Monday, August 13, 2012

The Black and White of Istanbul

Our favorite cafe in Instanbul is Ara Kafe. We fell “in like” with it last fall when we arrived in Instanbul for the first time. It serves excellent food.

Ara Kafe in Istanbul: Click on the photo to better see Ara Guler's photographs gracing the walls of this cafe.

The Sunday brunches are a delightful offerings of Turkish delicacies: local honey, something close to clotted cream, sliced cherry tomatoes, cheeses, some sliced cold cuts (which almost no one touches), nuts, olives, and various pestos comprised of olives, pistachio and sundried tomatoes. There are various Turkish pastries for desert.

It is surprising to me, as a Westerner to see this reasonable allotments of food displayed, almost as if for a dinner party, and people self-rationing themselves to the just the amount they need to get a taste of this and a nibble of that.

In America, the longest lines are at those eateries which serve the greatest amount of food.

We have only made brunch there twice. Mostly we are there for lunch. They make great salads and traditional Turkish meals which involve a little meat, grilled vegetables (most often tomatoes and peppers) and eggplant in various ways.

In my relentless survey of numerous eateries in Istanbul over three visits, I can confidently declare that they have the best köfte, which is a chopped-lamb meatball, served in a flattened, oval shape.

In addition to the great food, this cafe is infused with a Bohemian flavor, which stems from its name-sake. The cafe is named after – and an homage to – the photographer Ara Güler.

In this shot above and below, you can see his photographs dominate the walls of the small interior. I imagine Güler would disagree with me on that statement. I imagine he would say: “Istanbul dominates the walls.” If you click on the image, you can also make out that the paper placemats are copies of his photographs.

Ara Guler's imagery stares you in the face, until your food arrives. This is a post food shot with us drinking tea.
I have seen samplings of Turkish photographers and painters of various eras. Most either romanticise Istanbul or sterilize Istanbul. But for Güler, none capture her pain, her passion, her grandeur kneaded with grit.

Discovering Güler, who works almost exclusively in black and white, was as exciting to us as discovering the city itself. Finally we had an ambassador we could direct friends to when we wanted them to see what we see in the city. In some research we found he was colleagues with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and in his day he had “photographing interviews” with the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Ansel Adams and other people who should be remembered for their fascination with life rather than the fame they obtained in it. We bought one of his books. I highly recommend “Ara Guler's Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs.”

We were particularly tickled to be at the cafe one day and see him there, drinking his tea. We have seen him there since. Jennifer and I would love to have him sign our book, but we are just not those kind of people who would ask for something that seems so materialistic as to have a trivial representation of someone who stands for emotions that run much deeper. What more can his signature say than his images?

In this shot below, you can see where most of cafe life takes place. Not just at this cafe, but in all of Turkey. Most seating is outside. Even in the winter months, when temperatures drop to the fifties Fahrenheit, Turks prefer sitting outside.

Outside seating at Ara Kafe in Istanbul.

And here are shots from another visit during which an rare summer rain storm pummeled the city.

Torrential rain storm in Istanbul.

As soon as it let up, life emerged again in streams of people.

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