Written by William J. Harper, Koç University
This past fall marked the beginning of my immersion in the world of Nicholas Artamonoff. Over the past four months, I have been working with the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks by identifying and creating metadata for 477 photographs of Istanbul and various Ottoman monuments taken by Nicholas Artamonoff that currently reside in the Myron Bement Smith Collection in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives (Freer-Sackler) of the Smithsonian Institution. These photographs compliment the photographs of Byzantine buildings and monuments also taken by Artamonoff that are at ICFA and were tirelessly identified and cataloged by Günder Varinlioğlu and Aly DesRochers for an online exhibit. I have been working under their tutelage this past semester to do the same for the Freer-Sackler photographs. We are now happy to announce that with the kind assistance of David Hogge, Archivist at Freer-Sackler, and his team of volunteers, the photographs in these two separate collections have been reunited, digitally and online.
I am a slightly atypical ICFA intern as I have never been to the leafy Dumbarton Oaks campus in Washington, D.C., but rather study at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. Similarly, the material I have been working with is Ottoman rather than Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, or Garden and Landscape Studies, which are the three main focus areas of Dumbarton Oaks. While this arrangement comes with its own challenges, being located in Istanbul has allowed me to visit many of the buildings and locations photographed by Artamonoff. I have also been able to access archives in the city that helped shed light on this enigmatic individual. Additionally, as a student of Ottoman art and architecture, it has been fantastic to work with this material, learn from it, and organize the data so that future visitors to the online exhibit will have the opportunity to enjoy it as much as I have.
Nicholas Artamonoff, an amateur photographer and school administrator at Robert College, turned his lens to various Ottoman historical monuments and scenes of daily life primarily in Istanbul during the 1930s and early 1940s, prior to the dramatic urban transformation of the city. These photographs provide excellent documentary evidence and should be extremely valuable to scholars and others who have an interest in the history of Istanbul. For example, Artamonoff captures the Kazlı Çeşmesi (“Goose Fountain”), built in 1537, whose long history was marred in 2000 when the fountain’s goose sculpture was stolen (and subsequently restored in 2010). Artamonoff’s photographs provide lasting documentation of the original sculpture now forever lost.
This rich material also invites many new avenues for possible research and contemplation. A compelling aspect of Artamonoff’s photographs is his skill in capturing the insan manzaraları, literally the “human landscape” in Turkish. These photographs are characterized by Artamonoff’s sensitive portrayal and treatment of his fellow inhabitants of Istanbul.
Artamonoff must have been a very popular and distinctive visitor on his many excursions around Istanbul and around the country. In search of the perfect shot, one can just imagine Artamonoff scampering about a ruin or mosque courtyard with his camera – inevitably drawing the attention of local residents or passersby. No other photographs capture this as clearly as the set Artamonoff took of the Ramazan Efendi Camii (Ramazan Efendi Mosque). Built in 1585, this mosque was one of the last works designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and is famous for the Iznik tiles that line its prayer hall. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Artamonoff was photographing one of the walls of this small mosque.
Yet in the next frame one notices the new, subtle shadows in the second window niche from the left. Upon closer investigation, it seems that Artamonoff’s presence has attracted the attention of three inquisitive boys who press their heads through the iron grille of the window to get a better view of the visitor with a camera.
Discovering these human vignettes has been an unexpected bonus of working with this material. It is my hope that with the Freer-Sackler photographs now joining the online exhibit, visitors will be able to discover their own stories hidden in this rich visual trove.
I am a graduate student in the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. Currently, I am writing my master’s thesis on photographic gifts between the United States and the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. Next year, I will be pursuing a PhD in the United States. When not in the library, I love exploring Istanbul and following in the footsteps of Nicholas Artamonoff!