Once a peaceful Greek fishing village, Istanbul was the capital of both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires. A secular city built on the border of the European and Asian continents along a great trading route connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean sea and linking the cultures of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Istanbul could not better define the photographic purposes of Alex Webb:
City of many wars and invasions, Istanbul has a rich history perceptible in a lot of its areas. All through its impressive skyline, its streets are buzzing with life. It is a city with strong traditions but which embraces the modern life of western culture.
The first photograph of the book was taken on a ferry boat. I guess it is one of these many boats relaying the various parts of the city through the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. On the right-hand third of the image is the sea and in the background a red shape of a vessel. In the two other thirds is the window of a ferry boat where peoples’ shapes can be seen within the reflection of the sea. A man is looking through the windows. He looks thoughtful and is somewhat melancholic. The light is low. It might be sunset. A simple and complex image that truly reflects the atmosphere of Istanbul and introduce the book well. The boats connecting its different areas and going from one continent to another are unique to the city like its wonderful light at sunset. Its shore and the “almost spiritual” attraction of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn magnify and contribute to the overall indefinable feeling of the city. In his essay published in the book, The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk describes this feeling as Huzun. It is the Turkish word for melancholy and it has its origin in the Koran. Its philosophical sense is found in all parts of the Turkish culture and could maybe describe the mood of Istanbul.
From 1998 to 2005, Alex Webb kept returning to Istanbul in order to immerse himself in the city and visually explore its dense life, its contrasts, its light and colours. The second image as well as being one of the strongest ones in the book bring the reader straight in and out of the Istanbul street life thanks to a brilliant mirror game. Taken inside a barber’s shop, Webb played with the mirror to reflect and capture the street outside the shop and to capture its life including the barber (or a client) seated inside the shop. On his left is a small mirror brilliantly reflecting a pedestrian. A clever detail that really adds to the complexity of the image and shows the ability of Alex Webb in mastering complicated visuals. From left to right, the photograph is full of information about the context of the place and there is no room for more forms. Each person in the frame, the barber, the pedestrians, the man sitting on the stairs, the man entering the shop have their own spaces giving a good rhythm to the image. Again it is a complex photogaph but an easy one to read
Istanbul would not be Istanbul without the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. All along its shore, the city has a great sense of space and freedom far from its urban density. Another complex image reflects the multiple relationships that the people of Istanbul have with their sea shores. Along the Bosphorus, some boys are having a nap while a couple is looking at the horizon. A father and his child are busy rolling up their trousers while a pedestrian is walking through the whole scene. The four subjects filling the frame do not seem to be socially connected to each other. However, there is a sense of harmony given by a common place where people enjoy their spare time.
Alex Webb is not only a master of complex multi layered photographs, he has also a good understanding of how to capture light. All through the book, the photographs of Webb reveal the beauty of the Istanbul light. There is one particular graphic image that strikes me. The photograph was taken in Eyup, probably in Eyup Sutlan Mosque where Abu Ayyub al-Ansari , one of the Islamic prophets is said to have been buried. The photograph reflects two people praying opposite each other and doing the same religious gesture. The image is divided by the light and shade. On the left-hand third, in the background of the image, a man can be seen praying in the dark. His black shape is outlined thanks to the sunlight on a mosque wall just behind him. Opposite him in the foreground of the photograph, a lady wearing a veil and dress in black and white is blessed by the sunlight going through the mosque. And to her right a cat contributes by breaking the opposition of the two people praying and seems to enjoy the quietness of the place as much as the light. A well composed image highlighting the religious character of Turkey, a largely Muslim country.
Having visited the city a few times, I do feel that ‘Istanbul, City of Hundred Names’ portrays well the character of the city and its various aspects. All through the book, the photographs of Alex Webb are dense, filled with life and details and its density can be felt in many areas of the city whether it is in the traditional old area or in its European side. A fantastic book that every Alex Webb fan and street photographer should have on his bookshelf.