The Album of Everyday Life: The Photograph in the Films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan

In Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, photography is present in the everyday lives of the characters. Their homes are decorated with family portraits and holiday snaps. Some of them are photographers and taking photos are as much part of their lives as doing the washing up, watching television and drinking tea. There is a lot of tea drinking and sitting around and there is a lot of photography. But in contrast to films that feature photographers and photographs in their narratives, Ceylan’s narratives do not depend on them.

Ceylan was a photographer before he was a filmmaker, and this is evident in his films. His sense of composition is carefully balanced, and the pace of his editing measured. His shots succeed one another as in a slide show. Much of his films are devoted to the observation of people, spaces and things, filled with images that could just as easily be photographs: Mehmet Emin Toprak standing under a carnival ride in A Small Town (1997), his face shot from below, in shadow, the aerial swing drawing a large arc across the top of the screen; Isa standing on a bridge in the snowy winter countryside in Climates (2006), the sky overhead heavy with clouds, or Mahmut’s (Muzzafer Özdemir) mistress in Distant (2002), caught sobbing in the bathroom, her face at the bottom of the frame, reflected in the mirror. Like stills, these images present a mood, a sense of place and a hint of narrative all in a single shot. There is an ambiguity in each frame akin to the narrative possibilities contained in a photograph, where a single image is open to a variety of narratives. As in the cinematic photographs of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, spaces and gestures suggest narratives that are suspended in time, freed from the constraints of continuity. In amongst the images in the opening of A Small Town is a series of portraits of the town’s inhabitants. The portraits belong to characters who in the end play no part in the plot. In one, an old man stares vacantly out beyond the frame, his face a craggy, cratered landscape, and in another, a man with a string of beads stands by a railway siding, facing away from the camera. He looks up, rolls the beads between his fingers, and then he is gone.

All of the early shots in A Small Town have this sense of being open to multiple narrative possibilities. A rural town in winter: rows of houses line up behind stark trees, crisp snow covering their gardens. A mosque, with its minaret stretching taller than a large bare oak with dark branches that feather out across the sky like tiny veins; a road, the snow marked by tire tracks with a lone dog wandering across it; later, a snowman with leaves for ears and a pencil nose, the town at the beginning of spring, and the faces of the village men staring straight into the camera as in Dorothea Lange’s depression era portraits. Asynchronous sound accompanies these static shots. There is the sound of a clarinet playing a rambling jazz phrase, then the rigid chanting of school children as they recite a patriotic oath. Such non-diegetic sound combined with the clearly marked shot transitions, accentuates the photographic quality of the images. Interspersed with scenes of everyday activity in the town’s school, these images constitute a photographic album of the town, a record of its streets and squares as winter passes into spring.

It is because Ceylan’s shots have this photographic quality that photographs themselves fit easily into the flow of images. Shots unfold slowly and the camera is often still, so that the contrast between movement and stillness is diminished. The photography and photographs are part of an inventory of everyday activities, they follow the rhythm of the other aspects of everydayness – talking, driving, waiting, watching television—all of which have a sense of time that is antithetical to classical film time. In “The Rhythmanalytical Project” Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Regulier put forward a case for what they call ‘cyclical’ time.[1] The article draws attention to the possibility of living in harmony with an internal measure, a sense of rhythm that incorporates shifts in tempo, repeated patterns, ceasuras, impulses that are strong and ones that are weak. This feeling of rhythm is clearly different from the externally imposed rhythms of man-made time, the strictly regulated pulse of clocks and metronomes, although they share many of the same elements. This rhythm is more like that of a life than that of a traditional narrative. With their gentle ebb and flow, and their feeling for the quiet moments of daily living, Ceylan’s films follow the inconstant rhythm of this internal measure. Within the procession of images, there is a variation between rapidity and slowness. The films are structured asymmetrically, and durations of scenes seem arbitrary and uneven. Climates is ostensibly structured around the seasons, opening in summer on the coast, autumn in Istanbul, into the mountains for winter, but the film ends before spring arrives, leaving things seemingly incomplete and unfinished. A Small Town is divided into two unequal parts, the first a series of portraits of the town, and the second entirely dependent on dialogue with the camera fixed on a family around a fire. The second part seems lengthier because the circular conversation runs on repetitively, but in fact it is not longer.

