The city on the Bosporus is not just a place full of noise, dust and people; it also holds a thousand stories. Moscow photographer Katya Alagich went exploring and revealed an artistic melange of dreams and reality

Istanbul, the city on the Bosporus, is a meeting point connecting Europe and Asia. What was your intention, when photographing the city – and, what’s more, in winter?

I was in Istanbul for the second time in January. I had long dreamt of experiencing the city in winter, rather than in the summer; to avoid the tourist season and discover it when it’s a bit “naked”. Istanbul reminds me of a Turkish kilim (carpet) with complicated ornamental patterns. In summer, the city is rich with warm flowers, but thickly covered in the dust of hundreds of tourists. In winter, it is still the same carpet, but a bit fresher and lighter. During my journey, I wanted to dive deeper into the atmosphere of Istanbul, to reflect the mood of the city, and feel the vibe when it’s at its most vulnerable. The moments I captured were more meditative and melancholic.

The novel Istanbul, Memories of a City by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was the starting point for your photographic journey. To what degree did the book become your leitmotiv?

Yes, it was Pamuk’s novel that pushed me to take this journey. He writes about hüzün, a word that can be translated as melancholy. Yet, it means a lot more for him: a community feeling, an atmosphere and a culture that is shared by millions of people. I would say that the influence of the word hüzün, the sadness implied by Pamuk, has given a certain shading to the pictures in my visual interpretation. My hüzün is the attempt to feel something and to touch it through observation, without encroaching on the inhabitants’ personal space. It’s about a light sense of sadness.

You took the photographs in colour and, despite the winter months and rain, they don’t appear desolate at all – but always very colourful and lively…
Most of my pictures are taken in colour. I have a special relationship to colour, because I painted a lot when I was a child. I aim to reflect the changing moods, using shading to draw the
viewer’s attention to how time and light change. For my January visit, I had prepared myself for dark winter days, snowflakes and a season devoid of flowers; but the weather turned my plans upside down. As a result, the series shows how the mood gradually changes – from sunny light-flooded pictures to saturated reds and contrasts, to soft enfolding evenings.

To what degree do you use light as a stylistic means?

I consider light one of the most important and inspiring tools. I work exclusively with available light. I love understanding how it behaves on different surfaces; how it transforms things. Even a small amount of light can enliven the darkest image.

You are, in fact, an architect. How do you construct your pictures? And are they pieces of architectural work?
My training as an architect has given me a very strong foundation, as far as my sense of photographic composition and geometry is concerned. On the whole, the interaction with lines and forms is intuitive for street photography; but at times I also like to deliberately set the framework. I build a pattern made up of objects that overlay each other, repeat themselves rhythmically, and interact with the space surrounding them. Architecture is often referred to as frozen music; so if you compare the process of life with a melody, then my work reflects a frozen moment.

You photographed with a Leica Q2. How was your experience?

For a long time I shot with film on my Leica M7, so I was familiar with the process of shooting with a rangefinder. With digital cameras, I’ve become used to the autofocus, especially with pictures taken outside. With the Leica Q2, I was amazed at how easy and comfortable it was to use the manual focus – it is both surprisingly smooth and quick. The camera itself sits firmly in the hand and doesn’t draw attention to itself; it’s very quiet. And of course, the lens’s sharpness and speed are astonishing.

You photograph through window panes and patterns, alienating the viewer’s angle of vision, so that the structure is often at the forefront. Is art in photography important to you?

I feel very close to the styles of Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Saul Leiter – I love their creativity in art, their softness and their “aquarelle”. They work masterfully with reflections and objects in the forefront. Personally, I have defined “art” as a large piece of who I am; however, it is not an escape into dreaminess. It’s interesting to mix it with a reportage approach. The structures, glass and patterns in the forefront establish a sort of frontier between two worlds. It’s as though I’m pushing the viewer to look into the picture, rather than take it literally.

There often seems to be a parallelism of motifs in this approach – so that “things” can’t be grasped at a first glance. They are explored, little by little, just like a city…

That’s a good comparison. Nowadays, when we have open access to a lot of information and travel guides, you can easily get confused. You no longer listen to your own wishes to make private discoveries. Concerning the perception of a city, it’s important to me to form my own opinion.

Katya Alagich was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1991, and grew up in a Russian-Bosnian family in Moscow. She has been taking pictures since she was 15, capturing the world around her with her camera: the unknown, the subtle, the intimate. Following her studies in Architecture, she has been exclusively dedicated to photography, for a few years now, taking advantage of all the abilities she learned. Her work combines art, painting, geometry and working with light and shadows.