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Questions and Answers on Şahin Kaygun*

For Turkish version, please click here

This article was first published in the catalogue "Şahin Kaygun" parallel to the exhibition in Istanbul Modern

During the archival research conducted for the “Şahin Kaygun” exhibition, news clippings and articles that the artist kept, beside the photographic material, were also scanned and recorded. The text below has been compiled from articles retrieved from the archive, interviews done with the artist and current conversations held on the topic. The aim has been to create a virtual platform for discussion, based on a compilation of answers given on various dates to questions posed to appraise Şahin Kaygun both in the context of his own time and of the present day, and thus to analyze him objectively.



How can we describe the photography scene in Turkey at the time when Şahin Kaygun was active?


Burcu Pelvanoğlu: The 1980s can be characterized as a decade when the explorations in the Turkish art scene of the 1960s were starting to be systematized, when a great number of transformations could be observed simultaneously, from the content of the art to its medium and its presentation. [1]


Orhan Cem Çetin: As photography had not yet institutionalized in those years, there was great chaos. Amateurs and professionals were mixed up, as were artists and artisans. Works that had intellectual depth were very few. The low status of photography within the art world, caused by this chaos, made life quite difficult for Şahin Kaygun. But the technology of analog photography had already reached a peak in those years and photography had started producing its stars as an independent and striking discipline within modern art. Şahin Kaygun is undoubtedly one of them. [2]


Sinem Yörük: It is possible to describe the environment of those times as still introverted, bound within tight rules and extremely conservative. As for the international field, the opposite was true. In this period where definitions of photography become freer, especially as accompanied by conceptual art, technical expectations were surpassed and experimentalism came to the forefront. When it comes to the Polaroid SX-70 period (1972-2008); Şahin Kaygun's contemporaries, i.e. Chuck Close, David Hockney, Lugi Ghirri, Lucien Clergueile and of course Lucas Samaras were in the same period similarly manipulating the material by painting it, playing with its chemical attributes and coloring it by hand. The fact that imperfect or even inconsistent colors are found in the products that are created made the outcome even more desirable, and collages formed by one or many Polaroids were helping to create a wider range of artistic narrative. It is possible to see very good examples of Şahin Kaygun's works in the Westlicht Museum, which bought the European Collection of the Polaroid Museum, and where the other names I mentioned are also exhibited.[3]


Şahin Kaygun: Photography conveys its message taking along the elements that are within it. And photography has an important social function. In our society, however, this function is understood as hanging the photograph on the wall. The photograph has gathered within itself elements like the visual component, rhythm, motion and balance. This is why it is intertwined with other visual arts. (…) Photography was not perceived as an art until recently. So much so that galleries have only begun to hold photography exhibitions in the last years. Today, there are a lot of obstacles facing photography. Foremost among these are the social (cultural, educational) problems and the political factors. However, we also have certain duties as photography artists. First of all, we need to emphasize that photography is a narrative. I think photography artists need to come together and organize, and make efforts for their message to reach society to a sufficiently high degree. [4]


Murat Alat: It is not social issues being the subject of art that Kaygun is opposed to, but the prevalence of photographs and an approach to photography that keeps talking condescendingly about “going down to the people”, and a false socialism that no longer has any substance, merely consisting of photographic clichés of “dirty little children with flies buzzing around their mouths” or tragic portraits of villagers. [5]

In what direction did Şahin Kaygun change his approach to photography during and after the 1980s? What effect did this have on productions that came later?


Burcu Pelvanoğlu: Şahin Kaygun is foremost among artists who transformed traditional materials and techniques (e.g. through painterly interventions to their photographs) and formed a contemporary vocabulary of exhibiting. (…) He is an artist who aimed to create a contemporary narrative language in the 1980s by transforming simple materials. Kaygun, who welded together all kinds of materials and visual art elements in his body of work, grabs attention with his fluidity and mobility between one form or art and another. [6]


Arzu Yayıntaş: The older representatives of this young art form that has not yet established its rules, photography, are disturbed by Kaygun’s works testing limits. The young artist, who uses a different vocabulary in photography and constantly creates new things, begins to be known in the art world and embraced among the new generation of photographers. Kaygun forces existing limits in order to create something that is different and unconventional. Saying he has “no intention of confining myself within certain borders”, he begins his Polaroid works. Any type of camera is sufficient for Şahin Kaygun, because for him the camera is only a tool: “Just like a paintbrush, like paint, or like a typewriter. What matters is the brain that directs it. A culturally nourished brain can make his/her camera do whatever he/she wants, and make it speak whatever language he/she prefers.”[7]

