Photography provides us with glimpses of the past that we never had in human history before the mid 1800’s.
What would historians give to have real photos of past events like the founding of Rome, Imperial Rome, building of Pyramids, The Babylonian, Alexander the Great, The Prophets meetings and we could really go on for ever.
I have no skill for photography myself, all the more reason why I’m fascinated by the people and the photos they have taken since the first ever photo was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. Perhaps the year is not exact, but what we do know is that what we take for granted today was no easy task at the time. I have often shared photographs from many different countries, and written a few articles on the subject relating to Cyprus and the USA. Having a large collection of old photos of the Ottoman Empire I would like to share the history of some of the Ottoman Empire’s great photographers of the 1800’s. Contrary to what many believe the Ottomans were a multiracial, diverse and fluid society and merit was often more important than ethnicity. Political and military discussions on the Ottomans can be found in abundance so let us take a journey into another field and see how the talented photographers have helped us see the period through the eyes of a camera.
The Abdullah Frères (Means the ”Abdullah brothers” in French) were among the greatest photographers of Ottoman history. Their first known ancestor was Aleksan Gesaratsi from Kayseri. Due to their profession as silversmiths they were better known as Sirmakesyan. His great grandson Asdvadzadur Hurmuzyan born in 1757 moved to Constantinople when a young man and worked for Sultan Abdulhamid I, (his reign was from 1774-1789) palace as the lead buyer of goods. Apparently his original name meant ”God gave”. At some point Asdvadzadur converted to Islam and chose the name Abdullah because it meant ”servant of god”. He was a pious person and due to his hard work, charisma and courtesy he was an immensely respected individual. His son Apraham (born 1792) and daughter-in-law Roza Bengliyan, had 3 daughters and 5 sons.
Three sons, Vicen 1820-1902, Hovsep 1830-1908 and Kevork 1839-1918 went on to establish a photography studio named ”Abdullah Frères” with new innovations and amazing techniques which has guaranteed their place in history. Working in chemistry the 3 brothers began to produce their own daguerreotype cameras themselves. In 1852 Kevork travelled to the Murad-Raphaelyan school in Venice. His massive success helped to improve the quality of photo images still in its infancy. He returned to Istanbul in 1858 and with his brothers they worked hard, with determination and diligence.
Their single minded aim was to offer the best quality photos for their times. They were rarely pleased with the results, and spared no cost in improving their technique. They contacted and met the best photographers of the period in Paris, or Germans in Istanbul. The French Embassy was so impressed with their work that they sent letters of recommendation to the great photographer Baron Taylor in Paris and Kont Olympe Aguado to meet them. Kevork and Vicen travelled to Paris for this reason. Hovsep took care of their studio in Istanbul and on their return the two brothers brought with them new ideas that would help spread their reputation in high circles of the government. By using the Collodian (Wet-collodion process, also called collodion process, early photographic technique invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. The process involved adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion -cellulose nitrate- and coating a glass plate with the mixture). Process and using the position of the light to its best position they soon maximised their quality to the highest possible for the period.
The Abdullah brothers fame was not confined to just the Ottomans. Mark Twain’s famous photo of 1867, American Congress members, Romanian diplomats and many others. The images of Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East are part of the Palestinian and Israeli museum collections. There is so much to share and write about, but our space in an article is limited, suffice it to say that when the history of photography is written the Abdullah Brothers are part of that.
In Part 2, I shall look at the career of another great photographer in the Ottoman period.