August 26, 2011


Primers and hornbooks, their ancestors, which reduce the complexity of the world to a simple catalogue of isolated and familiar objects (the cat, the ball), teach children their first letters. However, they have another role, less apparent but perhaps more crucial: they reveal for the first time the mysterious relationship between object and word, between the material and the abstract (the relationship which René Magritte simultaneously underlined and undermined when he painted a pipe and added a text saying “this is not a pipe”).

Primer illustrations, traditionally in the form of wood engravings and, later, of simple line drawings, are intended to reduce the pictured objects to their simplest lineaments, isolating them from the world: the cat and the ball are in a sense idealised, freed from the bonds of the quotidian and almost achieving the status of platonic archetypes. The primer’s mission is to reject every trace of ambiguity or ambivalence: things as things (res, qua res sunt).

Nevertheless, a photographic primer is in effect a contradiction in terms, since ambiguity is an essential quality of the photographic medium: the photograph always lies. And even when it doesn’t, it remains incapable of fending off the world’s encroachment into the picture space, defeating any attempt at an idealising isolation. And so, despite the apparent certainty of the written word,  the image constantly evades meaning: the Ladder merges with its shadow, the Surface flips between transparency and reflection, the humble Towel becomes a gonfalon gilded by the light, the Stairway turns into Jacob’s ladder. The world, says Thoreau, is far wider than we know…


Τα αλφαβητάρια, που περιορίζουν την πολυπλοκότητα του κόσμου σε έναν απλό κατάλογο μεμονωμένων και γνώριμων αντικειμένων (το τόπι, η γάτα) μαθαίνουν στα παιδιά τα πρώτα τους γράμματα. Έχουν όμως και έναν άλλο ρόλο, λιγότερο εμφανή αλλά ίσως σημαντικότερο: αποκαλύπτουν για πρώτη φορά τη μυστηριώδη σχέση αντικειμένου και λόγου, υλικού και ιδεατού (τη σχέση που υπογραμμίζει και υποσκάπτει συγχρόνως ο René Magritte, ζωγραφίζοντας μια πίπα και προσθέτοντας από κάτω τη φράση «αυτό δεν είναι πίπα»).

Η εικονογράφηση των αλφαβηταρίων, παραδοσιακά με ξυλογραφίες, αργότερα συνήθως με μονόχρωμα σχέδια, έχει σκοπό να απλουστεύσει στο έπακρων το εικονιζόμενο αντικείμενο, απομονώνοντας το όσο γίνεται περισσότερο από τον κόσμο: το τόπι και η γάτα παρουσιάζονται εξιδανικευμένα, σχεδόν πλατωνικά αρχέτυπα, απαλλαγμένα από τα πολυσύνθετα δεσμά της καθημερινότητας. Αποστολή του αλφαβηταρίου είναι η αποποίηση κάθε αμφισημίας ή αμφιβολίας: τα αντικείμενα ως αντικείμενα (res, qua res sunt).

Εντούτοις, ένα φωτογραφικό αλφαβητάρι αποτελεί ουσιαστικά αντιφατική πρόταση, αφού η αμφισημία είναι εγγενές χαρακτηριστικό του φωτογραφικού μέσου: η φωτογραφία πάντα ψεύδεται. Και όταν ακόμα δεν ψεύδεται, αδυνατεί να αποκλείσει τη βίαιη εισροή του κόσμου μέσα στον χώρο της εικόνας, εκμηδενίζοντας  κάθε προσπάθεια απομόνωσης ή εξιδανίκευσης. Έτσι λοιπόν η εικόνα, παρά την υποτιθέμενη αδιαφιλονίκητη σιγουριά που προσφέρει ο γραπτός λόγος (η «λεζάντα», τουτέστιν ο μύθος), συνεχώς υπεκφεύγει: η Σκάλα γίνεται η σκιά της, η Επιφάνεια παίζει ανάμεσα στο διαφανές και το αδιαφανές, η ταπεινή Πετσέτα είναι συγχρόνως φλάμπουρο στο φως, το Κλιμακοστάσιο γίνεται Κλίμακα του Ιακώβ. Ο κόσμος, λέει ο Thoreau, είναι πολύ ευρύτερος απ’ ότι φανταζόμαστε...