Şahin Kaygun: Do not think of it only as photography. One should not just wander within the framework of the product. One should think about how the artist reflects into this framework, the events he/she experiences and transmits and the world he/she lives in. One needs to be able to understand inner problems beyond a momentary reflection… In all my works, I always tried to stay outside of the traditional rules and to approach the matter from the point of my own worldview. I found an experimental narrative form in photography…” [8]


Orhan Cem Çetin: Şahin Kaygun deeply influenced the artists that came after him. His works were extremely inspiring. He set an example with his determined, stubborn and courageous attitude. He enabled new approaches to be discussed, put photography into the galleries and singlehandedly blazed an important trail for unconventional photographers who succeeded him.[9]


Refik Akyüz: Until Şahin Kaygun, the creation of photographic works that could be placed outside classical photography was not common in Turkey. One could say that because of the conservative environment in which Kaygun was producing photography, he was not understood enough and could not receive the recognition he deserved. Factoring greatly in this is the fact that photography in Turkey did not have strong institutional foundations and was isolated from the rest of the world. We could say that Kaygun influenced the new generation of the time that was seriously involved with photography. This is not only limited to feeling stylistically close to the photography he produced and being influenced by his works, but more of being encouraged to think in a free way, in my opinion. However, as much as Şahin Kaygun became a legendary name after he died so young –and because his works became difficult to access – his influence, particularly on the generation coming of age after the mid-1990s, gradually waned.[10]


Sinem Yörük: The fact that Kaygun always forced the limits within such an environment, and never compromised his own worldview despite having faced severe reactions from other photographers who were active at that time, opened up a new path for younger photographers of the time. We can easily say that Kaygun was the most avant-garde name of Turkish photography, as he was perhaps the first artist in Turkey who produced works situated between the disciplines of graphic design, painting, photography and cinema. We can feel the great drawback of having lost Kaygun at an early age, as he was an inspiration to so many artists.[11]


Yekhan Pınarlıgil: I believe the most important contribution that Şahin Kaygun made to 1980s art in general, not just photography, is the courage to try (and surely, at times, to fail). We also see in the exhibitions, his experimentation, the methods he tries and the things he leaves behind on the way to reaching his results. What I can say based purely on my observations, is that there is no one generation or group of artists that clearly declares that they reflect Şahin Kaygun’s legacy, teachings or influence in their work from a plastic aspect. Still, it should be underlined: Kaygun does teach his successors not to be the slave of a particular medium, and to widen their possibilities by questioning the language of that technique. [12]

How has the relationship developed between the evolution of photographic manipulation and experimental approaches in Turkey? How did technical competence levels factor in this evolution? And what does Şahin Kaygun bring to this equation?

Şahin Kaygun: When we compare Turkey with the rest of the world in terms of photography, the following difference emerges: While in many countries one can see photography based on industry, in Turkey photography is alone; more accurately, the photographer is alone. As such, the necessary integration between photography and the photographic industry and between the photographer and the photographic industry has never taken place in Turkey. (…) As we know, all the raw materials needed for producing photographs are imported from abroad. This causes the photographer to struggle to find the materials he/she needs and to pay high sums for the materials he/she does find. This is the largest problem, i.e. the material aspect. If we add to this the inability for a suitable environment to emerge, we could then demonstrate the predicament of the Turkish photographer. [13]

[On the other hand,] technology can never come first in photography. The photographer must know how to see and look and what to do. The image in his head is important. I shoot my photographs way before clicking on the shutter button. They are already shot in my mind. The elements that form the narrative in photography are the same elements forming other art forms. A person taking a photograph needs cultural nourishment, cultural infrastructure, a serious narrative stance and a relationship with other art forms. I am for creating an event, rather than documenting it. Instead of documenting his/her age, the artist must create it. For this reason, I am for doing something new within my own intellectual parameters and for this I am forcing the limits of the previously mentioned artistic possibilities to their utmost. .[14]


Murat Alat: When Şahin Kaygun first exhibits his Polaroid works, they cause quite a stir. This is the first Polaroid exhibition in Turkey. The very fact that a consumer-oriented product like the Polaroid is used for artistic production is sensational. [15]