In all Ceylan’s films, there are moments when the narratives jump forward leaping time and skipping over important events – a break up, a murder – only to spend the subsequent scene observing a rambling conversation or a man sitting by a river. This uneven sensation of time reflects the way photographs can be experienced. Still images are barely differentiated when the length and speed of shots is so changeable.

Perhaps the most evident example of Ceylan’s surprise cuts – what Nick James, in a review of Climates, refers to as horror movie technique – is the appearance of a ghost in Three Monkeys (2008). Ceylan’s films often incorporate dreams or moments of half-sleep: lampshades fall in slow motion, defying the laws of gravity, a woman rocks on her back on a windowsill like an upturned turtle, and a man smothers a woman in sand. Falling as they do into the flow of waking images, it is difficult to distinguish dream from real. In Three Monkeys the dripping blue ghost of Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and Eyüp’s (Yavuz Bingol) dead younger son appears several times intruding into the narrative without explanation. The first time is the most surprising. A third of the way through the film, the hot-headed Ismail (Rifat Sungar) slumps on his bed. He suspects Hacer is having an affair. Pushed to the edge of the frame, he sulks. The camera is placed at the end of the bed, in a position reminiscent of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1480). Outside, the midday sun is bright, the contrast with the world going on through the open doorway nothing but a small rectangle of light. Through this haze of sunshine, the outline of a small black figure emerges. The figure has thin spindly legs and arms like twigs. Ismail gazes at the doorway through half open eyes. He is dozy, but not asleep. The bright sunlight outside shimmers as the little black shape, still indistinct and stick-like moves closer. Then in a sudden cut a huge child’s face fills the screen, eyes ringed with bruised purple, droplets of water dripping from his ghostly, sallow skin. “Brother?” he croaks…and then is gone.

He appears again later, this time putting a soft wet arm over Eyüp’s shoulder as he lies grieving after a violent, sexual fight with Hacer. In the end the ghost boy’s presence is explained in a photograph. After Eyüp realises Ismail has murdered Servet, his boss and also his wife’s lover, the family sit slumped in despair in their bare living room. We have been in this room before, but the camera has never passed over the far wall, where a single photograph hangs crookedly on a bare nail. It is evident now in a long still shot that sits between two long immobile shots of the family sitting in the living room. It is a family portrait, Eyüp, Ismail and the ghost child all stare up into the lens. Hacer is not in the photo, but her presence can be felt behind the lens, taking the picture. This denouement is rather contrived. Everything – the eerie blue child, Eyüp’s desperation to protect his remaining son from prison and the chilly relationship between Eyüp and Hacer – is explained in this shot, giving Three Monkeys a sense of narrative closure that Ceylan’s previous films manage without. But it is also a testament to the way Ceylan uses photographs to augment and extend the plot beyond what fits into the frame of action, allowing his films to grow beyond the confines of their meagre narratives.