June 19, 2011


Filippos Margaritis, General Christodoulos Hadjipetros, c.1855

Portrait photography from mid-19th century Greece is characterised by  an apparent chaos of dress codes and attitudes. At the pinnacle of society, King Otto and Queen Amalia both instituted a policy of cultural cross-dressing, actively encouraging the wearing of Greek national dress at court. A very early group photograph of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting includes the wives and daughters of Greek notables wearing the authentic local costumes of Psara, Spetses, Hydra and Epirus, as well as two German ladies in European court dress. The seated older woman and the young girl to her left are both wearing examples of an outfit designed for the Queen; based on the dress of Nafpaktos, it became known as the “Amalia” and was a favourite of fashionable ladies for as number of decades, eventually acquiring the status of authentic folk dress.

Unsurprisingly, the war of independence remained the defining event in the lives of those who lived through it. As such, it strongly affected how the participants (or would-be participants), saw themselves, and the kind of image they wanted to project. We can see this in the relatively large number of portraits from the 1850s and 1860s in which the more politically and socially successful of the war leaders are photographed in variants of the traditional Greek warrior’s costume, including the foustanella or pleated white kilt; they include the undisputed masterpiece of early Greek portraiture, Filipos Margaritis’ bravura depiction of General Christodopulos Hadjipetros. These are, of course, highly formalised versions of what the average klepht would have worn in the 1820s, to which they bear the same relationship as do the kilts and sporrans in Raeburn’s paintings to the plaids worn at Culloden; nevertheless, what such portraits testify to is the fact that these men, once powerful wartime leaders, were now equally influential members of the new order of things.

Inevitably, younger men, or men who perhaps had not fought at all, adopted the same style of self-representation, wearing the foustanella as a mark of national allegiance, or else because it had become, following the example of king Otto, the fashionable thing to be seen and photographed in; just as inevitably, the style did not necessarily flatter the more sedentary individuals. Finally, by the 1870s, what had been a visual signifier of courage and devotion to a national ideal was acquiring overtones of cliché, even of mockery.

Filippos Margaritis, Athenian Family Group, 1855-60
The future of Greece, it was becoming clear to all forward-looking men, lay with Western Europe, and the ruling class conformed within a single generation. We can see the process at work in a wonderfully evocative family group by Margaritis, which shows the grizzled paterfamilias in full evzone regalia, including decorations, and ranged behind him his three sons. They are not merely wearing western dress, but three distinct variants of it: on the left, a clean-shaven bohemian lounger in checked pants, three fingers thrust provocatively in his trouser pocket; in the middle, the full-bearded son in sober, buttoned-up black who is clearly destined for the role of hardworking family provider; and on the right, the highly unreliable-looking boulevardier, complete with waxed moustache and cane. Add to the mixture a formidable battle-axe of a wife and a clearly discontented daughter, and you have the cast of a peculiarly cynical play by Moliére.
Both prints are in the collection of the National Gallery, Athens.

June 14, 2011


Patrick Leigh Fermor, ‘Paddy’ to his many friends as well as to the numerous readers for whom he became an admired and much-loved figure, died on June 10th at the age of 96. He had fallen gravely ill in Greece towards the middle of May; when the end became inevitable, he asked to be flown back to England, arriving with less than a day in hand.

Paddy was loved as much for himself as for his writing, not only in England and Greece, his adopted second country, but seemingly also everywhere in the world his books had penetrated. It is almost impossible to think of an equivalent public figure of whom it could be said that throughout a long life lived at high physical and intellectual intensity, he showed true malice towards none, encountering little if any in return.

This delightful sketch of himself in Cretan dress was penned at the top of a letter to my mother dated 17th November, 1944; as he explains, "I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy". Ελαφρύ το χώμα που τον σκέπασε.

April 25, 2011


Tentatively dated from around 1890, the three women in this cabinet portrait have been identified as Efrosini Venardos Chlentzos (1843-1935) and her daughters Kyrani and Maria, from the small village of Christoforianika on the island of Kythera. In 1869 Efrosini married Charalambos Chlentzos, an illiterate farmer and fisherman. Aged 18, he was eight years younger than her, something fairly unusual at the time; the birth of her first daughter, Kirani, shortly after the wedding may suggest an explanation. Charalambos was lost at sea sometime during the late 1870s, leaving Efrosini to bring up four children, two sons and two daughters, in extremely straightened circumstances; three of her children eventually emigrated to the United States, and it is to the descendants of Maria Chlentzos that we owe the survival of this photograph.

The portrait was taken in a professional studio, most likely in Piraeus or Athens, on the occasion of what must have been a very rare, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime trip for a poor Kytherian family. Efrosini is in the unrelieved black of widow’s mourning which she will wear to the end of her own life, but it is her daughters’ dress which is at first sight puzzling: though both are in traditional costume, they are wearing not Kytherian outfits, but particularly elaborate versions of traditional Attic dress which it is certain they could never have afforded to own (see the print by Moraitis for comparison). The answer is that by the time this photograph was taken, it had become fashionable for middle and upper-class women to wear ‘traditional’ costume when being photographed; as the practice slowly percolated down the social ladder, studios took to keeping a number of outfits on the premises for clients to change into. Since it was obviously impossible to keep examples of the many regional costumes on hand, the Athenian studios at least were limited to the Amalia ensemble, the elegant variant of traditional dress devised under the Bavarian monarchy for the royal ladies-in-waiting, and the richly decorated formal Attic dress.

Though frozen in the immobility requested by the unknown photographer, each of the three women has a different expression. Efrosini’s mouth is set, and her face and hands show the effects of a hard life and unremitting labour; she clutches and twists a handkerchief (which perhaps the photographer has given her) in order to keep her hands occupied. Standing, Kyrani, the eldest child and the only one not to leave Kythera – as the eldest daughter, it would be her duty to stay at home – has her mother’s mouth; while it is not yet set in Efrosini’s bitter lines, she has an expression of resignation, though she was eventually to marry and see at least one her five children follow her brothers and sister to the States. Wide-eyed Maria, the youngest, is the only one of the three looking not at the camera, but past it and into the future.
With thanks to Terry Chlentzos and Vikki Fraioli

Petros Moraitis: Unknown woman in Attic dress (c.1880s)

April 18, 2011

CHANGE 20.03.11

20 March 2011, 11.15 am

March 25, 2011


 Patrick Cariou, from Yes, Rasta
 A federal judge in Manhattan has ordered Richard Prince to destroy a series of artworks apparently worth several tens of millions of dollars. The work in question consisted of reproductions of photographs by the French photographer Patrick Cariou, lifted from his book Yes, Rasta and roughly and very minimally overpainted by Prince; according to the court, Prince and his gallery, Gagosian, were in clear breach of Cariou’s copyright. “He and the gallery”, reported the Guardian, “were found to have acted in bad faith by not asking permission to use Cariou's photographs or withdrawing them from sale when the photographer sent them notice”.

While I’m not usually a supporter of ongoing American attempts to increase and widen the scope of copyright in all directions, it’s impossible not to sympathise with Cariou in this case. Prince is a tedious artist who place is more in the discourse of art business than that of art. His value is effectively limited to providing a useful paradigm of the concept of appropriation (itself a concept of severely limited interest); once the point is made, which shouldn’t take more than a handful of seconds, the intellectual and artistic content of Price’s work has been exhausted.

The crassness of the defendants was reflected in the language of their legal representatives, who asserted that Cariou's photographs were "mere compilations of facts … arranged with minimum creativity … [and were] therefore not protectable" by copyright law. The defence, one which has been used with some success in the past, was based on the premise that the appropriated work, lacking all artistic merit of its own, had if anything been improved by Prince’s scribbles. As it happens, Cariou’s Rastafarian portraits (see above) are impressively skilled and powerful images, and it strikes me that the photographer could well have sued Prince, not so much for copyright infringement as for artistic vandalism.

March 16, 2011


 Stelios Efstathopoulos: Athens Within, 2011

The hottest subject for computer games these days is zombies. Blank-eyed, shuffling, homicidal, the living dead who pursue and are pursued by the player down the endless avenues, streets and alleys of anonymous city centres. City centres like the Omonia-Syntagma-Thiseion triangle, decaying heart of Athens and the subject of Stelios Efstathopoulos’ latest photographic sequence. Currently showing at the Hellenic American Union, Athens Within focuses on the area’s shifting population, but the real protagonist seems to be the disintegrating environment through which the former move or drift.

There is nothing remotely nostalgic about this dystopic view of Athens, dominated as it is by brutalist concrete architecture seen from the worst possible angle, namely from street level and close-up. Through narrow concrete and brick labyrinths, past the signs of a consumerist economy on its last legs, through drifts of rubbish, moves a population seemingly lost, drugged or at best, indifferent. There are few signs of either community or redemption: just two street people sharing a cigarette, a child absorbed in play, the stray dogs with their irrepressible jauntiness. Every available surface seems to have been defaced either by graffitied tags or the much vaster surfaces of graffiti “art”, though it is hard to tell which of these two forms of vandalism is the more aggressive and contemptuous of the social contract.

Greece has no very strong tradition of street photography in either the French (Cartier-Bresson) or the American (William Klein) style; the best examples we have tend either to the grotesque and sardonic, as do the street portraits of Periklis Alkidis, or to the surrealist quasi-abstraction of Nikos Panayotopoulos’ Common Imaginary Places. Efstathopoulos’ contribution, all the more welcome and surprising for going against the grain of most contemporary Greek photographic production, is an impressive addition to the genre. It is also, seen from the perspective of the current social and economic crisis in which Greece appear to inexorably mired, a saddening requiem to what was once a vibrant (if never particularly elegant) capital city centre, now reduced to the status of stage setting for a zombie hunt…
Athens Without can be seen at the Hellenic American Union, Massalias 22, to 5 April


Το δημοφιλέστερο θέμα ψηφιακών παιχνιδιών σήμερα είναι τα ζόμπι: αιμοβόροι ζωντανοί νεκροί που σκουντουφλάνε στους ατελείωτους δρόμους ανώνυμων αστικών κέντρων, συγχρόνως κυνηγοί και θήραμα. Αστικά κέντρα σαν το τρίγωνο Ομόνοια-Σύνταγμα-Θησείο, σαθρή καρδιά της Αθήνας και θέμα της τελευταίας εργασίας του Στέλιου Ευσταθόπουλου. Η έκθεση Αθήνα εντός που παρουσιάζεται αυτές τις μέρες στην Ελληνοαμερικανική Ένωση εστιάζει στον εναλλασσόμενο πληθυσμό του τριγώνου, πραγματικός όμως πρωταγωνιστής μοιάζει να είναι το ίδιο το θρυμματισμένο περιβάλλον μέσα στο οποίο οι άνθρωποι κινούνται ή απλώς πλανώνται.

Η δυστοπική αυτή θεώρηση της Αθήνας δεν έχει φυσικά τίποτε το νοσταλγικό. Δεσπόζουσα οπτική είναι η σκληρή Μοντερνιστική αρχιτεκτονική, ιδωμένη από τη χειρότερη δυνατόν γωνία, από το επίπεδο δηλαδή του δρόμου και από κοντινή απόσταση. Μέσα σε στενούς τσιμεντένιους λαβυρίνθους, δίπλα στα σημάδια μιας εν διαλύσει καταναλωτικής κοινωνίας, πάνω από σωριασμένα σκουπίδια κινείται ένας πληθυσμός χαμένος, ναρκωμένος ή στην καλύτερη περίπτωση, αδιάφορος. Ελάχιστα βλέπουμε δείγματα κοινωνικότητας ή ελπίδας: μονάχα δύο άστεγοι που μοιράζονται τσιγάρο, ένα παιδί απορροφημένο στο παιχνίδι, τα αδέσποτα σκυλιά με την ασυγκράτητη ξενοιασιά τους. Κάθε επίπεδη επιφάνεια έχει μαγαριστεί είτε από μονογραφικά tags είτε από τα πολύ εκτενέστερα ‘καλλιτεχνικά’ δήθεν γκραφίτι - αν και δύσκολα θα μπορούσε κανείς να πει ποια από τις δύο αυτές μορφές βανδαλισμού εκφράζει μεγαλύτερη περιφρόνηση προς το κοινωνικό συμβόλαιο.

Η Ελλάδα δεν διαθέτει ισχυρή παράδοση φωτογραφίας δρόμου, είτε της Γαλλικής σχολής  (Cartier-Bresson) είτε της Αμερικάνικης  (William Klein)· τα καλύτερα παραδείγματα του είδους που έχουμε να επιδείξουμε τείνουν από τη μία στο γκροτέσκο και το σαρδόνιο, όπως τα πορτραίτα δρόμου του Περικλή Αλκίδη, και από την άλλη προς τον αφαιρετικό υπερρεαλισμό των Κοινών Φανταστικών Τόπων του Νίκου Παναγιωτόπουλου. Η πρόταση του Ευσταθόπουλου είναι ιδιαιτέρως ευπρόσδεκτη αλλά και αναπάντεχη, καθώς εναντιώνεται στις κυρίαρχες σήμερα φωτογραφικές τάσεις στην Ελλάδα. Παράλληλα, στο πλαίσιο της οικονομικής και κοινωνικής κρίσης στην οποία η χώρα βυθίζεται καθημερινά, αποτελεί θλιβερή ελεγεία για ένα άλλοτε σφύζων (αν όχι ιδιαιτέρως αρμονικό) αστικό κέντρο, που κατάντησε σκηνικό για άθλια ψηφιακά παιχνίδια...
Η έκθεση Αθήνα εντός θα είναι στην Ελληνοαμερικανική Ένωση, Μασσαλίας 22, μέχρι τις 5 Απριλίου.

February 20, 2011

CHANGE 19.02.11

19 February 2011, 7.00 pm

February 12, 2011


The conference on Greek photography and Greek history organised for June 2011 by the Department of Byzantine & Modern Greek studies at King's College, London, which I first mentioned in a post last April, has now been extended to last four days. According to the organisers, the conference "aims at exploring photographic depictions of Greece and Greeks from the 1840s to the present in an empirical, theoretical and comparative context. The themes of the conference will examine photographs as a historical source of information, as windows into the country’s past, as symbolic capital in collective narratives and propaganda wars and as testimonies that record the interests and concerns of photographers as of their animate subjects and their surroundings. This will be the first conference worldwide to capitalise on photographic depictions of Greece as a means to problematise its recent history and its iconic representation in international media. Emphasis will be laid on processes of circulating photographs and contexts of consuming them, on photographs as artefacts and on narrative discourses developed around visual materials, on photography as memory and counter-memory, and on the complex relation between photography and archaeology as a nation-building institution."

With a broad spectrum of speakers from Greece and abroad covering a number of different disciplines, this promises to be probably the most intensive and searching consideration of Greek photography to date. A full programme, including abstracts of all the papers to be presented, is available from the Centre for Hellenic Studies site. The conference organisers are Philip Carabott, Eleni Papargyriou and Charlotte Roueché.