Murat Germen: First of all I must say that I prefer the term “alteration” (başkalaştırma) instead of “manipulation. In Turkey, we are not trained to step out of standard perceptions and transmittals, in other words to make alterations when necessary; furthermore, the technical infrastructure needed for artists to form a different vocabulary is not invented in Turkey and always imported. These phenomena make it difficult to conduct pioneering experiments, because the ones who invented the “apparatus” are always a (few) step(s) ahead and the number of people who manage to break the chains and escape this vicious circle, like Şahin Kaygun did, remains too low. I must express with delight that now, thanks to the freedom afforded by independent platforms such as social media, many more people have begun walking, even running down the path that Kaygun and other brave ones opened up; we are grateful. [16]


Orhan Cem Çetin: In Turkey Şahin Kaygun was one of the first people who had the “courage” to add a personal touch to photography. His Polaroid works, his printing photographs onto emulsified canvases followed by locally erasing them and then applying paint on them etc. are examples of this. In all of his works that make us honor and remember him, there is manipulation. Naturally, when the accumulation of culture, tendencies and needs reach a critical mass in any given society, it becomes inevitable that certain steps will be taken. It is obvious that by that time, the audience also wanted to see such things.
If Şahin Kaygun had not left us so soon, we would have seen him at the forefront of digital manipulation in photography as well. How can I say this with such confidence? When Kaygun was producing the works I mentioned above, he was watching the photography teknology of that period closely and was actually sourcing the materials not found in the Turkish market by contacting importers and making special orders. Most likely, he would also have realized the creative potential of digital techniques way before any of us and would have used it with all its magnificence in new series of works.
Let us also not forget: In any country, the development of photography as a sector will have a decisive effect on the art of photography. One can view world photography, in particular contemporary German photography in this light. As for Turkey, the rapid growth of the advertising sector during and following the Özal period, and the rise in the amount and contemporary relevance of investments in fields such as photography, graphic design, video art and animation supported the artists working in these fields in many ways. Şahin Kaygun shot advertisements, as well. Today also, the majority (or all?) of leading names in the field of photography are at the same time doing promotional photography. This at least gives us a way to finance our work.[17]

How was the interdisciplinary approach found in the art circles of the 80s received in the photographic community? How did the relationship between painting, photography and cinema evolve? What is the attitude in photography circles toward these interdisciplinary interpretations today?

Şahin Kaygun: I was never interested much in photography’s own conditions and borders. Moreover, when we look at contemporary art, we see that those borders are disappearing. It is not important if my works are paintings or graphic design. What is important is whether or not they are good art. [18] (…) For 15 years, people discussed whether or not the photograph I produced was a photograph or something else. Afterwards, some things started to be accepted, and people started to say, “Oh, it is this man’s style”. Now I don’t have such a problem in photography, but I do in cinema.  However, there is something I like here; when the work I do is discussed so much, this always pushes me to do something even newer, even more likely to cause controversy. [19]

Kaya Özsezgin: Photography for Şahin Kaygun is the name of an activity located at the center of an artistic production, and this activity will inevitably document its existence based on a series of investigations on the systematics of the “image”. Photography and painting can meet at the focus of common esthetic solutions, and so can photography and cinema. As such, Kaygun, while creating the works based on solutions that transform the photographic technique, will extend to cinema at the same time, and shoot two films as director. [20]


Orhan Cem Çetin: Photographers are usually conservative in this matter. Photography is an individualistic, asocial and obsessive kind of work. Perhaps because of this, artists coming from the photographic discipline do not venture out of their own field much. However, artists who are trained in another artistic discipline and move into photography later are more relaxed in this respect and most of the truly interdisciplinary works come from these artists. Let us not forget that Şahin Kaygun originally comes from the field of painting. Practically none of the pioneering artists who enabled photography to be accepted into museums, large exhibitions and the contemporary art scene in Turkey were originally trained in photography. The situation is not really any different today. There are very few photographers who do interdisciplinary work; and the ones who do can be ostracized by the photographic community or do not venture too far out of photography, only exploring closely associated fields. [21]


Refik Akyüz: It is not possible to describe Kaygun separately as a photographer, painter or moviemaker. I see in Kaygun’s works, an artist who sometimes uses a single technique, and at other times channels his creativity in ways that are harder to define; I also seem to witness a life cut short in its most productive period, before putting forth his best work. From this point of departure, it is difficult to compare his works with those of artists we define as interdisciplinary. I don’t think Kaygun's works were properly understood, especially not in the relatively introverted photographic community of the 80s. If we look at individual examples of the relationship between painting, photography and cinema, names such as Burhan Doğançay, Erol Akyavaş and more recently Nuri Bilge Ceylan may come to our minds. It is possible to think of more names in the present day, thanks to the liberation from a strict division of disciplines, the content of art now having freed itself from such constraints.

