Othmar Pferschy, is a little known photographer of great importance. He was born on 16 October 1898 in the Austrian city of Graz. His childhood was spent in the town of Fürstenfeld on the Austro-Hungarian border. In his youth he worked as an accountant and was also interested in theatre. His lifelong interest in photography began after he became apprentice to Anton Pöpperl in Vienna in February 1923. He worked with Pöpperl until May 1925 and then worked for five months at the studio of Robert Fendius, a photographer in Magdeburg in Germany. He went on to work for five months with Bockelmann in Friedrichshafen and subsequently with Otto Porov in Salzburg, Austria. On 9 October 1926 the young Pferschy's sense of adventure took him to Istanbul, travelling on the Orient Express from Vienna. His intention was to spend a few weeks visiting Turkey, but just a month after his arrival he saw an advertisement for a photographer in a local newspaper and became the well paid assistant to Jean Weinberg, a renowned Istanbul photographer who owned the Foto Français studio in Pera. Pferschy's years of experience working at Jean Weinberg's studio had an important influence on his future career. After leaving Weinberg, Pferschy opened his own studio at 25/27 Kuloğlu Sokak in Beyoğlu on 10 July 1931, but on 11 June 1932 the Turkish parliament passed Act 2007 Concerning Arts and Occupations Reserved for Turkish Citizens in Turkey, which made it impossible for foreign photographers to continue working in Turkey. During the Ottoman period leading photographers, such as The Abdullah Frères and Pascal Sébah had often opened branches in Cairo or Alexandria, both popular tourist destinations. So it is no surprise that both Pferschy and Weinberg thought first of moving to Alexandria. Another factor in this decision was that Pferschy had met Prince Muhammed Abdel Moneim (husband of the Ottoman princess Neslişah Osmanoğlu and son of Khedive of Egypt Abbas Hilmi II) and the prince had told him he wished to take lessons in photography from him. In 1932 Pferschy and Weinberg went to Alexandria for a few months before returning to Istanbul with the intention of moving their studios to Egypt. Pferschy closed his Beyoğlu studio on 31 May 1935, and he and his family moved to Ankara, where they settled into the Muhlis Bey Apartment Building in Sıhhıye owned by Ankara's director of public works Muhlis Sertel. Pferschy was now official photographer of Kemalist Turkey. Pferschy's photographs were published in an album entitled Turkey in Pictures published in 1936. This album was designed to tell the world about the new Turkey. It was printed in Munich, and had captions in Turkish, French, English and German. His photographs also appeared in many issues of La Turquie Kemaliste, on stamps, postcards and banknotes, and in many books, brochures and calendars. Exhibitions consisting of his photographs entitled Turkey in Pictures and Touristic Turkey were held in Bucharest, Belgrade, Athens and Montreux, and publications in foreign languages were distributed in these cities.
Pferschy married Evangelia Seimiri (1902-1974) on 2 October 1936. His daughter Astrid was born on 28 January 1937 and his twin sons Walter and Ralph on 6 October 1939. With the outbreak of World War II Othmar was called up into the German army, and on 30 June 1940 he resigned his post and returned home. At a meeting which took place a few days before his departure, Prime Minister Refik Saydam expressed his regret and asked if there was anything he could do. Pferschy replied that after the war he wished to return to do another book about Turkey. Pferschy had fought in World War I on the Italian front as a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian army. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 Pferschy automatically became a German citizen and was called up into the German army during World War II. He began by serving as a photographer on the Norwegian front. On his return he was sent to work at Fremdsprachen - Verlag G.M.B.H. in Berlin, one of the publishers operating under the German Propaganda Office. When the war ended, as a citizen of Austria once again, Pferschy returned to Istanbul on 21 July 1947, on a visa issued by the Turkish consulate in Marseille on 13 March 1947. As soon as he arrived, he opened a studio in premises in Beyoğlu rented from the wife of Bogos Tarkulyan, proprietor of Photo Phebüs, who had died in 1940. This studio was located at 243 İstiklâl Caddesi, opposite Tokatlıyan Han. In 1947 Pferschy applied for Turkish citizenship. His wife Evangelia and his three children who had been born and grown up in Turkey were all Turkish citizens, and the family spoke Turkish among themselves. His son Ralph had served in the navy on Heybeliada for three years and his other son Walter had served in the army as a general's driver in Ankara for two years. Yet despite all these circumstances Pferschy was not granted citizenship. On 5 September 1955 Pferschy moved to El Irak Apartment Building opposite Harbiye Officers Mess, and used these premises as both home and studio until 1966. The location of Pferschy's fourth and last studio was Beşler Apartment Building near the Hilton Hotel on Cumhuriyet Caddesi. Later two photographers sent a complaint to the police department accusing him of violating the Act Concerning Arts and Occupations Reserved for Turkish Citizens. The police said they knew of Pferschy and the services he had performed for Turkey, and merely fined him 25 liras, although they said that they would have to act in accordance with the law if there was a further complaint. Within a short time another complaint was received from the same people, whose identity was not then known. This time Pferschy's work permit was cancelled and he was forbidden to take commercial photographs. With the intervention of friends in high places he was given permission to work only in Istanbul. The roads of Anatolia were now closed to him. Pferschy was devastated by this affair, but accused no one. In 1969 he quietly departed from Turkey, the country he had always called his 'second homeland.' Perhaps with the idea of returning at some future date, or out of a wish not to break his links with Turkey entirely, he left his entire archive neatly arranged in the basement of his sister-in-law's house in Ortaköy. Unfortunately the basement was flooded and most of his negatives were destroyed. On 22 February 1980 the Institute of Photography, established on 13 July 1978 as part of the Faculty of Decorative Arts at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, awarded Pferschy honorary membership of the institute "for his services to Turkish photography and outstanding work." Pferschy was then living in Munich.
Othmar Pferschy, who had spent 43 years of his life in Turkey, died in Munich in 1984. The years he spend in the Turkish Republic, was a time when there was expectation from photography to seek out what was beautiful, admirable and worthy in the country, recording subjects such as relations between people and nature, archaeological sites, and change and modernization in cities. Pferschy's photographs are the finest examples of this genre. Pferschy devoted years to photographing large buildings, modern factories, schools, universities, hospitals, streets, stadiums, parks and squares in Turkey's towns and cities; and portraying life at the time in photographs of 19 May ceremonies, villagers, workers, horse riders, tennis players, fencers, laboratory technicians, typists, pianists and so on. His photographs capture meticulously timed moments, are technically flawless and aesthetically brilliant. Pferschy taught his audience how to look at photographs, and led the way for the landscape and documentary photographers who came after him.
Astrid von Schell, the daughter of this great master photographer, has been living in Alanya since 1986. She is a photographer herself, and to preserve her father's memory signs her own postcards with his name. In May 2005, wishing Othmar's remarkable visual archive of Turkey to remain in the country, Astrid presented them to Istanbul Modern, an institution she trusts. An inventory was made of 1714 negatives and 1293 prints.
[Engin Özendes 2006]
ÖZENDES, ENGIN Under the Light of the Republic: The Photographs of Othmar Pferschy 2006 İstanbul Modern, Istanbul
ÖZENDES, ENGIN The Light from Ankara: Photographs by Othmar Pferschy 2006 İstanbul Modern, Ankara