This use of photographs to allude to ideas and feelings that would seem banal expressed in dialogue is one of Ceylan’s strengths. There is a touching scene in Distant when Mahmut and his sister return to their childhood home while their mother is in hospital. The living room of her home is filled with pictures. In a cabinet, there is a picture of a child in a beaded hat. It can be assumed that it is Mahmut since a recent snapshot of him is stuck in beside it. The camera glides across a picture of Mahmut’s sister at a beach, in red t-shirt, denim shorts, squinting into the camera. Below this is a wedding photo. Mahmut and his ex-wife Nazan (Zuhal Gencer), smiling, Mahmut slightly closer to the camera, his hand lifted in a wave and Nazan holding back her veil. The tones of the print are de-saturated and the light is soft. It is a typical wedding photograph – clichéd, kitsch and commercially romantic. The room is a mother’s shrine, dedicated to her children in the past, simultaneously a celebration and a reproach. Another photograph of a romanticised relationship appears in Climates. After breaking up with Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) and returning to Istanbul, Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) runs into Serap (Nazan Kirilmis) and Guven (Can Ozbatur). It was the affair Isa had with Serap that ruptured his relationship and now, unencumbered, Isa visits her, presumably to re-start the affair. Serap’s apartment is warm and crumbling, with green walls and high ceilings. As Serap fixes drinks, Isa wanders around the living room. He picks up a photograph of Serap and Guven. It is a sentimental posed snapshot – Guven’s arms around Serap in a display of love and possession, some snow dusted leaves in the background. The colours are dusky and nostalgic, Serap’s pink scarf and sky blue gloves are muted in that faded way of old greeting cards. Serap is holding a snowball. The picture is so ridiculous as to be comic. It is an idealised image of love and togetherness, a hopeful construction of a relationship wished for, not one that is.

Edgar Morin comments on the projection of desire onto the photographic image:

The passions of love charge the photograph with a quasi-mystical presence. The exchange of photos enters into the heart of the ritual of lovers who are united in body or, failing that, in soul. The photo received becomes a thing of adoration as well as possession. The photo given is offered for worship at the same time as appropriation. The exchange of images magically accomplishes the exchange of individualities where each becomes at once the idol and slave of the other, which we call love.[2]

The photographer Duane Michals sums up the desire we project into snapshots in his This Photograph is My Proof (1974), a series of photographs of a man and a woman sitting on a bed. They are in the centre of the frame, in a bare room. Soft light streams over them from a large window. The woman has her arms around the man, her face leans against his back. They are both turning back to look at the camera with gentle half-smiles. Underneath is scrawled:

This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us, and she embraced me and we were so happy. It did happen, she did love me. Look, see for yourself.

The photograph is offered as proof of the love and happiness that an image cannot prove. Like Mahmut’s wedding photo, it is not the desired proof of love but a reminder of its absence. Photographs can be used as testaments to convince ourselves and others of a connection. But, the subject does not always desire the adoration of the viewer, and ‘the exchange of individualities where each becomes at once the idol and slave of the other’ is an illusion of light, not a fact.

Ceylan also uses photography to explore ideas about looking and seeing. Mahmut’s Distant is about a photographer whose work has left him exhausted. Early in the film he is seen selecting tiles. In a view through a doorway, he is observed placing one tile in front of the camera. He presses the shutter release, the synch flash fills the screen momentarily with light. As the softbox recharges, he changes the tile and presses the shutter release again. His movements are matter-of-fact and disengaged. He clicks the shutter of his large format camera like cashiers might scan groceries. On a trip to the country he stumbles across a perfectly lit landscape, but drives on, the thought of setting up his camera seems too much for him.

In Climates, Bahar watches Isa as he photographs Greek ruins on the Aegean coast. It is hot, the soundtrack is filled with the heavy buzzing of flies, and Isa is completely absorbed in the work of image making. He moves around, trying out different angles, so fixed to his viewfinder that at one point he trips and falls. Later, after he and Bahar have broken up and she has gone back to Istanbul, he is photographing the ruins alone. At the end of the film when he travels to the mountains looking for Bahar, he takes more photographs at Ishakpasha. Isa spends the whole film looking for something indescribable and ungraspable. The camera both limits his engagement, by keeping him behind the lens, and gives him the freedom to search. Through the viewfinder he can concentrate on details, framing and re-framing, each shot bringing him closer to some kind of clarity, or so he thinks, but by the end of the film he is no closer to finding comfort than at the beginning.

