The Light in Istanbul: On Orhan Pamuk’s “Orange”

By Jonah Goldman KayOctober 28, 2020

The Light in Istanbul: On Orhan Pamuk’s “Orange”

Orange by Orhan Pamuk

AT THE TURN of the 20th century, Eugène Atget wandered Paris photographing the medieval structures soon to be subsumed by the city’s rapid modernization. The facades, passageways, and storefronts that Atget photographed are, perhaps unintentionally, tinted with nostalgia — even as the photographer captured the images, he knew that his subjects were already relics.

During Atget’s two decades of walking the streets of Paris, he also acted out one of the most enduring archetypes of the period — the figure of the flâneur. The flâneur is a man (and it is almost always a man) who wanders aimlessly through the city streets, hoping to glean anecdotes and insights into urban life. Both involved in and disconnected from the rhythms of modernity, the flâneur was (and is) a dispassionate observer of the city’s ebbs and flows. Many flâneurs took on the role of amateur preservationist, documenting their observations for future generations.

Writing about the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin defined the archetype for generations to come. “To the flâneur,” he wrote in The Arcades Project, his unfinished magnum opus, “his city is — even if, like Baudelaire, he happened to be born there — no longer native ground. It represents for him a theatrical display, an arena.” The Arcades Project was itself a work of flânerie — a catalog of Parisian city life inspired primarily by Benjamin’s jaunts through the city.

If Benjamin characterized the flâneur in 19th-century Paris, Orhan Pamuk has acted it out in modern-day Istanbul. Pamuk’s novels often take long, meandering journeys through the city’s streets and history, often inspired by his own wanderings. The Museum of Innocence (2008), for example, tells a story of unrequited love between Kemal, a wealthy businessman, and his much-younger mistress, Füsun. The novel is almost Victorian in its massive scale and intricate detailing of the lives of an array of socialites, albeit with the Bosporus as a backdrop. After he is abandoned by Füsun, Kemal takes to wandering Istanbul’s crowded neighborhoods, observing the vibrant and ever-changing fabric of the city as a way of seeking solace. But he rarely finds it in these walks — unlike Benjamin’s dispassionate flâneur, Kemal is filled with nostalgia as he is reminded of Istanbul’s past and his former life.

“As my old self, though troubled,” Pamuk writes, “I would wander through the city’s old neighborhoods, looking for Füsun, cursing myself for having neglected to seek out these charming streets, these old neighborhoods, much sooner.” This “gloomy flâneur,” as Adam Shatz put it in his review of the book, reappears in Pamuk’s 2014 novel A Strangeness in My Mind, in which Mevlut, a street vendor, spends his nights wandering the city. Walking, Pamuk writes, “fueled his imagination and reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away behind the walls of a mosque, in a collapsing wooden mansion, or inside a cemetery.”

In both Mevlut and Kemal, we see shades of Pamuk himself. Indeed, many of the tales of night wanderings that dot The Museum of Innocence and A Strangeness in My Mind are autobiographical additions. A self-described flâneur, Pamuk has spent decades wandering Istanbul’s neighborhoods, camera in hand, capturing the city at night. During these trips, the author began to notice that the once-warm glow of sodium streetlights and incandescent bulbs behind windowpanes was slowly being replaced by the bright white glare of LEDs. Choosing a streetlight color isn’t often high on a city’s list of bureaucratic tasks, but the colors of these lights can drastically alter one’s relationship to urban space: streetlights paint the city’s surface every night. In Istanbul, the yellow glow of the old streetlights washed over cars, buildings, and residents, covering them in a homogeneous ochre. They created a sense of drama and mystery — one that shapes both Pamuk’s characters and his own experience of the city. As those lights turned to white, that intrigue was slowly being lost, replaced by the sterility and visibility such stark lighting entails.

Pamuk decided to capture these fading yellow lights and the street life that accompanied them. Much like Atget in fin-de-siècle Paris, Pamuk channeled his flânerie into a documentary mission, creating an archive of his changing city. As he writes in the introduction to Orange, his new collection of images of Istanbul’s changing nightscape:

I started with the familiar streets of Cihangir, Nişantaşı, and Şişli, where I had so often walked, and which had brought me such joy over the years. I noticed immediately the proliferation of white light in coffeehouses, department store windows, and construction sites. The more I observed the slow retreat of yellow light, and the way the city streets were acquiring — unnoticed by all — a whole new character, the more photographs I took, animated by anger at all my acquaintances and relatives who seemed altogether indifferent to the issue.

But unlike Atget, Pamuk is no dispassionate observer. His images, like his novels, are suffused with the nostalgia of a longtime resident grappling with the new reality of an old, changing city. Pamuk bemoans the destruction of the nighttime landscape, as well as his friends’ indifference to these changes. To Pamuk, the ambivalence of his friends was political, tied to the city’s deep class and racial divides. Sequestered in their wealthy neighborhoods, they were blind to the transformation of Istanbul from a metropolis designed for its residents to one fashioned for visitors.

Indeed, in the photographs where the new light seeps in, the whiteness has a destructive aura, removing the familiarity that animates the yellow-light images. In one photograph of three children running through a street lit by a single orange bulb, an alley in the background draws our eye in. The bright white lights were likely added in the name of safety, to efface these lurking shadows — but safety for whom? In the yellow light, the city’s mysteries are hidden from outsiders. But under the harsh fluorescent glare, the lives of residents are exposed to an outside gaze. Orange, then, also reads as a eulogy for the city that has defined Pamuk’s writing.

