December 7, 2022

Jean Pascal Sébah

By Ismail Veli……..

Pascal J. Sébah born in 1823 was of Syrian/Armenian origin. His father Hanna Sébah went to Constantinople (Now lstanbul) in order to find work, and eventually married Lisa Hichaftadjan. Their fourth child Pascal J. Sébah, grew up to become a great photographer of the period.

Pascal opened his first photographic studio at the age of 34, in 1857. This was near the French and Austro-Hungarian Postal offices in Constantinople. He named his business ”El Chark Société Photographique”.

His talents were recognised early in his business life when in 1859 he was awarded a medal from the French company ‘Société Française De Photographique. Many of his photos were bought by wealthy tourists visiting Constantinople. Together with photographers like the Abdullah Frères brothers, Policarpe Joaillier, Basile (Vasili) Kargopoulo, and others this was an exciting time for the newly discovered photographic industry.

On the 27th February 1863 the first national exhibition ”Sergi-i Umum-Osmani” (Ottoman General Exhibition) was opened at the Sultan Ahmet, Constantinople. In addition to books, printing, artwork etc. photography was also on display. In addition Pascal J. Sébah also gained popularity at the 1867 Paris exhibition by winning another medal. In 1868 Pascal was the subject of Raphael C. Cervati prestigious magazine ”L’indicateur, Constantinopolitain Guide Commercial”. It also included a few other famous photographers of the period.

In 1873 an exhibition entitled ”Weltausstelling 1873 Wien” (World Exposition 1873 Vienna) held in the capital of the Austria-Hungarian capital turned out to be a massive exhibition with something like 26,000 exhibitors, which attracted over seven and a quarter million visitors. The Ottoman Sultan saw this as a golden opportunity to exhibit the Empire’s rich cultural heritage. Sultan Abdulaziz appointed Osman Hamdi Bey, an archaeologist and painter, as commissary to lead the Ottoman exhibitors.  Osman Hamdi and de Launay created a photographic book with an amazing array of Ottoman cultural diversity in cultural costumes photographed by Pascal J. Sébah. the book was entitled, Elbise-i Osmaniyye (Les costumes de la Turquie). It included descriptive scripts of the national costumes, and also included religion and geographic locations. Visitors were thrilled and probably shocked at the displays, this was a world apart from the political propaganda waged about the ‘sick man of Europe”. For his part in his amazing photography, Pascal J. Sébah, on 8th August 1873 the Sultan awarded him the third class order (a gold medal that only 800 individuals could be awarded) for his outstanding service to the country.

Letters to the Paris based magazine ”Le Moniteur de la Photgraphie” were full of praise for Pascal J. Sébah.  The leading columnist for the magazine, Ernest Lacan, wrote that ”we have known for some time that there were many great photographers in Constantinople, and this exhibition not only helped confirm this, but also showed that in many respects they were ahead in this field”.

As a result Pascal’s fame rapidly spread outside the Ottoman Empire. Sadly Pascal had a brain haemorrhage in 1883 and never recovered. He died in June 1886 at the age of only 63. His photos are still on display at the ‘J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles’ and the ‘San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’.

After his death his son Jean only 14-15 at the time became involved in his father’s business and soon thereafter teamed up in a partnership with another legendary Ottoman photographer (A Frenchman)  Polycarpe Joailier. The partnership was a great success and many of their photos were signed as ”Sébah and Joailier”. They were the named the official photographers of the Ottoman Empire soon after by the Sultan. Though Joailier moved back to Paris in the early 1900’s, Sébah continued with various partnerships, until the studio was taken over by Ismail Insel and renamed ”Foto Sabah” (Sabah means Morning in Turkish). Jean died in 1947, at 75 years of age. Sadly the studio was finally closed in 1952. But the legacy of Pascal J. Sébah will no doubt live on.

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