The idea of using photographs to explore the idea of looking is most perfectly shown in the following sequence from The Clouds of May (1999). Ali (Muhammad Zimbaoglu) arrives at Emin’s (Emin Ceylan) house looking for his aunt. She is out, so he slouches in a big armchair watching Emin slowly banging the keys of an old red typewriter. Emin is in the next room, framed by the doorway. Ali’s gaze drifts up to a faded portrait hanging on the wall. A serious man looks back at him, his skin smoothed by the light, his clothes sharply pressed. Ali taps his feet on the floor. This irritates Emin. ‘Sit properly,’ he orders. The next shot shows Ali through the doorway from Emin’s point of view, framed so that he is half hidden behind the wall. The camera watches him sit there like this, until he gets up and leaves the frame. Another photograph, this one of a woman. Like the portrait of the man, it is an old black and white print, the edges in white. The glass is cracked and a little wedge of it is missing. Stuck into the corner of the frame is another photo. This one is a small 4?7 print of a couple looking forwards into the camera. Unlike the other two photographs, this is an informal shot. The couple is sitting at a table, the table cloth rumpled as though dishes have just been taken away. The print has an uneven white border, and its top corner has been cut off. The edges are rough and the image yellowed. Ali takes this photo and sits back down with it. The camera rests on Ali holding the photograph. He is in the middle of the screen and framed on either side by the doorway’s architrave. The photograph has its blank white back facing toward the camera. Ali’s eyes hover over the top of the photograph; his hands large and blurred carefully hold either edge, and then in a reverse shot we see the action from his point of view, the photo, blurry, seen through his one eye, leaps from side to side in his field of vision as he covers one eye then the other.

Ali plays with his sense of sight. The photograph acts as a catalyst for his exploration of the changes in perspective that looking through one eye creates. He quite unconsciously experiments with looking, just as Muzaffer does consciously earlier in the film, when he lifts up a leaf to the sun and looks through the holes in it. Later, Ali takes the photograph with him as he leaves the house. He walks down the street holding it, stops, looks at it again, then pushes it into a crack in the stone wall that runs alongside the footpath. This action, at once so decisive and at the same time so random is unattached to any other happening in the film. Playing with the photographs, Ali is captivated by both the activity of looking, and by the photographic object.

In a recently republished essay, Bellour observes a growing body of films that present the world in a way that he terms, ‘the photographic’. After seeing the exhibition Passages de l’Image, he observes that use of stillness in many of the works doesn’t necessarily make them still, and “across all the works the power of the still image serves to concentrate the frozen quality of those images that move and to participate in it through its own movement.”[3] Here are films and videos that are made up of long still shots and minimal action, and photographs that are imbued with a narrative sensibility. These works are devoted to the pleasure of observation, rather than the thrill of action. However, due to their pace, the stillness is neither uncomfortable nor disruptive, but instead flows with a rhythm of its own. Ceylan’s films, with their slow, contemplative pace exemplify this idea. His films contest the way we experience the still image in the midst of a motion picture, at times keeping the camera still on motion shots and moving gracefully over stills. He also presents us with a cinematic world where photography is a part of living and a process of quiet action.

Ceylan Filmography

A Small Town (Kasaba) 1997.
The Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi) 1999.
Distant (Uzak) 2002.
Climates (Iklimer) 2006.
Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun) 2008.


[1] Lefebvre, Henri “The Rhythmanalytical Project” in Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas and Eleonore Kofman eds. Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings. New York: Continuum, 2003.
[2] Morin, Edgar The Cinema: Or the Imaginary Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005 p. 20.
[3] Passages de l’Image (1990) was a traveling exhibition curated by the Pompidou Centre of works by contemporary video and photography practitioners including Jeff Wall, Chris Marker, Bill Viola and Dennis Adams. See Bellour, Raymond Concerning ‘the Photographic’ in Karen Beckman and Jean Ma eds. Still/Moving Durham: Duke University Press 2008 p. 265. See also Bellour, Raymond The Pensive Spectator in David Campany ed. The Cinematic. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

Sarinah Masukor

About the Author

Sarinah Masukor

Dr Sarinah Masukor is a sessional lecturer in Media Arts and Production at UTS. In 2017 she will participate in the First Draft Writers' Program.View all posts by Sarinah Masukor →