Archive for April, 2012

  • A New Spring

    April 9th, 2012

    I have a recurring dream:

    A hundred years work is accomplished in one brief night. Istanbul wakes to find the cars, the trucks, and the roads which convey them swallowed by an unstoppable force. A forest. The corridors and hills of broken asphalt are gone. While we all slumbered the parked cars and roads have been broken into their constituents by an inexorable patrol of ivy, to nourish the earth. And from their ruins have sprouted trees—the kind that take a hundred years to grow to their full splendor—who are now the city council, all interconnected and communicating through a network of roots. The forest is king and holds sway within the city confines. It has commissioned foxes to sweep the city of its rats and falcons to cleanse the sky of its pigeons. Every rooftop is an island rising above a swirling sea of green. From outside the city traffic grinds to a halt. The noise and blare of horns is replaced by birdsong and the soft wash of wind through the fragrant trees. Meanwhile, the human inhabitants have been given a second chance. We rise in wonder to find there is fruit aplenty, gardens to feed everyone …

    Then I wake up. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about this city and my dream recently. I’m not sure when it started. Perhaps when my father-in-law described Istanbul before the population explosion began in the 1970s. Perhaps it’s when a Kadirga resident kicked a still living rat into the air which nearly hit me. Perhaps there’s probably no single moment.

    Cities aren’t going away. If you believe the projections — and there’s no reason not to — they’re only going to get bigger. In the 70s nobody could easily see where Istanbul was going. Now we have an idea. This particular city is at a critical juncture in its history. Its latest conqueror, in a long line of conquerors, isn’t human though.

    It’s the automobile, a beast that isn’t content to steal every square inch of walking space, but also our breathing space. And so great is the automobile’s tyranny that just about everyone needs to get into one to be granted a breath of fresh air. How bitter an irony is that?

    Before my daughter was born we made a conscious decision to leave the city center for the hills above the Bosporus. Not everybody has that luxury, which is why it’s probably time to start thinking about how this metropolis will work. I’m excited about the Marmaray Project which will convey humans and commerce through our city and lessen our dependency on the automobile. It’s not enough, though.

    When I first came to Istanbul, it use to stagger me that people would picnic on the narrow grassed-in triangles between highways and on-ramps. But when you think about it, where else are they supposed to go?

    I don’t want to diminish the hard work that’s going into this city. Often, in fact, I want to congratulate those in charge with how well it functions considering the enormous forces exerted upon it from within and without. It’s a magnificent place. But what would Istanbul’s heroes like Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or in more modern times, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk say?

    Would they marvel at its size and progress, or pause to ask what happened to the blessed trees? The decision to tear out the last slender trunks from Istiklal Caddesi some 5-6 years ago seemed to me to be a tragic indicator of the value of trees in this city’s plan.

    What do you think? Are green spaces, wider sidewalks and the opportunity to be safe from the constant assault of traffic a human right. Should they be?

  • Analog Beauty

    April 7th, 2012

    What is it about the analog world that now seems so beautiful? Is it simply nostalgia? Or are these great work machines and tools truly beautiful? There’s certainly something to be said for space-saving in this increasingly cramped world. But I can’t help but wonder if the fact that everything is now so tiny, so compact, so microscopic that we aren’t in danger of feeling a great distance from the workings of our world and maybe the ability to change them for the better at times.

    And there are other things we’ve lost, and they’re not simply aesthetic — for instance, the ability to pop up the hood of our car, and take a peak and correct a slight imbalance or funny whir. My grandfather kept himself busy well into his 90s tinkering with and restoring old VW Beetles and it often seems to me that he was the better for knowing how. That’s not something you could do with Volkswagens any longer. They’re so micro-digital engineered that you can’t replace a light bulb on your own without voiding a warranty. Which makes me wonder: are they the “people’s car” any longer?

    Some things perhaps, have improved. Right now I’m writing this piece on an envelope thin computer and am able to transmit my words across the globe with a couple clicks. No envelope required. No permissions required. Never mind the ponderous clack-clack of a typewriter, the frustration of an incorrectly hit key. These are all behind me. I never even had to learn to type properly.

    But is that convenience necessarily good? There are some who would say, that that’s exactly why the level of writing is so poor these days. Too many people can sit down and convey their thoughts across the globe without pause or review, let alone editing. Is that good, or is that bad? In some ways it’s less elitist and more democratic.

    So why, when I see a typewriter like the one above, do I feel such a surge of emotion?

