Women Artists

Portraying the Unseen: An Introduction to Maryam Şahinyan

Iolanda Munck 20 May 2024 min Read

Maryam Şahinyan (1911-1996) was a commercial photographer of Armenian descent who worked for half a century, from 1935 to 1985. Born into a prominent family in Sivas, Turkey, she was uprooted during the Armenian Genocide and resettled in Istanbul. She is now considered the first woman studio photographer in Turkey.

Şahinyan was born into a prestigious family in Sivas, Turkey, where her family had connections to the Armenian parliament and possessed numerous properties. During the First World War, the Armenian genocide unfolded between 1915 and 1923, during which the late Ottoman government systematically persecuted Armenian individuals. Consequently, Maryam Şahinyan’s family fled to Istanbul when she was still an infant. In Istanbul, Maryam Şahinyan’s father, Mihran Şahinyan, decided to pursue his passion for photography and opened his studio.

Maryam Şahinyan was the only family member interested in her father’s trade and learned the profession from him. In 1936, she dropped out of middle school due to financial difficulties and personal tragedy following her mother’s sudden passing. Consequently, Şahinyan resolved to open her own studio to support the family financially. Unlike her brothers, she never pursued further education but worked at her studio, Foto Galatasaray, for nearly 50 years, from 1936 until 1985, as a commercial photographer.

Religion

The Üç Horan Church

Considering Maryam Şahinyan’s socio-cultural background, it’s noteworthy that most of the Armenian population at the time, including the Şahinyan family, were Catholic, whereas the majority in Istanbul were Muslim. Thus, Şahinyan’s experiences in Istanbul were shaped by her identity as an immigrant and as part of a religious minority. Her connection to the Armenian community in Istanbul was primarily defined by religion.

Furthermore, her ties to the Armenian immigrant community were established mainly through the proximity of her studio, Foto Galatasaray, to the Üç Horan church. At the time, this church was the center of upper-class socio-religious gatherings and community expression. As a photographer from a formerly wealthy Armenian background, it became customary for upper-class Armenian churchgoers to visit Maryam Şahinyan’s studio afterward for a picture or two.

Capturing Religion

Maryam Şahinyan’s close connections to her community, as defined through socio-religious ties, are evident throughout her photographs. Religious practices, particularly non-Muslim ones, are central to many of her pictures. This was unusual because most commercial photographers in Istanbul at the time understood and practiced photography as a distinctly secular discipline regardless of their religious background. In contrast, Maryam Şahinyan’s works include a variety of depictions such as church choirs, children at their Communion or Bar or Bat Mitzvah, wedding pictures, and numerous portraits of Catholic priests and nuns.

Revealing the Invisible

Significantly, Maryam Şahinyan was particularly close to the community of nuns working within and beyond the Üç Horan church. This is noteworthy because Maryam Şahinyan was one of the first commercial photographers in Istanbul who actively portrayed nuns. This is especially significant since nuns were often invisible and excluded from artistic or popular representations due to their gender and religious affiliations.

AdVertisment

Portraying Minorities

Part of the Marginalized

Seeing and portraying individuals who traditionally remain unseen is a defining aspect of Maryam Şahinyan’s work. As a woman with an immigrant background from a religious minority, she felt a strong connection to the various marginalized communities in Istanbul at the time. Similarly, individuals from these communities often felt more at ease being photographed by her due to this shared understanding.

Her ability to fluently speak multiple languages, including Armenian, Turkish, French, and Italian, further facilitated communication with diverse subjects. Consequently, her photographs encapsulate a broad spectrum of ethnicities, cultures, religious beliefs, genders, ages, socio-economic statuses, professions, immigration histories, and nationalities.

Embracing Diversity

This inclusivity was made possible, in part, by Maryam Şahinyan’s modest pricing, particularly for basic portraits. At times, she even offered her services free of charge, regularly providing portrait sessions to orphanages and schools in economically disadvantaged areas. Furthermore, Şahinyan actively sought out individuals who were often overlooked. This is exemplified by her careful portrayal of domestic workers and housemothers, as seen in her children’s portrait services, which captured the children individually and included their accompanying caretakers.

AdVertisment

Gender

Portrayal of Women

A significant aspect of Maryam Şahinyan’s depiction of gender is her close focus on domestic workers and housemothers. As mentioned earlier, Şahinyan was the sole female commercial photographer in Istanbul during her time. Consequently, her clientele predominantly comprised women, who often felt more at ease being photographed by another woman. However, Maryam Şahinyan’s photographs went beyond merely capturing many female portraits; they also showcased a vast diversity of women.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Maryam Şahinyan didn’t limit herself to portraying women in traditional expressions of femineity. Instead, she highlighted the broad spectrum of femininities and diverse expressions of womanhood. Her portraits thus depict women from those adorned in Western Hippie counterculture floral prints to domestic workers, nuns, housemothers, individuals in equestrian and military uniforms, and women in high couture embellished with furs and feathers.

