“Orange” by Orhan Pamuk


Two men stand in front of a vegetable and fruit stall, completely absorbed by their own private conversation. Behind them, two other, younger men intimately shake hands on leaving the “Cafés Salonu” while a boy next to them is trying to wipe the water and trash from the sidewalk. The whole setting appears cinematic, the characters shimmering in the moody atmosphere engendered by the beam of the street light.

Like his many previous literary endeavors, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s new book Orange is about Istanbul, or rather how the city appears in his eyes. The book consists of color photographs of the city’s streets which Pamuk has been perpetually constantly taking for several years, always with the same technique and choice of motif. The result is a visual essay dedicated to the alleys and corners of his hometown. Over the author’s more than six decades living in Istanbul, Pamuk has witnessed the constant transformation of the city, notably from the gradual change from orange street lamps to white over the last ten years or so, not that the actual duration of the change matters. What does matter is the stark visible disappearance of the yellow-hued fluorescent lamps bringing a loss of the magical moments in a city landscape he dearly loves; the change is one he accepts only with some bitterness.

Yet, flipping through the book’s pages, it appears that the intention of saving the magical moments of golden light was not the project’s only raison-d’être. The consistency of his motifs—the repetition of the preserved two-to-four storey dwellings, alleys and corners—suggest another perspective for the book.

Turning the pages is like strolling on and on without coming to the end of the street, absorbed in the atmosphere of golden, orange light.

OrangeOrhan Pamuk (Steidl, September 2020)
Orange, Orhan Pamuk (Steidl, September 2020)

Orange appears as an invitation to a walk through some of Istanbul’s neighborhoods. Turning the pages in which images from one street follow the others, creating together a smooth dynamic, is like strolling on and on without coming to the end of the street, absorbed in the atmosphere of golden, orange light, easily lost in the anonymity of the streets. Pamuk’s logic is deliberate: close-up, zoom in and out; fractions and interruptions of the images don’t exist. The sequence of images creates its own tempo, slowing readers down and guiding their eyes toward the particular facade or surface of the walkway.

Although people nonetheless appear scattered in his photographs, the main area of interest remains the empty streets.In this attempt to capture and portray them, Pamuk deals with the streets as individuals with their own personality, gaining thereby eligibility for existence. Pamuk discards the epicentre of commerce and the chic parts of Istanbul to focus on poor neighborhoods and their residents. His evident desire to keep these parts of the city alive makes Orange similar to his fiction as well as, in particular, The Museum of Innocence. In this way that means preserving memories of the city by archiving objects, narratives, fragments of stories, anecdotes, personal items and dreams. Orange is an archive of neighborhoods in Istanbul which still, it seems, contain a certain rural character, belonging neither to the historical heart of the city Sultanahmet, nor to the busy shopping areas of Taksim Square or İstiklal Caddesi but to those greengrocers and shopkeepers. In Pamuk’s photographs, this part of Istanbul appears self-contained, unexciting, not trying to be hip or even vibrant.


In the textual prologue of the book, Pamuk reveals he had worked between 2008 and 2014 on a novel about street vendors, set in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. For this project, he spent “a lot of time walking around at night and taking photographs in places like Tarlabasim, Kasimpasa, and Feriköy.” Through his own photographs during the years, he has also noticed the increase in nationalism in those neighborhoods like Aksaray, Fatih, and Carsamba which are more conservative than others. Noting this crucial turn of “nationalist rage” in the way people wearing turban and skullcaps as he records a friend’s story that thirty or twenty years ago, the police “would have arrested these people for being in breach of the laws mandating the adoption of secular, European dress.” Ten years later, Pamuk walked again, but with bodyguards. It is not just the orange light that is in danger of being turned off, but also critical voices against a policy which “allows no other form of political dissent”.

Pamuk’s photo book depicts—and he is mostly known for it—a painful process shaped by nostalgia and by a search for a time being lost, full of memories and emotional bonding with the city he loves. At the same time, it is a quiet celebration of the city’s orange coloring that is bit by a bit vanishing. Probably the intention of making this book is a quiet resistance, or a critical remark even by archiving the city’s changes within the atmosphere of nationalism. Orange can be understood as an ongoing project of Pamuk’s, characterized and nourished by a desire to archive and preserve the old Istanbul that still lives in the memories of its people.

Phuong Phan is an art and architectural historian based in Berlin.