It may not be easy to understand what “photographic community” means in Turkey, as there are many clusters and layers in existence. Developments in contemporary art surely blur the boundaries and the new generation is far from confining itself to one discipline. As for the outlook of classical photography, this might still be quite far from interdisciplinarity. [22]

How should one position and interpret Şahin Kaygun as a director and director of photography within Turkish cinema? Could you discuss this within the context of the transformation of post-1980 Turkish cinema, the role that Şahin Kaygun played within this transformation and its impact today?


Alain Bellet: “Turkish cinema had given us “Yol” (The Way), “Sürü” (The Herd) and “Gerdek” (The Nuptial Night) among others. We Westerners found in these films situations, cultures and social paradoxes that stoked our thirst for the well-meaning “ethno”. Whether with its hope-filled films or with its militant films, Turkish cinema was one that carried messages. As for Şahin Kaygun, he takes us to another universe, another kind of magnificence; straight to the question of existence, to our relations with others and with creation. Folkloric Turkey, laden with exoticism and good feelings, leaves the stage here.” [23]

Mehmet Başutcu: “Dolunay” (Full Moon) introduces us to an unconventional aspect of young Turkish cinema. A stylistic attempt that successfully examines the paradox-laden realities of the country and an existential problematic, rather than some heavily exoticist treatment: this is an instance of creative filmmaking that conscientiously avoids the shortcut of rendering a segment of an alien lifestyle more attractive through the use of vernacular colors. Şahin Kaygun has turned to the main source: creating an attractive and enchanting cinematic atmosphere. Oh, but this approach wasn’t fashionable anymore; that’s alright, what can we do, fashion and fads do not matter for us. [24]


David Overbey: “Dolunay” enables us to discover an unknown face of young Turkish cinema… Kaygun portrays an existential problem with a powerful cinematic language, and without falling into the trap of making a poor description of a cross-section of a life decorated in local colors.[25]


Burçak Evren: Şahin Kaygun entered the world of cinema at a time when our cinema was in deep crisis due to changing circumstances, and was imprisoned- or depressed- by unfortunate and futile pursuits. This period became both an advantage and a disadvantage for him. The advantage was his coming into the limelight with his ability to make unusual films, as an alternative to Yeşilçam[26] cinema, which was struggling to relate to an audience undergoing a metamorphosis and becoming younger; the disadvantage was that audiences were moving away from national cinema products and closer to films from the USA.
Kaygun's achievement is giving our cinema the gift of high-caliber esthetics. His practice as a photographer helped him to provide certain novelties in film, particularly from a stylistic point of view. Perhaps he is one of the pioneers of a generation that has come later and emphasizes esthetics. Even today, it is hard to say that Kaygun’s sense of plastics has been surpassed in terms of esthetics and form.
It would naturally be unfair to define Kaygun only from the aspects of esthetics and form. The sense of esthetics in his films is one that has emerged not to decorate moving images, but on the contrary to provide meaning to those images. In a period where cinema in Turkey has been more verbal than necessary, Kaygun sought to transcend the ordinary by using the language of the image and to a certain extent has succeeded in doing so. [27]

Yekhan Pınarlıgil: Şahin Kaygun steps into cinema as an art director. But what is most interesting is that, as far as I know, he is one of the first in Turkey who thought that art direction was a profession, a crucial task and a duty within cinema, and who put this thought into practice. As a matter of fact, we see how much importance he gave to this issue through his own films, which he shot later. “Dolunay” is a film that reflects the esthetic explorations, concerns and questioning of the 80s very well. The setting of a closed space where the wider world is practically reduced to nothing, personal crises, silence, gaps, expectations, a strange melancholy, darkness, etc. All of these elements seem to me to be the common denominators of 1980s cinema, or more accurately of films that were shot in the 80s... [28]

