with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Arabic Books in the Markets of Istanbul

Arabic books photographed in the markets of Istanbul, photograph copyright by Lorelle VanFossenI recently stumbled across this photograph I took in one of the many markets of Istanbul, Turkey, and I wanted to share its story with you.

We love photographing markets. Everywhere in the world we travel, we look up open air, covered, above ground, underground, and ancient markets. Fish markets, cheese markets, meat markets, clothing markets, used rummage markets, and all-the-junk-in-the-world-you-can-buy-cheap markets. We photograph their wares, the sellers, fish, meats, cheeses, scarfs, jewelry, baskets, puppets – you name it. If it stands still in decent light, and the seller doesn’t mind, we photograph it.

I love books. It doesn’t matter the language. I just like to look, touch, and smell books.

On this particular occasion, the book seller had stacks and stacks of books piled up outside of his shop in the Egyptian Spice Market. It was nearby an outside door that the afternoon light just sneaked through, enough for a warm glow over the books. Their gold embossed titles along the spines glimmered in Arabic and Turk. The book jacket colors of red, pink, and blue and the gold designs made the books look more like a scarf or embroidered quilt than a stack of books.

My eye traced down the stacks, following the pattern of the spaces between the books as well as the size and width of the books themselves. In particular, I was drawn to this section, where the line between the books was slightly diagonal.

I placed the line between the books slightly off center, which accentuated the “crack” effect rather than a split between the stacks. I kept the thicker books towards the bottom to give the image “weight” and a sense of gravity. The light falling off the bottom of the image in my viewfinder would add to the heavy bottom effect, I remember thinking in the few seconds it took to position my camera on the tripod for the photograph.

In a market area, busy or not, I want to use a tripod due to the low light situations, but also because many of my market images require careful composition. There is so much distraction in all the items the sellers have to offer. I want to zoom in on the patterns and textures that captured my attention, not the entire scene. I want the details to tell the story.

Unfortunately, I am often restricted to a monopod (or using my tripod as a monopod) or hand holding due to the crowds and traffic flow through the market. In this case, it was a slow afternoon in the middle of the week and there were few people about. We’d been exploring the old downtown areas of the city, tripods over shoulders, so everything came together for me to have the right equipment for the right composition and lighting moment.

The side lighting from the nearby door was very dim. Only enough to warm the colors. So my exposure was very slow, about a 30th of a second to a half second. I didn’t need a lot of depth of field as the books were all on one plane before my camera, so I bracketed the shutter speed and decided on the image slightly underexposed. When photographing low light subjects with intense color and reflective qualities, I usually choose the underexposed image as it seems to intensify the colors.

I only had time for a fast bracketing of five photographs and the light was gone. The sun passed behind a building or a cloud, and the moment was gone.

The end result, I believe, is an interesting pattern photograph, and a fabulous memory. It is also symbolic. The Arab world was so far advanced than what we now call “Western Civilization” in education and writing. Their work in numbers, number theory, poetry, writing, and scholarly pursuits is legendary. So much has been lost to time and wars, sadly. The grace and artistry of the writing fills the imagination of those who cannot read it, but merely see it as swirls and designs. It is mysterious and beautiful at the same time.

As I look at the photograph, in my memory I can hear the hawking nosies of the shopkeepers, with the squawking of pigeons and chickens, overlaid with the distant echoes of the call to prayer from the nearby mosque towers. I smell urine, sweat, dust, body odors, and cigarette smoke. I see beggars and ragged people pushing their way through the crowds, hands out, asking for money and cigarettes. A young boy with shirt tails flying rushes through the crowds seemingly obvious to their crush, a brass plate held high over his head with eight small clear classes of tan colored tea and green mint leaves still steaming in the cool air of the winter evening. Two heavy set Russians pass by, billows of nasty blue smoke swirling around their faces from their unfiltered cigarettes, arguing and waving their arms about. High pitched noises follow them as a crowd of young women passes by, all holding each others arms, giggling and chattering, only their white faces visible among their many dark scarfs and jilbabs. A tall man in an exquisite Italian suit strolls by, his white shirt radiant under his dark face and silk tie. He looks straight ahead and walks with a marching saunter, his destination known only to him. The girls part, giggling, to make way for his royalness. A chicken escapes a seller’s hands and flies into the open wake behind the man. Shouts and scrambling to catch the chicken begins another element of the show of life inside the Egyptian Spice Market.

This is the world that reads these books.

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