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ART | SIGHTS

Empirical Evidence

Ottoman Empire photos chronicle the early days of a medium, too.

June 25, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Over the hill at the little self-enclosed cultural city of the Getty Center, the inaugural hoopla and hype have subsided, but not the general interest. The crowds--tourists and other eager visitors who have been waiting for their parking reservations to come up--have settled into a dull roar of humanity.

Summertime has arrived, the first vacation season the Getty has known, and this is still one of the hottest cultural tickets in town, and it's free if you can get there.

There is plenty to look at up here in this parallel reality on a hilltop, part of the city yet beautifully, and haughtily, removed from it. The views are stunning, even on a gray June day, and a walk through the gardens is worth the price of a cab ride. To boot, there is Richard Meier's architectural grandeur, enabling the Getty to serve as an impressive monument to its own importance.

It goes without saying that there is plenty to admire inside the Getty Center walls, too, including its riches of older art and such gems as James Ensor's stunning and weird epic painting, "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889." Ed Ruscha's looming painting "Light," in the auditorium lobby, fulfills its function as an ironic bow to spiritual grace, proving that such a paradox is possible.

There are pleasures to be found in the niches, as well. Currently, the Getty Center Research Institute--a building on a far corner of the property--is housing an intriguing show dealing with diverse layers of antiquity. "Framing the Asian Shore: Nineteenth Century Photographs of the Ottoman Empire" is a collection dating from the mid- to late-19th century of the city known for centuries as Constantinople, now Istanbul.

Images such as these helped to mold and also clarify public impression of life in what was to Europeans an exotic port, a sort of gateway to Asia. Today, these photographs tell us much about both the place and the medium in its tender early years. The limitations of photography of the day often serve expressive purposes, however accidentally, as in Basil Kargopoulo's "View of the Town of Bukyukdere on the Bosporus." Farmland stretches out in the foreground to a harbor, packed with sailing ships.

Given the technical demand for long exposures and perfect stillness of subjects when the shot was taken in 1865, the ships have a quivering, half-dematerialized look. Far from being a liability, the effect adds to the mystique of the image, as well as the sense of real-life dynamism.

The fragility of the actual photographs makes this an unusually dim-lit exhibition, for conservation's sake. Some works are completely veiled behind protective cloths, which have to be lifted for viewing. One of these, "View Toward Stambul Taken from the Galata Bridge," is from the company known as Photochrome Zurich, which created an early--too early--color process, now suggesting a surreal palette of hues.

Sebah and Joaillier's panoramic views of the city, with multiple prints stitched together into a sweeping vista, were taken from the lofty perch of the Galata Tower. You get a sense of the city's density, grandeur and antiquity, as well as hints of progress, with scaffolding marking construction.

On a more human level, many of the portraits of Constantinople's denizens have a detached, anthropological air, viewing the subjects as types rather than as individuals. But that has partly to do with the then-newness of the photographic medium as much as anything.

The English emigre James Robertson was, by day, the chief engraver for the Imperial Mint, but he took up photography and produced some of the earliest images from this area, including a series of small, stiffly posed portraits in 1855. He dubs them with general descriptions such as "kabob vendor," "barber," "Nubian musician" or "Turkish Woman in Outdoor Dress." One wonders if they have names.

Grandiose architecture holds an obvious appeal to photographers trying to get a sense of a mythic place (take, for example, the Getty Center), and Constantinople had its share of imposing edifices, with various functions. The "Rumeli Hisari (Fortress of Europe) on the Bosporus" is a castle on a bluff over the mouth of the Black Sea, built in 1452, with the intent of overtaking the city.

The stalwart vertical mass that is the Galata Tower, built in 1344, is another embarrassment of scale. As pictured by Robertson, the tower appears like a dreamy background to the humble rustic scene in front.

"Staircase in the Dolmabahce Palace," shot by Basil Kargopoulo in 1875, is a passageway drowning in decorative opulence, and, fittingly enough, suggesting the meeting of European and Asian design influences.

Naturally, the famed and fabled mosque, the Hagia Sophia, built circa the AD 500s, is represented here, as viewed from various perspectives.

J. Pascal Sebah's 1868 interior shot explores the mystical matrix of arches, while Abdullah Freres' exterior image takes the landmark head-on, with no need for inventive angles to emphasize its inherent drama.

Freres also shows the structure in action, with people praying in its calm expanse.

The supplicants are fuzzy of focus, as if transformed and rendered slightly ethereal through their spiritual practice. It doesn't really matter that the effect is the result of a young medium yet to gain much control over its flaws. It's the impression that counts. We can only look at art with modern-day eyes.

BE THERE

"Framing the Asian Shore: Nineteenth Century Photographs of the Ottoman Empire," through June 28 at the Getty Center Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; (310) 440-7300. Parking reservations required. Visitors can also arrive by cab and bus.

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