmen in Italy. Switzerland and Germany. The expense of each book is born out by the amount of hand work, cost of materials and complexity of production.

The earliest book illustrated with photograph images is considered to be Anna Atkins’ self-published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, produced in October 1843, and this was followed less than a year later by Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature,the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published. It is difficult to ascertain the first commercially published book with color images but color half tones of Eiffel tower images by an unattributed artist were published in France in 1889.

In the modern era, David Brower at the Sierra Club is credited with inventing the modern “coffee table” book celebrating nature photography with "a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance. ”[3] The first of these was "This is the American Earth", featuring photographs by Ansel Adams and published in 1960, but he could have been describing how one looks at a page in this artist’s books.

Since then the genre of book making has been revolutionized by digital technology. One could trace the arc of 30 years of photo book publishing technology on a shelf of Ertuğ’s works.

The artist’s investigations of Byzantine and Ottoman sites: Hagia Sophia, A Vision of Empires; Sinan: An Architectural Genius; Chora: The Scroll of Heaven; and Domes and Asian art in Spiritual Journey: Sacred Art from the Musée Guimet, done in partnership as Ertuğ & Kocabıyık, were followed by the self-published The Hermitage: a Palace and a Museum.Further there are the facsimile limited editions of the artist’s works and historical portfolios, all singularly handsome, collectively magnificent. They are sizable, weighty, meant to be looked at on a table and cherished for generations, a legacy of art, history and craft.

The impact of these publications and the volume the viewer is holding is that these images may be more widely seen on the printed page rather than as framed works. Time will tell.

* * *

Part of the artist’s history includes a period of learning and living in Japan after finishing his initial architectural studies. The artist speaks of observing the ritual raking of the dry gardens in a temple Kyoto at and how that informs his response to order and to time.

“Kyoto was a paradise of photography with so many beautiful temples and gardens. I was fascinated with the kare sansui dry gardens. One day I asked the monks of Ryoanji temple that I want to photograph the raking of the gravel gardens. The monk who does the raking told me to be in the temple early in the morning. He started the raking from one corner and like a ballerina he went precisely over the previous raking path. This was an amazing experience; I was photographing him continuously. It was a combination of spirituality with choreography. I asked him why they do this raking every day as the gravel can keep its form for some days. His answer was ‘it looks more fresh when raked every day’. The intricate patterns of the garden has kept its form and structure precisely the same look for many years”.

That monk would appreciate the way the artist fills the frame so thoroughly and thoughtfully.

In the artist’s newer work, on view in this volume, there is some fresh investigation. He is intent on exploring surface. We see frescoes and paintings. He may be ready to embrace more abandon, to flirt with chance.

There is a Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an artistic acceptance of transience and imperfection, the ability to respond to beauty that isn’t perfect or permanent, without a sense of completion. The artist reveals that this is attractive to him. The consistent perfection of the artist’s work challenges the potential for this. In the artist’s ouevre, it is remarkable to discover an image without perfectly calibrated balance, but this notion for the artist sets a potential new course.

It is valuable to consider one of the artist’s images from the 1970’s “Avenue of the Torii Gates at Fushimi Shrine, Kyoto”. This is a diptych revealing two similar covered passageways. An uncountable number of vermilion gates stand over irregular slate gray walkways that disappear out of view around curves in the center of each frame like a wacky piano keyboard skewed radically out of line. The image also behaves like two eyes looking out and in, with rivers of information or life or spirit flowing through.

The success of this work is its off-centeredness and the yīn-yáng of the red against the dark gray. On close inspection one can see that the writing (benefactors’ names) can only be seen on the right. The artist is entering and exiting simultaneously. This is all very zen and something to bear in mind when looking at the entirety of the artist’s career.

* * *

The artist is by training an architect, university schooled in London. He lived there for six years, but he was raised in Turkey. This is home base. He grew up familiar with the indigenous buildings of Ankara Citadel, organic constructions of mud, brick, wood and stone. He respects his origins and, that said, he has a passion for deep perspective and the genius of domes, which are peculiarly Byzantine. He sees the structure like an architect and revels in the embellishment. The Roman architect Vitruvius had three principles of good architecture: durability (firmatis), utility (utilitas) and beauty (venustatis). Ertuğ embraces the three.

Lately he appears enraptured by the exuberance of the painted scenes and ceilings of the Rooms of Love and of Giants at Palazzo Te in Mantua and the vibrant mosaic work on the curved walls of Castello di Sammezzano. The designs here are completely over the top. There is an element of abandon, of chaos, that we may not have been as conscious of in the earlier work. It has probably always been the subtext, an undercurrent of passion. Mr. Ertuğ finds an impossible balance between the sober and precise and the mad exuberance of a psychedelic fever dream.

The artist’s expertise with the many libraries of Palatine, Parma, Torino, Mantua and Florence feels freshly charged, intensely exhilarating. The works are resolved and artful. This portfolio of marvels, four acts of theatres, libraries, palazzos and basilicas takes us out of ourselves to a place in which to disappear.

The artist opens the door. Enter.

[1] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757.

[2] Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night, 1955

[3] Finis Dunaway, Natural Visions, The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, University of Chicago Press, 2005

Act One A Teatro

Act Two Al Palazzo

Act Three Alla Biblioteca

Act Four Alla Basilica