Representing the Queer Community

In conjunction with her focus on minorities, Maryam Şahinyan’s portrayal of gender also encompassed notable representations of Istanbul’s queer community at the time. As one of the pioneering commercial photographers to depict queer identities, she captured queer individuals and couples as early as the 1940s. This is particularly significant given that public discourse in Turkey during this era largely ignored or dismissed the existence of queer communities.

AdVertisment

Change and Stagnation

Context of Change

It is crucial to emphasize once again that Şahinyan operated her studio, Foto Galatasaray, for almost 50 years, from 1936 to 1985. This period witnessed significant demographic, socio-cultural, and political changes in Istanbul. These shifts encompassed the socio-cultural, political, and economic impacts of the Second World War, a political transition involving the relocation of the capital from Istanbul to Ankara.

There was also extensive national and international migration from rural to urban areas, as well as overarching changes brought about by globalization and evolving technologies. Notably, attitudes toward and access to photography evolved within this evolving landscape, marking it as an increasingly commonplace and widely accessible form of representation.

Pictures of Change

Maryam Şahinyan’s work directly reflected these profound changes, with many of her photographs meticulously capturing their consequences. Unlike other commercial photographers in Istanbul at the time,  Şahinyan delved deeply into the effects of these transformations, mainly through her focus on minorities and her nuanced attention to individual expressions. Consequently, her photographic timeline documented the rise of rural cultural expressions, shifts from smaller to larger families, and sweeping changes in fashion and technological accessories across the decades.

Maintaining Consistency

Furthermore, amidst these sweeping changes, Maryam Şahinyan deliberately sought consistency in her life and work. It’s noted that she wore the same black apron and white gloves throughout her career, ate a single red apple every day at noon, and made minimal alterations to the décor of her studio.

She also adamantly resisted adopting new technological advancements in photography. For example, she continued using the same black-and-white camera until the end of her career despite the advent and popularity of color photography. This deliberate adherence to tradition created a stark contrast between the enduring consistency of her practice and her acute sensitivity to the ever-changing individuality and experiences depicted within her photographs.

Maryam Şahinyan: Maryam Şahinyan, Untitled Self-portrait, 1936 – 1985, photograph, Foto Galatasaray Archive, Istanbul, Turkey.

Maryam Şahinyan, Untitled Self-portrait, 1936 – 1985, photograph, Foto Galatasaray Archive, Istanbul, Turkey.

Maryam Sahinyan as an Artist

While Maryam Şahinyan primarily relied on her photography for financial stability, she infused artistic elements into much of her work. This artistic inclination is particularly evident in her photographs of theatre groups, her penchant for capturing individuals in coordinated attire, her fashion portraits, and her mirror compositions.

Fashion

She occasionally collaborated with theatre groups, capturing their performances or creating bespoke artistic settings with other artists. Her photographs often brimmed with life through vibrant fashion elements. They featured meticulous attention to lighting, perspective, and poses to complement the attire of her subjects. Her extensive collection includes portraits of individuals dressed identically or in coordinated couples’ outfits, showcasing her keen focus on fashion.

Mirror, Mirror, What Woman Do You See?

Şahinyan’s unique artistic expression is exemplified in her mirror portraits. These captivating images predominantly feature women gazing into mirrors, inviting varied interpretations. Some view these portraits as explorations of self and introspection, while others see them as striking depictions of symmetry and perspective, focusing on hair and makeup.

Additionally, some interpret these mirrored images as a feminist statement, challenging traditional art norms by allowing the portrayed women to assert their own beauty and agency. Whether seen as an act of self-affirmation or a reclamation of perspective, these mirror portraits transcend commercial photography, emerging as intricate pieces of art that provoke thought and reflection.

AdVertisment

Şahinyan was a remarkable first woman commercial photographer in Turkey. She concentrated not only on financial gain but on intricate artistic perspectives. Moreover, her photographs represent Istanbul’s vastly changing cosmopolitan population through her focus on the diversity and individuality of its unseen individuals.

Maryam Şahinyan: Maryam Şahinyan, Untitled, photograph, Foto Galatasaray Archive, Istanbul, Turkey.

Maryam Şahinyan, Untitled, photograph, Foto Galatasaray Archive, Istanbul, Turkey.

Bibliography

1.

Hülya Adak. “Imaginging Gender + Justice amid the Pandemic: The Year in Turkey.” Biography 44, no. 1 (2021): 155-160.

2.

Lara Fresko. “İstanbulluları Hüzne Boğabilir”, Radikal, December 13, 2011.

3.

Laura Schneider. “Mirrors In Art.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 5, no. 2 (1985): 283-324.

4.

Susan L. Smith. “The Gothic Mirror and the Female Gaze.” In Saints, Sinners, and Sisters: Gender and Northern Art in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Jane L. Carroll and Alison G. Stewart, 73-94. London: Routledge, 2003.

5.

Tayfun Serttaş. Foto Galatasaray: Studio Practices by Maryam Şahinyan. Istanbul: Aras Yayincilik, 2011.

6.

Tayfun Serttaş. “Who Was Maryam Şahinyan?.” Salt, October 5, 2011.

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