Over the course of the Spring 2016 semester, students in ART 3573: History of Photography visited the OSU Museum of Art four times, seeing over 65 works from the permanent collection up close. Each visit, they selected one work to research further. This spring and summer, the blog features outstanding examples of students’ research and writing about the works they chose. Our goals are to contribute to public awareness of the OSUMA’s photography collection, and to increase our knowledge about that collection. This week’s post is by Scarlet Rock.
The beauty of the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church in Constantinople (now Istanbul), that was transformed into a mosque when the Ottoman Empire conquered the city, is captured in this late nineteenth century photograph by Swedish photographer Guillaume Berggren. Under the Ottomans, it was transformed into a mosque. The intended audience for this photograph would have perceived it as a way to view a place that to many was unreachable either due to faith, social standing, or the difficulty of travel, and thus would have consumed it as a substitute for the actual building.
When Berggren took this photograph, he positioned himself carefully to invite his viewers to feel something close to what they would have felt if they had been actually standing in the Hagia Sophia. The sense of open space in the mosque is achieved not from positioning the camera on the ground, but by leaving it stranded somewhere in seemingly midair that offers the viewer no stable ground and forces a feeling of breathlessness. This leaves the viewer feeling small and gives the building a sense of importance at the same time.
The photograph itself is sharp and in focus, but the sun shining through the many windows gives an unearthly feeling to the image that was probably intentional, invoking a sense of wonderment in the audience. The mosque itself is empty, which gives the viewer respite from focusing on human figures and allows the eye to wander over all of the architectural features of the building. This photograph gives the viewer all the emotional and visual cues of standing in the actual space whilst never having to leave their armchair.
This albumen silver print, approximately 8 x 10 inches, would have been large enough for the viewer to get lost in but small enough to be sold to the public as a collector’s item. Probably sold both in Istanbul itself to tourists and abroad to those unable to travel, this glossy print with intricate detail, a hallmark of albumen paper, would have been attractive to many as a keepsake or as a perceived cultural status increase against the neighbor. It also would have included the middle class in the cultural sphere of the higher classes, even if they were unable to travel the same way as the insanely rich, and thus would have proved to be educational.
Whether the viewer bought the photograph on the steps of the Hagia Sophia for a commemorative souvenir of the trip or from a photograph shop selling images of far-off romanticized places, it is obvious that through scale, setting, and subject matter itself that this photograph would have offered a chance to experience something as close as in the flesh as they would be able to without being physically present. This makes it historically important in the sense that it not only allowed people all over the world to view a building only accessible to a select group, but it also lets the modern viewer glimpse how the Hagia Sophia looked at a time when visitation was limited.
Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
“The History, Technique and Structure of Albumen Prints.” Accessed April 03, 2016.