Writing at the close of Alex Webb’s Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names, life-long resident Orhan Pamuk explores the sense of huzun in his native city. He explains it as a deep sense of melancholy that attends the very pulse of a region that bridges Europe and Asia like no other. It’s a searching and respectful coda, touching on the effect of centuries old tides of trade and commerce, and a pervasive Islamic faith in what has become one of the largest cities in the Muslim world.
In 1998, Alex Webb returned to Istanbul, a city he had first experienced with his father in the 1960s. Working on the street with a camera, he has continued to photograph regularly there over the last decade. Street photography is currently unfashionable, out of favour, sometimes even outside the law. When undertaken, it often exposes the depth of a photographer’s intuition and belligerence. Photography can all too easily stay on the surface, saying little. When the perimeters become so fluid – in this case, city-wide – there is also an obligation to impose a sense of cohesion, that moves beyond the formal qualities of photography towards a rich and insightful understanding of cultural particularities.
Webb has become known for the colour that saturates his work, and this preoccupation continues. Expanses of shadow, glass or architecture cut through these frames, from which citizens emerge into sunlight to go about their business; a café worker takes time out to smoke. Two businessmen move purposefully towards him in the frame through a reflection that will make their lives fleetingly collide. Two young women adorn a bus, advertising a perfect world with Nescafé, as the real world sweeps the floor and stumbles on. But, although there are a number of such considerable pictures in this book, there are not enough. How can pictures so busy paradoxically be so empty? Children amply fill frames and allow the creation of visual play and formal complexity, but all too often the work moves no deeper, leaving pictures that seem formulaic and simplistic.
Let me be clear: this is not a shortcoming of street photography, as the best examples from Alvarez Bravo to Mikhailov extend our understanding bravely and poetically. I regret there are not more photographers working with such energy. Once through the city’s noise, however, there is little to match those images in Orhan Pamuk’s haunting essay. It makes me wonder how an occasional visitor might articulate such a sensibility.