A Life of Dedication

The following is a brief story in memory of and appreciation for a young and inquisitive mind, born on this day 180 years ago, Wilhelm Berggren, who was dying to see the world and eager to learn.

A young lad by the name of Wilhelm Berggren, born on 20 March 1835 in Stockholm, leaves home at the age of 15 to become an apprentice to a carpenter. In 1865 he decides to travel around the world, and leaves Stockholm. He ends up in Berlin, and thanks to his experience working with wood, he finds employment in a workshop manufacturing wooden cameras. In the mean time he learns Ambrotype and Daguerrotype. He improves his wet Collodion technique. At some point, he comes down to Odessa on the Black Sea coast, and boards a ship destined for America. When the ship stops over at Istanbul for customs formalities, he gets off and looks around. He is so enchanted with the place that he decides to settle in Istanbul, and starts working in some maritime company until about the 1870s.

Guilaume Berggren, auto-portrait (in current parlance his "selfie" Source: http://www.fotografya.gen.tr/issue-7/engin.html) FOTOGRAFISKA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM
Guilaume Berggren, auto-portrait (in current parlance his “selfie”
Source: http://www.fotografya.gen.tr/issue-7/engin.html)
FOTOGRAFISKA MUSEET, STOCKHOLM

During the early years of the 1870s he opens up a photo studio on Grand Rue de Pera. Later he marries a Greek girl by the name of Amelie. His sister’s daughter, Hilda, joins him and starts working with him in the studio.

Berggren becomes one of the respectable photographers with solid technique and a good sense of composition. He photographs coasts, streets, the Bosphorus and people from different walks of life.

While traveling with Goltz Pasha during the construction of the Baghdad railway, he takes photographs of many towns on route. These photos include not only the images of towns and cities, but also monuments and ruins. His photographs end up being valuable documents of his time.

When King Oskar of Sweden and his family come to Istanbul in 1885, he takes their photographs in the Embassy. Upon presenting the King with an album that includes pictures of the Embassy building, he is awarded a medal. He also receives a medal from the Ottoman Sultan.

At the beginning of the 20th century, his studio runs into financial problems due to the outbreak of wars. With the number of tourists dwindling, he finds himself in a difficult position money-wise, and decides to sell his negatives, which are eventually bought by the German Embassy. His niece Hilda starts working as a secretary in the Swedish and Norwegian embassies and takes care of his uncle and his family.

When he leaves this world at the age of 85, Hilda buries him with his photo equipment along with his medals and a few negatives. He now rests in one of the Protestant cemeteries in his beloved city.

Berggren’s grave
in the Protestant Cemetary, Şişli, Istanbul (Photo: Emrehan Zeybekoğlu)

This man who created some of the most valuable photographs in the Ottoman Empire is now resting in a very humble place that I visited a while ago. He probably has no visitors because the grave seems to be sort of neglected. And he certainly could not have imagined that one day some Large Format photo enthusiast would come visit his grave and take its photograph using a digital camera – something that uses no film – and relay it to fellow photographers over something that is even more strange – the Internet. He definitely lived in a different world.

Considering that he had a son and two daughters, it would be interesting to contact his grandchildren, if any, to find out how much they know about him and the artistic and historic/documentary value of his work. Requiéscant in pace.

Just a Few Sources for Further Research:

http://www.fotografya.gen.tr/issue-7/engin.html

http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/mideast/photo/Istanbul.html

Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfı, Dünden Bugüne Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, v. 2 (Istanbul: 1994).

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