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Revisiting a bygone era through the photographs of Constantine Manos

By Margarita Pournara

Back in the days before Greek villages were connected to the electricity grid, Constantine Manos captured vivid, unstaged images of proud, well-mannered villagers in the places where they lived and worked.

Born in North Carolina in 1934, Manos traveled to Greece for the first time in 1961. The journey was the young man’s attempt to discover the homeland of his parents, who had immigrated to the United States.

By transforming his van into a photo lab, the young diaspora Greek traveled across the country as a friendly observer. He was in no rush and had no particular plan.

The photographs taken during this time were subsequently incorporated into a major collection under the general title “A Greek Portfolio,” a body of work that focused both on the landscape and the residents of a country untouched by time and tourist development.

Manos traveled around Greece on and off for a total of about two years, with a final journey taking place in 1967. First published in 1972, “A Greek Portfolio” earned various awards, including distinctions at the Arles and Leipzig book fairs.

More than 200 prints from “A Greek Portfolio” are currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s headquarters in Kolonaki, central Athens, paying tribute to the photographer and his landmark Greek project. “Constantine Manos: A Greek Portfolio 50 Years Later” runs through August 25.

A member of Magnum Photos, Manos was recognized as a gifted photographer early on and the “Greek Portfolio” series remains a pivotal moment in his long and fruitful career. He eventually donated the collection to the Benaki Museum and the latter published a new edition of “A Greek Portfolio” in 1999. The current Benaki display includes a number of images that were not part of the original edition.

From the day he first picked up a camera, at the age of 13 during a school camera club meeting, to his first job, when he was hired as the official photographer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the age of 19, Manos showed dedication and determination. Meanwhile, the first salary he earned from his Boston Symphony Orchestra position allowed him to plan his trip to Greece. At the same time, he attended the University of South Carolina, where, besides earning a degree in English literature, he also discovered the masters of his chosen craft, including Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Over the years Manos collaborated with major US publications, including Esquire, Life and Look, while in the early 1980s he focused on black and white photography.

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Benaki Museum, 1 Koumbari, Kolonaki, tel 210.367.1000, www.benaki.gr

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