Şahin Kaygun: I believe in the principle of combining the arts. I am for art forms interacting with and complementing each other. This is why there is painting and graphic design in my photographs. This is why I use photography in my graphic design works. Most importantly, this is why I am captivated by cinema in a tremendous way; cinema brings almost all art forms together. [29]  (…) People who made films in Yeşilçam until now produced works fighting the “seven-headed giant” called cinema, under the circumstances prevailing in a country like Turkey, and creating some rules according to themselves. If you ask me, these rules have taken on some traits that are blocking the progress of cinema in Turkey. As a person coming as an outsider into this institution, I find these rules extremely strange. As a person who has produced highly independent works in photography for twenty years, without depending on anyone’s rules, to suddenly be so restricted has naturally been very unpleasant for me.” Foreign critics say that “Dolunay” does not have Turkish motifs, that it is not a Turkish film. All the great effort that I have made is precisely so that “Dolunay” not be one of the Turkish films that we are used to. And from the reviews that I received, it seems I have reached my goal... There is a very classic expression, “Is this a film or a Kilim [traditional Turkish rug]?” I am in pursuit of the film; others can weave their kilims. [30]


[1] Burcu Pelvanoğlu, “Şahin Kaygun: Melez Fotoğraflar” (Şahin Kaygun: Hybrid Photographs), Gizli Yüz (The Hidden Face), Masa, Istanbul, 2013, p.9

[2] 2014

[3] 2014

[4] Anonymous, Open forum titled “Developments in World Photography”, State Academy of Fine Arts, Mesaj, June 1977, p.15.)

[5] Murat Alat, “Şahin Kaygun Çıkmazı” (The Şahin Kaygun Dilemma), Gizli Yüz (The Hidden Face), Masa, Istanbul, 2013, p.24

[6] Burcu Pelvanoğlu, ibid., p.9

[7] Arzu Yayıntaş, Nur Bulça’nın katkılarıyla, Şahin Kaygun’un Hayat Hikayesi, Geniş Açı (Şahin Kaygun’s Life Story, with contributions from Nur Bulça), Issue: 6, Winter/Spring ’99, p.40

[8] Doğan Hızlan, “Tek Tek Varız Ama Birlikte Yokuz” (We Exist One by One but Not Together), Hürriyet, 21.11.1988

[9] 2014

[10] 2014

[11] 2014

[12] 2014

[13] Sezai Babakuş, unknown publication, no page numbers

[14] Neyyire Özkan, “Fotoğraf Sanatçısı Nasıl Olunur?” (How to Become a Photography Artist?), Hayat, 26.03.1984, no page numbers

[15] Murat Alat, ibid., p.22

[16] 2014

[17] 2014

[18] Osman Giritli, “Karanlık Oda Yetmiyor” (The Dark Room is Not Enough), Hürriyet Magazin, 14 April, 1991, p.34

[19] Timur Daniş, “Sanatçı Yalnızlığı” (The Loneliness of the Artist), Kadınca, date unknown, p.45

[20] Kaya Özsezgin, ibid., no page numbers

[21] 2014

[22] 2014

[23] Alain Bellet, “Yalnızlığın Tutsağı Dolunay” (Full moon in the clutches of Loneliness), Cinema, 25 May 1988, cited in Burcu Kaya-Deniz Yalım, “Kendi Gölgesinin Peşinde” (Chasing One’s Own Shadow), Geniş Açı, P.6, Kış/Bahar ’99, p. 67

[24] Mehmet Basutçu, “Fotoğraf mı? Sinema mı? Her İkisi de!” (Photography or Cinema? Both!), Şahin Kaygun - Tüm Bir Yaşam (Şahin Kaygun – A Whole Life), Turkish Ministry of Culture Publications, Ankara, 1992, no page numbers

[25] David Overbey, “Dolunay/Şahin Kaygun” (Full Moon/Şahin Kaygun), 1988

[26] The informal name for the film industry in Turkey, similar to “Hollywood”, taking its name from an iconic street in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul – editor’s note.

[27] 2014

[28] 2014

[29] Anonymous, “Eski Zaman Denizleri ve Şahin Kaygun (Seas of Times Past and Şahin Kaygun), Hürriyet Gösteri, Issue:125, April 1991, p.9

[30] Hülya Vatansever, Yeşilçam’a Konan Şahin (The Falcon that Landed on Yeşilçam), unknown publisher, p.40

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