"Orange" by Orhan Pamuk published by Steidl

By capturing Istanbul’s changing nightscape, Pamuk joins a group of writers moonlighting as photographers, often in the service of their own flânerie. The two mediums complement each other: the photographer documents, while the writer observes and later produces accounts of what he saw. Much like a painter working from a photograph, writers can create a snapshot of a scene that serves as a guide or inspiration for later writing.

"Orange" by Orhan Pamuk published by Steidl

Wright Morris, the Depression-era novelist, used photography as a means of discovering his Midwestern roots, the results of which found their way into his writing. Morris spent his 20s traveling through the Midwest, where he was raised, capturing the poverty of Dust Bowl America. Largely inspired by these wanderings, his novels delve into the strangeness and richness of the Midwest. The photographs Morris took also made their way into some of his books, which he called photo-texts. In The Home Place (1948), Morris juxtaposes photographs from his travels with pieces of fiction, written in a documentary style. The format, which inspired a number of authors, embodies one of the happiest synergies of photography and writing.

Others, such as Eudora Welty, came to writing in the hopes of expressing what the image could not. Deep in Mississippi, where she was working as a WPA photographer, Welty began writing about the lives of the residents, documenting their conversations and situations in a way that went deeper than visual representation. Importantly, unlike the practice of Wright and Pamuk, the photographs Welty captured were never the basis of her writing. For Welty, the two mediums were simultaneous, independent, and usually unequal modes of expressing the same memory. “The memory is far better,” she recounted in an interview. “Personal experience casts its essential light upon it.”

Teju Cole, the protean writer, photographer, and critic, oscillates constantly between the pen and the lens. Indeed, the author spent four years as photography critic for The New York Times Magazine, blending the two mediums in a singular practice. Like Pamuk, Cole’s penchant for flânerie finds its way into his writing. In his novel Open City (2011), the narrator, Julius, walks through New York, offering observations of the city and its residents. Julius’s insights feel slightly alien, as if filtered through an outsider’s eyes. “Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance,” Julius recalls after one of his first night walks, “each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.” It’s not until much later, though, that we find out that Julius, like Cole, is Nigerian.

For Cole, the experience of otherness defines both his writing and his photographs. In Fernweh (2020), his most recent collection of photographs, Cole captures the modesty and order of contemporary Switzerland. Shot on Kodak Portra film, which lends the images a pale, muted quality, the photographs capture the otherworldly beauty of Cole’s yearly retreats to the Alps. In Switzerland, Cole is a sort of postcolonial flâneur — the country becomes a vacation space where he can remove himself from the cultural politics of his own identity.

At the same time, Cole’s experience as a Black flâneur reveals the limits of flânerie as a lifestyle. Not everyone has the luxury of becoming a flâneur or, indeed, caring about the changing aesthetics of the city. Cole finds comfort in his Swiss escapes largely because he cannot find such peace elsewhere. In an interview in Granta, Cole remarks on how difficult it can be as a Black man to find the anonymity so prized by the flâneur. Whether in the United Kingdom, the United States, or France, Cole is subject to that country’s racial politics. In Switzerland, however, Cole is able to move safely, unnoticed. “Switzerland was a particular place that I still like to visit without getting involved in its political problems,” he says. “It was about recognizing my own need for a break, somewhere, anywhere, on this earth.”

The political undercurrents that connect Cole’s writing to his photography also exist for Pamuk. While Orange is largely focused on the visual poetics of change, his photographs dissect the political implications of the transformed urban landscape. As he wandered the streets of Istanbul’s poorer neighborhoods while working on A Strangeness in My Mind, Pamuk recalls sensing a growing nationalistic fury, as well as seeing Turkish flags on every street corner. But, Pamuk says, his friends were not concerned with the changing light of the city, nor with the rise of nationalism. Rather, they worried about the traditional Muslims who appeared in Pamuk’s photographs, saying that his book risked turning into a “photoreportage chronicling the rapid rise in the number of Syrian immigrants and of people wearing religious clothing out on the streets of Istanbul.”

This reactionary sentiment has its roots in Turkey’s secularist origins. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founding father, pushed forward a series of policies secularizing the Muslim population and giving limited power to the country’s religious parties. Secularism became popular with Turkey’s urban elites, while people from the provinces tended to hew to religious traditionalism. Nationalism, on the other hand, had broad support among ethnic Turks. Thus, nationalism and secularism became intertwined.

It’s evident in the photographs in Orange that Pamuk’s concerns about rising nationalism and anti-religious sentiment were intertwined with his documentary mission. While yellow light mutes and homogenizes, fluorescent light floods a scene and puts its subjects in stark relief. In the photographs in Orange, white light reveals the country’s growing nationalism, as well as its changing population, even if its residents fail to see it. Under the yellow lights, the city’s religious residents appear as part of the landscape — women in headscarves walk down the street haloed in the same orange light as the secular residents. But under the new white harshness, their difference is clearly visible, their otherness laid bare. Likewise, the red flags that remain one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Turkish nationalism stand out vividly in the brighter light.

"Orange" by Orhan Pamuk published by Steidl

As Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, continues its relentless march toward modernization, Pamuk’s photographs are reminders of the people and lifestyles left behind. With the shadows vanquished and the city laid bare, the flâneur has little left to discover.


Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and several other places.

LARB Contributor

Jonah Goldman Kay is a writer based in London and New Orleans. His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Nation, and The Paris Review.


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