I first caught site of Istanbul through the window of a British Airways flight as it began its approach to Ataturk Airport back in November 2006. It was the end of a four-plus-hour flight, and my iPod (remember those, kids?) had received something of a workout.
I can remember I was listening to The Clean’s live version of their sublime ‘Quickstep’. The song, a dizzying stream-of-consciousness weaving amidst scuffed, scuzzy guitar reached the point where it lurches into something more reflective and beatific.
The line “Oh, and I turned my head” was in my ears and the cabin flooded with golden winter light as we banked. There was the Bosphorus, and a queue of ships waiting to enter the busiest shipping lane in the world, spread out like toys on a black and gold tabletop. Beyond lay an impossible sprawl of Asian Istanbul, and then, as the plane lined up with the runway, the age-old grandeur of its European brother, the garden and graveyard of empires.
Constantinople. The City.
When a place lays on a welcome like this, you come back.
In the next decade I visited Istanbul another five times, each time with a camera bag and as much film as I could carry. Istanbul made my home of London – not a city to grace the top reaches of ‘World’s Most Relaxing Cities’ anytime soon – feel like a provincial backwater. Istanbul has the history of Rome, the scale of Tokyo, the bohemian atmosphere of Paris and the pathos and faded grandeur of St Petersburg. All this in one city, split into two by black waters that have carved through thousands of years of human history.
There is another city that Istanbul reminds me of – New York. Not for ranks of glittering towers, but for the fact that life is lived on the streets. Istanbul is a city with a cast on every corner – street sellers, porters, football-playing kids, faithful heading to the mosque, shoppers and touts and foot-dragging tourists.
And cats. Always cats, picking through clumps of rubbish, begging for tidbits from local shopkeepers, or watching this city of millions pad by, one by one, from some lazy perch.
I’ve not been able to make my usual annual pilgrimage to Istanbul for a couple of years now. The last time was nearly two years ago, with two of my best friends, a four-day break in October. The summertime heat has dissipated, and with it some of the crowds – though you can never really say Istanbul has an off-season, save for the coldest weeks of winter.
I try and bring a different camera from my ever-increasing collection every time I visit Istanbul. It’s part of the fun of using old cameras, combining different bodies and films and seeing what inspired accidents might come from them.
This time I bought a FED 50, an under-rated Soviet compact from the 1980s and 90s. The FED 50 is, essentially, what the Olympus Trip 35 would have been if its designers had plied their trade in Moscow instead of Tokyo. It’s a 35mm viewfinder camera built around a 38mm lens and a selenium meter, chunky and heavy. Like the Lomo LC-A, it’s focusing is confined to a handful of zones, with pictograms to make the right distance easier to guess.
The FED 50 is short on features, but one thing it does have is a sharp contrasty lens. It vignettes around the corners, much like the LC-A’s. While it’s not as sharp as the Trip 35’s lens, it’s not far off it.
By the time I hit Istanbul I’d already taken the FED to Malta and a trip to the south of France. I’d been impressed with the FED’s capabilities in bright summer light, but I hadn’t really shot much black-and-white film with it.
Thanks to the intermittent overcast light, this seemed like the time to rectify that. I’d bought some Fomapan 100, a film made by Foma in the Czech Republic. It’s a good medium-speed film with just enough grain to add atmosphere, and it works well with older lenses.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a trip across the Bosphorus, or indeed up it. We took a boat that crawled along the channel, past the mighty span of the Bosphorus Bridge and the urban Asian sprawl. The boat was a hive of activity, tea sellers bringing minuscule cups of super-heated tea and leaning into the boat’s sway with practised ease. The bustle of central Istanbul lessens a little by the time you get to the coastal settlement of Istinye. From here, greater Istanbul fades bit by bit until the Black Sea beckons.
Because the FED is a viewfinder camera, that means no mirror – which makes it very quiet. It’s quick to focus, and features an Automatic mode so that all you have to worry about is the aperture. The camera will choose a shutter speed, and if the light’s too low it won’t take a shot. This makes it a no-stress camera perfect for shooting on the hoof. Cameras like this are a great alternative tool for street photography. In a place as busy as Istanbul, few people are going to hear the gentle click of the FED’s shutter.
Two of my favourite shots were taken on another boat trip, a ferry across from the European side to the Asian port suburb of Kadikoy. The ferry was oddly quiet, many of its benches empty. Solitude can be a hard thing to find in the tumult of Istanbul.
My friend had bought a glass of tea, and the silhouette of the cup, with an Istanbul ferry ploughing through the murk of an overcast day, seemed to sum up some of the city’s charms – an atmosphere that a legion of camera-toting travellers might also have been spellbound by, years and decades before me.