    The fact is I’m certain I would write, regardless of the tools I needed. And in fact, whenever I get blocked, I leave behind all digital devices and pick up a pen and paper, and start to organize my thoughts, write lines of dialog, actions, stray passages, the way I always did. Some of my best ideas come out of this process.

    But would I shoot? To me that’s a more interesting question. I love film. The quality, the vagaries of the end result can be indescribably beautiful. However had I started out in film I might have given up. Personally I don’t want to spend hours in a dark room. I know what I want and I usually get to see whether I’ve got it instantly. But is that a good thing?

    To me a great photo is a great photo. You can tweak a shot in Photoshop, but if the composition isn’t there, it isn’t there. It’s not something you can make up for later. And yet, I greatly admire photographers like Ara Güler and Henri Cartier-Bresson who shot long before anybody even thought of plumping up pixels. Are they more noble for sticking with their craft, with all its uncertainties, for producing such great works under more trying conditions? Perhaps.

    I often wish that I’d started to take my own photographic ambitions seriously in the era of film, to know whether or not I’d have stuck with it. But the truth of it is, most professional photographers I know and have worked with have now given up on film, something which seemed almost unthinkable a decade ago.

    Then there’s music. Have the CD and subsequent mp3 improved music, or destroyed it? They certainly seem to have all but destroyed the concept of the LP. It used to be that we would listen through an entire album. I don’t know about you, but one of the joys of sitting through albums was that each one had immediate hits, and then smaller more subtle songs that would grow on you over time. Also the arrangement of tracks and the tempo of each made an album. When CDs emerged I stopped listening through an entire album. If a song didn’t grab me immediately. I’d click the remote.

    Albums no longer seem relevant, and most ‘artists’ don’t seem to bother the way they used to. My biggest problem with mp3s, though, is the quality. They are quite simply not as dynamic as CDs. I’m told that a good stylus on vinyl is still superior to a CD, but in that case, however, I’m not sure I have an ear that can discern. It wouldn’t surprise me, though.

    What do you think? Has convenience killed beauty? Are we spoiled by our disconnection from the objects that serve us? Are invisible beams superior to the tangible, tactile world of analog? And what about mix tapes? Remember mix tapes? Does the gift of a mixed CD have the same romance for you?

    I’m listening.

  • The Hill House

    April 5th, 2012

    Do you ever find a house or a building inexplicably intriguing? I do, and there’s something about this particular one in Yeniköy that never fails to stimulate my curiosity. As usual it’s not a single feature, but a collection of attributes that ignite my wonder. I love the combination of stone and wood, the chipped paint. It’s obviously fallen a bit into disrepair, but it still has a certain dignified beauty, or romance to it if you ask me. There are many bigger, grander houses, but there’s something special about this one.

    There’s also its placement. Perched high above the Yeniköy boulevard, up above the traffic at the top of a winding step that leads to a church gate. It’s beside a much taller, grander konak. And though it’s surrounded by beauty, there’s a certain sense of loneliness, a sense of distance this house has. It makes me wonder if whoever dwelled within was happy or isolated.

    It’s a house I can’t help but look at from the outside and try to imagine backward through time. From what I’ve gathered it’s about 220 years old and originally Greek (like much of Yeniköy), and was once a hotel/han and perhaps a wine tavern. Now it seems to be someone’s slightly decrepit home.

    It seems to me that even long after they’ve left a building like this, something of each resident maybe even each guest remains with it. You can feel it in the wood, in the stone. An echo, a vibration, a faint breath of life.

    I’m sure its been the setting for many dramas, and many lives. It tells a story, don’t you think?

  • A Dream Named Thessaloniki II

    April 3rd, 2012


    I’m still wandering down the corridors of memory. Stumbling perhaps. It’s a dreamy place I’m in and I’m not yet ready to relinquish it. Thessaloniki, Salonika … what was its magic? Was it the right amount of decay versus newness? Old visions merging into the new? The people? Perhaps it was the space in which to walk, empty but not vacant.

    Modiano Market. A vast roof above, still functioning stalls. Vegetables. Eggs. Meat. Cheese. A burst of voices, laughter. A flash of a smile. Then a beautiful silhouette. Her heels clatter on the stone. Her shadowed figure merges with the light at the end of the corridor. Cafes, tavernas, mini ouzeri clustered beneath the decrepit canopy.

    More signs I can’t read. This is intriguing. I want to come back. But it is shuttered at night when I return though, drowned in shadow, and locked. Next time, stay for lunch.

