This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Wednesday, October 4, which is the day I unveiled Fixed Point Perspectives: Ottoman Studio Photography and its Contemporary Legacy in Denver. It was the inaugural exhibition for Yasmeen Siddiqui’s Minerva Projects, a new arts nonprofit that will encourage artists, curators, and others to experiment and incubate ideas about art. I’ve known Yasmeen since our college days at the University of Toronto, so I was eager to work with her, though we have collaborated on writing projects in the past. I remember we discussed her idea for a space a year and half ago, and a little later she promised me the first show after she heard my idea for a 10-year project devoted to this little known heritage and history of studio photography.
My idea emerged from years of research into the 19th century, particularly into the major cities of the Eastern Mediterranean during that time period, and I kept seeing beautifully staged images by photographers I’d never heard of. I kept looking and discovered remnants of that visual heritage all around, and the continuation of its tradition in the photo studios of Cairo and elsewhere, well into the 20th century. I loved the idea of framing the present and future with an artistic past that continues to be a fruitful field of exploration, often offering insight into the formative years of the medium’s earlu history in a non-European setting. Tourism and landscape photography were fertile genres for artists within the Ottoman borders. Wealthy European tourists were always willing to pay for the most modern souvenirs, specially pictures of themselves. The value of photographs during the era can be understood when you consider one Istanbul photo studio threw in a free oil painting of your photograph if you purchased at least 10 copies of the cabinet photo. Not a bad deal, particularly since studios often employed talented artists to paint their studio backdrops — sadly none of these appear to exist.
Photographer Stefan Hagen took these beautifully composed shots of the exhibition. It included art by Dor Gues, Aram Jibilian, Hrair Sarkissian, Gariné Torossian, and Akram Zaatari, and we even got a nice write up in the Denver Post by Ray Mark Rinaldii, who — when giving an overview of the city’s new art spaces — wrote:
Minerva’s first exhibit was a terrific example of how it can bring different creative energy to Denver. “Fixed Point Perspective,” curated by the respected critic Hrag Vartanian, explored studio photography from the Ottoman Empire and its overlooked legacy on contemporary art. The work, new and vintage, featured a varied lineup of artists with roots around the globe, including Aram Jibilian, Hrair Sarkissian, and Gariné Torossian. These aren’t names (or frankly the kind of names, ethnically speaking) that we often get a chance to see here.
Vartanian’s show is part of his 10-year project exploring this studio photography subject matter, and it has a level of academic rigor that will hold up in the traveling show that Minerva Projects will arrange and tour and the book of images and essays it will publish around his discoveries.
But the exhibit was also an entertaining array of colorful, and sometimes comical, images that came off in a most relaxed way at Minerva. Siddiqui renovated her garage for the project; it now has a sleek, glass folding door, a custom-made plywood desk, track lighting and a freshly poured concrete floor.
But there’s no escaping the fact that the very same address is the place where Siddiqui lives with her husband, three kids, a cat and a dog. That makes Minerva quirky and 21st century cool. There’s art in the backyard, but also playground equipment, and a large wooden picnic table where people can sit and discuss Middle East photography — or what’s happening at the nearby middle school.
It was great to see Rinaldi and others embrace a new and different type of space in their midst. I know Yasmeen has often thought of Minerva Projects as a malleable art space, and I really appreciated the opportunity to visualize my ideas, and as an added bonus we even got to commission some wonderful art, including Gariné Torossian’s 7-minute film, “An Inventory of Some Strictly Visible Things” (2017), and Aram Jibilian’s poster project, which incorporated two images, one titled “Ottoman Armenian Figure in an Empty Landscape” (2017) and “Dust in the Bellows” (2017). For those in Berlin, Gariné’s film will be screened at the Hamburger Bahnhof this summer. The next phase of the project is the Fixed Point Perspectives book, which is scheduled to be released by Minerva Projects in November 2018. I hope it will be an invaluable resource that considers this photographic tradition in the context of art being made today.