A treasure trove of Ottoman Empire photographs now available online

Thousands of images have been made freely available by the Getty Research Institute

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In the 1980s, Pierre de Gigord, the son of a wealthy French businessman, began buying antique photographs in the markets of Istanbul. Concentrating on the late 1800s and early 1900s, the photographs came in all kinds: daguerreotypes, albumen prints, lantern slides, glass negatives, gelatin silver prints, paper-­mounted postcards and photo albums. Gigord eventually amassed one of the most important collections of images of the Ottoman Empire in its waning years: 6,000 images, more than half of which have now been digitised and made freely available from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. They show Istanbul's famous palaces and fortresses, as well as its souks and fish markets; posed studio portraits; and sultans, dervishes, firemen, and families at home.

“Gigord was a brilliant man who had a passion for photography,” says Isotta Poggi, curator of photography at the Institute. “He had a real eye: he didn’t just collect images of architecture, but of people. He was interested in types, so you see all the different types of society.”

A rare glimpse into the Armenian population of Istanbul

The collection came to the Institute in 1995, in the early days of its establishment. The Research Institute – which is connected to the Getty Museum, also in LA – supports art-historical scholarship through its library, archives, grant schemes and research projects, and licenses many of the images used for academic art publications.

“This collection gives us an enormous amount of resources on the Ottoman Empire, which are not always easy to come by,” says Poggi. “The Ottoman Empire is an ­extremely important area for art-historical research, from Byzantine to Arab art history to the history of photography.”

A strange accident of circumstances has made these photographs even more significant: they give a rare glimpse into the Armenian population of Istanbul, most of whom were forcibly dispelled – or killed – after 1915 in the Armenian Genocide. This is because of the division of labour that developed under the Ottomans. Many Armenians had been employed as chemists and goldsmiths, giving them a facility and knowledge of chemical reactions that allowed them to work easily with ­photography when it were first introduced.

The mission of the institute

A number of the main studios in Istanbul, such as Pascal Sebah, Gulmez, and Abdullah Freres, were run by Armenians, giving the Armenian people an outsize representation in photographic documentation – as well as in this collection – that has become all the more important since the erasure of their history within Turkey. Many of the ­images in the Gigord Collection come from the studios on one street, the Grand Rue de Pera, a swanky avenue that hosted embassies and acted as a meeting point for intellectuals. Photography studios opened there in the mid-1800s, and Gigord's Collection contains some of the portraits that local middle and upper-class individuals, as well as tourists, would have posed for.

Other images are like snapshots, showing the life of the city – ­laundry-hanging, children playing, men serving drinks in brass samovars carried on their backs. The types of photograph themselves also vary; it wasn't until the 1890s that one method of capturing images became standardised, which was thanks to George Eastman, inventor of the Kodak roll of film, with his easy-to-use Brownie camera.

The diversity for the Ottoman collection was a great challenge in the digitisation process. Some hand-painted images were ­individually photographed, while a suite of 10 albumen prints – a technique that uses egg-whites to produce the images – was combined into one extraordinary panoramic view of the Istanbul skyline in 1878. And the images that Gigord acquired as albums were digitised individually and in their original layout, so that they retain their album form. "Which is very important," stresses Isotta. "Because albums have a structural logic and are a way of telling their own story."

Getty's Open Content Project

Perhaps as importantly, the images are being offered to download – in high resolution – without any charge – as part of the Getty's Open Content Project, which it launched in 2013. "Part of the mission of the Institute is to make research available for free, and we apply where we can: either those for which the trust holds the copyright, or those images that are in the public domain," explains Poggi.

These images date from 1852 to 1950, setting most of them in the public domain. The only images the Institute couldn’t make available were press photographs, for which they could not determine the ­copyright, and archival documentation about the photography studios. In total, around 3,750 files have been put online. This means that the Gigord Collection joins a number of digital initiatives that are – in an as-yet unplanned way – assisting scholars of the ­Middle East, for whom materials and access are frequently dispersed or unavailable.

Many major collections of Ottoman and early Arab photography that circulate academically were put together by Europeans or Americans. The Institute holds another such trove, the Jacobson Collection, of more than 4,500 photographic images of the Middle East and North Africa between 1850 and 1920, put together by an English couple. The geographical distribution compounds questions of Orientalism – how much have these images been coloured by the lens of their European photographers? – which the Gigord Collection largely evades, but having been acquired by the Institute, it participates in a pattern where the representation of the region remains outside of the region.

Why digitisation matters

Digitisation initiatives are thus particularly crucial for scholars based in the Middle East. The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi has chosen book digitisation as its primary topic for this year's Publishing Forum, taking place from today until Wednesday. Under the direction of Abdulla Majed, the symposium looks at the impact of technology on access to material and the capacity to spread ­knowledge globally. NYU Abu Dhabi has similarly made itself a hub for ­digitalisation efforts, particularly of Arabic primary material.


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Its ­Arabic Collections Online initiative, in collaboration with key ­international universities, digitises out-of-copyright Arabic-­language books and makes them freely ­available online. It proved so ­popular, it had to recalibrate its scope, as its audience turned out not to be just the scholarly community, but a mass readership hungry for access to Arabic books. Other UAE ­initiatives, such as the ­philanthropist Juma Al Majid's project to help resource lacking Arab libraries sterilise and ­digitise their manuscripts, are using Gulf wealth to address research-­capability impoverishment elsewhere.

Poggi, though she works for an academic institution, also ­underlines that the importance of the Gigord Collection is as much in its art-historical value as in its humanistic value – it simply expands the knowledge base of this period of history.

"An extraordinary thing­ happened while I was working on the digitising," she recalls. "I came across a big op-ed in The New York Times where Orhan Pamuk talked about the archive of Ara Guler," an Armenian ­photographer for Magnum, whose images were ­purchased by Gigord. "He talks about the different streets of Istanbul, ­remembering the walks he took with Guler and the city of his childhood. It helped me to look at the photographs in the Gigord Collection as personal memories. That made it more interesting in a different way, to understand these images as the present of the past."