    The architecture of dreams. The crumbling and the cracked. The smooth walled and restored. Soaring ceilings. Fresh paint. Just the right amount of quirk.

    A wine bar named after Hermes, the first craftsman, the first intelligencer, the first alchemist. Didn’t sample the food, but the beer works. The dining locals seem pleased. A crowd worthy of more than a glance. Animated faces. Families. Couples. Cigarette smoke shot through with late afternoon sun. This too is a place worth returning to.

    An interesting couple. He’s black clad, alternative, she’s pretty, flashing eyes and a crinkling burn scar on her arm she makes no attempt  to hide. They are backlit, spotlit almost, in the window. They are having too intense a conversation for me to interrupt. I’d like to take their photo, but the mood between them isn’t right, it seems. There’s a debate, maybe about trivial matters, maybe something serious. Best to leave them in their bubble.

    Thessaloniki light. It penetrates the windows, the buildings, the cracks. It has space to illuminate and bring alive anything it washes down on. The air  moves too. It is not thick or heavy, but fragrant with the sea and the perfume of trees. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the cigarette smoke never chokes or cloys.

    The photography museum. A well curated collection by Greek talent shooting the vastly different places across the Middle East, from Dubai to Cairo in a converted warehouse building. Just the right amount of despots and the downtrodden. A suitably stark cafe with a terrific view of the passenger terminal quay. More parents and children. A toddler kicks the table, shattering the peace with his father’s coffee cup. Nobody minds.

    Back to The Met. An international crowd. Greek. Turkish. Arab and African. Japanese. All dressed in expensive, well fitting clothes. Late afternoon drinks. I’m always greeted in Greek. I like this. English has infiltrated too much of the world, stolen too much of its mystery. I like hearing other languages, like codes waiting to be broken.

    The sun is falling. Time to put the camera down. Another dream awaits me in the room.

    This one I won’t photograph.

  • A Dream Named Thessaloniki

    April 2nd, 2012

    It has excited my imagination for some time, but I know very little about it. I know it’s Mustafa Kemal’s birthplace, but ironically not part of the great modern state he created. It’s often compared to Izmir. Its history, rich, significant … Greek, Roman, Ottoman, 20th century, Jewish. It’s a port city, Aegean, named after the princess born on the day of a great Macedonian victory.

    To hell with guidebooks. Wander. Get a vague sense of direction and then to let all five, or is it six, senses lead me. I don’t want anybody else to discover for me. Why not relinquish the burdensome anxiety that something will be missed without Fodor’s or Lonely Planet?

    Yes, I have expectations, but seeing how close one’s imagination stands up to reality is another pleasure. Thessaloniki … Salonika … Selanik? doesn’t disappoint. There are echoes of other port cities, Izmir, Beirut, common architectural details like shuttered windows, but this is a city with its very own feel. Perhaps it’s the imprint of that vast and important aforementioned history.

    The Greeks are a far more resilient people than the images on the nightly news would suggest of late. Despite their recent economic woes, the locals here seem very much up to the task of appreciating the kind of wealth that only their geography can provide. Everyone is concerned but overall, I sense resigned calm, not panic, not depression. Why waste sunlight and spring?

    Other things I notice … the choice of a single species of tree for each of the central streets. Sunlight spilling down on the wide sidewalks, filling the cracks in the cobblestone malls. Corners and alleys alive with a kind of decrepit charm. But mostly space … space without excess emptiness. Spaces creeping with interest and imagination. It’s not a big city, not especially crowded, but there a lot of places where the inhabitants can go out and enjoy themselves. And they’re full to capacity. Metal jugs of wine. Grilled sardines. Grilled cheeses. Clinking plates. Cigarette smoke spiraling up into the air. Greek voices suddenly penetrated by clamorous Turkish ones. The streets, the city continue to replenish themselves.

    Atriums. Passages. Shafts of blue colored light and then Hermes Bar. High ceilings, tall windows, long late afternoon light. More cigarette smoke. I need to find this place again. Is it fate that I’m brought to a bar named after the God of all alchemists? And no, I can’t tell you where it is, the card is in Greek. But its location is no longer a mystery withheld from me. It will not dissolve like a dream.

    The vastness of the Aegean washes in empty except for a handful of freighters. Olive trees toss in a salt-tinged breeze. Orange trees hang heavy with fruit. Children play at their parent’s feet. Teenagers gather to greet and gawk at each other across Aristotelous Square.

    Time to find another glass of wine. The economy is not thriving. Life is.