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Powell, Josephine

Powell, Josephine

Powell, Josephine

Powell, Josephine (b. May 15, 1919, New York, USA – d. January 18, 2007, Istanbul), American photographer, collector and traveler. Her collection of photographs, documents and objects relating to the life and culture of Anatolian villages and nomads of Anatolia were donated to the Vehbi Koç Foundation (VKV).

Powell completed a bachelor’s degree in art at Cornell University (1941) and received a master’s degree from the New York School of Social Work at Columbia University in 1945. She left the United States in 1947 to work for the International Refugee and Resettlement Organization for Displaced Persons (IRRODP) in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and later worked in Munich, Germany. In 1952, she moved to Rome where she earned a living as an architectural photographer.

Powell first visited Turkey in 1955 to photograph Byzantine mosaics and undertook her first extensive tour of the country in the same year. She was the first foreigner to gain permission to travel the entire country after the founding of the republic. Between 1952 and 1974, Powell traveled to many countries, including Afghanistan, India, Iran, Italy, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and Yugoslavia, photographing historical monuments, architecture and ethnographic objects. The objects she gathered on these trips are today in the collections of the British Museum in London, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam. 

Powell, whose photographs appeared in hundreds of books and scientific publications, moved from Rome to Istanbul in 1974 to write a book about kilims. Discovering the paucity of previous work on the subject, she decided to travel around Anatolia to carry out further research. Powell developed an interest in flat weaving, and tried to learn about handicrafts directly from Anatolian nomads. She tried to understand how the ethnographic objects were used, which materials they were made of and how they had been developed. She amassed a collection of Anatolian kilims, bags and similar handmade products that reflected the role and importance of weaving in rural Anatolia.

During her travels in the 1970s and 1980s, she photographed the daily life and handicrafts of Anatolian nomads and villagers, gradually developing an admiration for the lives and weaving arts of the village women. She built a rich archive, containing photographs of the nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled female weavers accompanied by notes on their flat weaving skills. Hoping to revive the natural dying techniques of villagers in Western Turkey, she began the Natural Dye Research and Development Project (DOBAG) with her close friends, Harald and Renata Böhmer, in the mid 1980s. The project only marketed high quality kilims made by women and which were sold through specific cooperatives of female entrepreneurs.

Powell also contributed to the founding of an ethnography department at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul. Her architectural photographic archive was donated to the Harvard University Fine Arts Library in 2002, and her collection of flat weave rugs and ethnographic objects, field notes, and copies of all her photographs from Anatolia, together with her library of close to 1,400 books, were donated to VKV in October 2006. In the same year, Powell was awarded the George Hewitt Myers Award “for her outstanding contribution to the research and understanding of the weaving arts”.

A selection of Powell’s photographs were presented in an exhibition open to the public at ANAMED from June 11 - October 21, 2012, titled “What Josephine Saw: 20th Century Photographic Visions of Rural Anatolia”. A book was also published with the same title. Items from the kilim collection Powell donated to the VKV were put on permanent exhibition at the Vehbi Koç Büyükdere Mansion in July 2018. (See also Josephine Powell Collection)

Abadan Unat, Nermin

Political scientist who received the Vehbi Koç Award for education in 2012.