Ara Guler, a Turkish photographer who was best known for capturing poignant and nostalgic images of a bygone Istanbul but who also portrayed famous figures and everyday life in far-flung lands, died on Wednesday in the city he so lovingly chronicled. He was 90.
His death was announced by Magnum Photos, his agency, in a statement on its website.
Mr. Guler’s pictures reflected the shadows and sparkle of Istanbul, a city he once described in an interview as a sort of “Madwoman of Chaillot” who had grown old but never neglectful of how she looked: Touch her, he said, “and a jewel will appear.”
His Istanbul, before it was erased by fast-paced modernization, was a place of boats gliding down the Bosporus, minarets poking up in the distance behind a horse-drawn cart, an elderly head-scarved woman smoking a cigarette, children flinging their arms out in joy.
Mr. Guler described his photographs, often taken with a Leica, as “a little bit romantic.”
“I don’t take pictures in normal light,” he said, “only just before or after sunset, or early in the morning.”
Mr. Guler viewed himself as a citizen of the world. His assignments had him circling it as he documented the well-known faces of the 20th century, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Alfred Hitchcock and Winston Churchill, as well as more obscure subjects like the headhunters of Borneo. Other settings for his work included China, New Guinea, Kazakhstan and Kenya.
Only three subjects got away, he said in a 2005 interview: Charlie Chaplin, who refused to be photographed because he was in a wheelchair by then; Jean-Paul Sartre, who lived near where Mr. Guler worked in Paris but nevertheless eluded him; and Albert Einstein, “who died too soon.”
Mr. Guler’s work has been widely exhibited, at institutions including the Istanbul Modern art museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Library in Paris. He was a recipient of France’s Légion d’Honneur.
The Ara Guler Museum, dedicated to his work, opened with fanfare in Istanbul on Aug. 16, his 90th birthday.
Despite his stature in the cultural world, Mr. Guler declined the mantle of artist.
“If it’s art, it’s art,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “If it’s not, it’s not. Other people will decide that 100 years from now. Photography looks like art, but art has to have some kind of depth.”
He continued: “I hate the idea of becoming an artist. My job is to travel and record what I see.”
More important than art, he said, is history, “and that is what press photographers record.”
“We are the eyes of the world,” he added. “We see on behalf of other people. We collect the visual history of today’s earth.”
Mr. Guler had a long collaboration and friendship with the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. His photographs were included in the Pamuk book “Istanbul: Memories and the City” in 2003, and Mr. Pamuk wrote the foreword to the 2009 book “Ara Guler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs.”
Mr. Guler was born on Aug. 16, 1928, the only child of Christian Armenians living in Istanbul. His father was a pharmacist and sold to the movie industry chemicals used to develop film. As a young man, Mr. Guler wanted to become a screenwriter and thought he could use his father’s movie contacts. Instead, his father found him a job at a newspaper.
There, Mr. Guler said, he learned that it took him longer to write an article than to shoot a picture. He preferred photography’s faster results.
He also learned, he said, that “you can give more of the message with a photograph than with writing.”
He later moved on to international publications, including Time, Life and Paris Match, and was part of the stable of photojournalists employed by Magnum, the agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour.
Mr. Guler’s first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Suna Guler, died in 2010. No immediate family members survive.
In later years, Mr. Guler could be seen in a rumpled overcoat sitting at a table in Ara Café, a restaurant named after him in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, near his studio. Prints of his photographs lined the cafe walls and were reproduced as place mats.