Objects given new dimension

When William Henry Fox Talbot made photogenic drawings of plants in 1839 and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre recorded fossils and shells, photography had just been invented. Photography was still technically incapable of recording motion and still lifes were a familiar genre in painting. The two factors combined rendered objects and still lifes the first and most popular subject matters for the emerging photographic medium. Paying homage to the parallel growth of photography as a medium and photographic still lifes is this year’s Photosynkyria, the annual, large event on photography organized in Thessaloniki by the city’s Museum of Photography. Held for the 15th year (well before the museum was established), Photosynkyria is the brainchild of Aris Georgiou, an architect and photographer who pioneered the promotion of photography in Greece. Georgiou, who up until a few months ago was director of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, is also the man who designed this year’s Photosynkyria, as well as previous ones, focusing on the relationship between photography and the depiction of objects. (Several exhibitions were canceled upon Georgiou’s unfortunate resignation from the museum). Under the general heading «Traces: The Object and the Past,» Photosynkyria hosts more than 30, mostly solo, exhibitions spread throughout the city which illustrate the many diverse approaches to the same subject. Also within the context of Photosynkyria is «Archaeologies,» a sophisticated group exhibition that traces the affinities between photography and archaeology and is curated by photographer and critic John Stathatos at the Museum of Byzantine Culture. An unusually charming and distinctive exhibition in this year’s Photosynkyria is «Temples of Photography,» a collection of 19th-century studio portraits. The photographs belong to the archives of the Benaki Museum and is organized by its curators. Adapted to Photosynkyria’s theme, the exhibition is meant to draw attention to the objects – instead of the sitters – that were used as props in the photographer’s studios. The objects are, in fact, inseparable from the sitters as they reflect the social and economic status of those portrayed. The more affluent the person photographed, the more intricate the setting becomes, often bordering on the theatrical and sometimes telling a story. In some cases, the artificiality of the setting is amusingly charming: The photographs of two mustached men clad in suits rowing a boat in an artificial setting of feathers made to imitate waves resonates with well-meaning imagination and naivete. In other images, the sitter is seen standing against or leaning on a desk – a designation of intellect – a balustrade, a fence or a marble pillar. The objects closer to the sitter are real but the objects in the background are all painted on a curtain, a device that feigned a real surrounding – whether a domestic or an outdoor environment – and also shows photography’s reliance on painting in the medium’s early days. Although the kinds of objects used in these early portraits do not vary greatly, some studios were known for favoring some over others and for setting them in a signature style. This is why, for a scholar on photography, the choice of objects in these early portraits can also provide information on the photographers themselves. In photography, objects may help animate a picture but can also obtain a life of their own. Ancient sites and statues that seem imbued with a living presence is the first impression Italian photographer Vasco Ascolini’s images make on the viewer. Exhibited at Yeni Tzami, Vasco Ascolini’s photos are a study on gradations of light, its ability to render texture and causing a metaphysical, De Chiricoesque atmosphere. In his most typical images, Ascolini creates the illusion that ancient statues are about to move, have been caught in a fleeting moment and have a mysterious life force of their own. This he effects by framing his subject in unusual angles or more often by pairing the objects he portrays with their own heavy shadow as if to suggest that instead of solid pieces of marble they are lively presences. Archaeological sites are also the subject of Gabriele Basilico, an architect and photographer whose work is shown at the cultural center of the National Bank. With his exacting vision and unpretentious style, Basilico offers large vistas of ancient ruins in Provence, France, in all their subdued grandeur and beauty. Carefully balanced, his pictures are neither overdone nor disinterested and rely on the smallest details for an unusual, pleasing effect. Other highlights Also included in Photosynkyria’s highlights this year are the three solo exhibitions on artists Chema Madoz, Barbara Crane and Angela Moore, all at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. In the style of the surrealist tradition, Madoz creates elegant, frontal images of everyday objects which he slightly changes to create visual paradoxes. A pair of scissors with a button instead of a screw at its center, a thermometer with a burned matchstick instead of a mercury column are some of the inventive and subtle twists that Madoz imbues his images with, challenging the viewer to reinterpret the so-called «objective world.» With a more morbid tone, the well-known American photographer Barbara Crane captures the images of dead animals that she finds in the woods in Michigan. Blown up, the images are more aestheticized than shocking. Angela Moore employs a documentary style in her images of mechanical hares used to lead English hounds around the racetrack. By showing the different kinds of hares used, Moore is interested in showing how the absence of bureaucracy in this sport has left room for inventiveness and imagination. Her work presents just one of the various angles that contemporary photography takes on objects; it is this diversity that the Photosynkyria wishes to reveal.