Shooting for clients like Vogue, Burberry and COS, as well as for himself, Savaci’s work is informed by the desire to create a sense of order from his looser, more organic early years
London-based photographer Umit Savaci has an enviable career, shooting his distinctive, minimalist images for clients such as the Financial Times, Vogue, Wallpaper, Port Magazine, Burberry, COS, Nunushka, Theory and the RCA. But it took hard work and determination to get to where he is. Born in 1983 in İzmir, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Savaci grew up in a family of farmers and beekeepers, with just one uncle who had bucked the trend and opened a photography studio in the south of the country. Close to his uncle, and intrigued by the process of making analogue photographs, Savaci arranged to stay with him for one summer. But, soon after arriving, he realised he’d be spending his time photographing tourists, and started to lose heart.
“I must have thought it wasn’t photography that was fascinating me, because instead of spending that summer making images, I did beekeeping with my grandfather,” he says. “I ended up staying for a year, living in very remote countryside with a small community of locals. In the early years after graduating from high school I felt a great division, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But staying in nature gave me an opportunity to think. A question settled in my mind: ‘What would happen if I settled in a life much more modern that what I’m experiencing now?’ And that motivated me to experience new things.”
Returning to İzmir, he began assisting a still-life photographer. Three years later in 2008 he moved to Istanbul, in a bid to expand his creative opportunities. He assisted another photographer for two years, and in 2010 managed to publish a portfolio in the first issue of Turkish Vogue. But as he started to crave more time for his own practice, he became frustrated with Istanbul’s small, commercially focused scene. So in 2016 Savaci moved to London – a bold step which brought a very bleak period.
“For nearly two years I couldn’t get any work,” he says. “I realised my portfolio wasn’t working and decided to shut down my website and Instagram. It was very painful, and I faced many very fragile moments, but I decided to just do what I wanted and what I loved with my photography.” In April 2018, he relaunched his website and Instagram with personal work, and received his first editorial commission two weeks later. This was quickly followed by requests from commercial clients like COS, Roksanda, and Toast. “Those early years in London helped me create my own language,” he reflects.
Initially Savaci took still lifes and portraits, falling into fashion by accident with the Turkish Vogue commission, but he’s embraced the medium since. Although he tried to keep his commercial and personal work separate at first, he now prefers to see it all as part of the same journey. Shooting in both black-and-white and colour, and both medium format film and digital, his images are informed by his childhood and the desire to create a sense of order from his much looser, more organic early years, he laughs, though he attributes his success to adapting these experiences to the present. “Mostly my stories are formed by memories from my past trying to find their meaning today,” he says. “It’s hard to describe.”
He also points to a formative month he spent in Indonesia a couple of years ago, in which he was entirely alone for the first time since moving to London. He experienced a world of tones, colours, textures, and nature so different to what he’d seen before it permanently altered his vision. But for now, he’s happy to get back to work after a couple of quiet years during Covid. “For the first five months everything was completely locked,” he says. “There was no work, nothing. Then things started to move, but mostly I missed travelling.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy