Leafing through a new coffee-table book (in Greek and English) of photographs of Santorini by Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari (1899-1998), better known as Nelly’s, from the Dimitris Tsitouras collection, the viewer can imagine the intrepid photographer on the job: Having scrambled to the top of the Aegean island’s imposing cliffs like a patient sniper, navigating alleys and goat trails, she managed to tame the harsh Cycladic light and show us the personality of a place in all its charming nudity.
Even 90 years later, Nelly’s images remain vibrant, imposing and deeply moving. Now they are part of a publication by the Archive of Santorinian Studies that includes texts written by the photographer about her work, her friendship with the collector, as well as information about the cameras and techniques she used.
Nelly’s visited Santorini in the mid-1920s after a trip to Crete on the urging of her brother-in-law, who hailed from the island. This is how she remembers it: “I could hardly wait to set off with my equipment. In those days, one traveled by sea. The boat to Santorini arrived at dawn. It was, I recall, summertime. At 5.30 a.m. I was on deck. I wanted to enjoy my first view of the island from a distance, before entering the harbor, and to take a few photographs from there. I shall never forget that magical spectacle upon beholding the island. It seemed as if I were looking at an enormous chocolate cake, topped with whipped cream. And when the sun rose and shed its golden rays upon it, I gazed as if I would never get my fill. Never before had I seen such a vista, and I tried to make the most of those unforgettable moments, to immortalize them in the few photographs I took.”
Her mission to Santorini came to a sudden and unpleasant halt after the then 26-year-old photographer suffered a serious heart attack, something that she realized only on her return to Athens in a very poor state of health. Nelly’s managed, however, during her sojourn, to take photographs of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, Pyrgos, Kamari, Exo Gonia and Perissa, and a lot fewer of Oia as access to the picturesque town perched at the top of the caldera was incredibly difficult at the time.
The most significant element of this collection is how she worked the light to give shadow to mass and bring the landscapes to life. It is clear from the shots that she was a deft technical hand and studied every shot carefully before pressing the button. The stars are nature, people, villages and water, in what Kadio Kolymva, who wrote the publication’s captions, calls a “conspiracy of beauty.”
How did these magnificent photographs end up in Tsitouras’s hands? The collector himself relates how he met Nelly’s, thanks in a way to Kathimerini, and how their friendship evolved. He says how a small article in the newspaper by writer and journalist Maria Karavia, about how the photographer had returned to Greece after many years of living in the United States, piqued his interest. He had seen a number of her postcards of Santorini and was eager to meet her in person.
Karavia acted as an intermediary so Tsitouras could visit the photographer in 1987 at her apartment in Nea Smyrni, Athens, where she lived with her husband Angelos Seraidaris. He was shown in by a Santorinian housekeeper and then launched immediately into a discussion with Nelly’s about her photographs of the island. That visit formed the basis of a strong friendship with numerous meetings, during which the photographer gave the collector many of her photographs and, later, glass plates. The collector encouraged her to donate her archive to the Benaki Museum. However, the collection he had amassed of Santorini was so complete that in 1987 he published a first edition of 2,000 copies signed by the artist. The book did so well that it was reprinted three times, selling all 7,000 copies.
This new album, published this year, reminds us how great works of art require two factors: places of unrivaled beauty and a photographer who knows how to capture their beauty.