CULTURE

A man’s photographic vision

Photosynkyria is one of the largest and oldest annual events on photography. Spread throughout the city of Thessaloniki, it consists of countless exhibitions, lectures and parallel events marking an important artistic occasion that draws an international public of renowned photographers and specialists in the field of photography. This year’s Photosynkyria, which was opened a few weeks ago by the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography – organizer of the event since 2000, three years after the museum was founded – promised the diversity and vitality for which the event is known. But the unease in which the inaugural events were carried out indicated a drastic change: the withdrawal from his second four-year term as director of the Museum of Photography of Aris Georgiou, the man who conceived and set up Photosynkyria 15 years ago, an architect, photographer and writer on photography whose contribution in advancing the course of photography in this country is uncontestable. Georgiou’s withdrawal – essentially his resignation – which was submitted shortly before the opening of the Photosynkyria, triggered letters expressing dismay and bewilderment from an international, cultural milieu including museum directors, academics, artists and curators. Addressed to the Greek Ministry of Culture, all these letters speak of Georgiou’s professionalism, creativity and hard work. Deputy Director-General of the British Council Robin Baker is direct about how the «loss of Aris Georgiou from the roles he held is bad news,» not only for Thessaloniki but for Greece and international photography as well. Some artists and curators expressed their loyalty and support for him by withdrawing their participation at the Photosynkyria, which, like all the previous ones, Georgiou had designed. German curators T.O. Immisch and Gerhard Ihrke canceled their exhibition; so did artists Laura Dodson and Eleni Maligoura. An exhibition by Jean-Pierre Sudre was also canceled, as was a cinema tribute to the «Object» (this year’s theme of the Photosynkyria), the music event Echosynkyria and the Sani/Shell, Kouni/Hasselbad awards. The museum’s official response to all this is that Georgiou’s tenure was renewed and that it was his own choice not to continue, which is also what Giorgos Makris, head of the museum’s Administrative Committee, told Kathimerini English Edition. Implying that a misunderstanding or possibly a clash of egos is what prompted unwanted friction, the museum advances a position of good faith. Sensing that much remains obscure, Georgiou, who initially maintained a very discreet position of not wanting to obstruct the course of Photosynkyria, felt forced to send a newsletter out to the press explaining the circumstances of his departure. As in comparable situations, tension builds up and involves a subtext that is hard to trace or prove. Museums and institutions, after all, are also about politics. This is why it is hard to imagine that the man who prepared the ground for a museum on photography years before anybody hoped Greece could acquire one and the man who not only visualized Photosynkyria but handed it over to the museum instead of keeping it as an independent safety valve, would resign at a whim and with no substantial reason. From the outset, when in the mid-1970s Georgiou returned to Greece from France, his career was governed by a single cause: the advancement of photography in Greece. He worked at it through writing, publishing, photography and curating, working in a lively, enterprising way which he maintained as director of the museum by carrying out all sorts of responsibilities (working at the catalogues, doing the graphics for the posters) in a flexible, un-civil servant-like manner. Throughout his career, regionalism and isolation from the international art scene have been the two major impediments that Georgiou has tried to counter. This was especially true back in the mid-’70s, when the field of photography in Greece was all but non-existent. At a time when the public was ignorant of photography (Photothiki, a gallery showing photography, was a short-lived attempt) Georgiou produced a radio program that lasted for six years and delved into issues of photography with intellectual insight. In the mid-1980s Georgiou, together with two of his friends, established «Parallaxis,» an artistic association that promptly organized a major photographic event consisting of more than 30 exhibitions (among them being one of the first presentations of Nelly’s) spread throughout the city and supplemented by what was the first Panhellenic conference on photography. Shortly thereafter, he helped found the Hellenic Museum of Photography, essentially a self-maintained project that organized interesting shows in spite of difficulties, and which through Georgiou’s zeal became equipped with a permanent collection of its own. A year later, in 1988, Georgiou organized the first Photosynkyria. Guided by the objective of an international, sophisticated project on photography that ultimately would also help expose Greek photography internationally, Georgiou built a network between artists and curators worldwide. Through his hard work and eager initiative he turned Photosynkyria into a full-blown, intellectually stimulating event that grew by the year and presented the public with an interesting mix marked by some of the top names in the field of photography. Among those artists participating in each event were Brian Griffin in the 1989 Photosynkyria, Francois Kollar and Thomas Ruff in 1990, and Koudelka, whose works were shown for the first time in Greece through the 1991 Photosynkyria. Too numerous to list, the exhibitions proliferated through the years and Photosynkyria became a successful event that in 1992 received the support of the Municipality of Thessaloniki and, in 1995, the support of the Ministry of Culture. (It was the year that Thanos Mikroutsikos, minister of culture at the time, drew up the first National Policy on Photography, a task force in which Georgiou took part.) When, following Thessaloniki’s stint as European Cultural Capital for 1997, the Museum of Photography was founded, appointing Aris Georgiou as its director in 1998, Photosynkyria came under the auspices of the museum. An already tested and internationally prestigious event, it was essentially Georgiou’s «gift» to an emerging museum that still had no permanent collection to rely on. The Photosynkyria helped give the museum a fresh, vigorous start. But Georgiou also had other ambitious projects for the museum which he worked at incessantly, eagerly taking initiatives and even volunteering to set up the museum’s offices at his own architecture office when the museum still lacked a building of its own. Through his personal, long-time contacts, he ensured artists’ donations, made important buys within a limited budget and contributed to building the museum’s permanent collection. (He has also put together the photography collection of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, thus creating the first international photography collection to belong to a Greek museum of contemporary art.) He mounted large projects such as the show on Costas Balafas and on Yiannis Stylianou. He also launched an interesting museum publications series. (Georgiou has written extensively on photography and is the writer of «Camera Obscura» photographic portfolios, 54 of them to date and all co-published with Entefktirion magazine.) Georgiou had more plans for the future. Among his various goals, he was hoping to build a collection by Greek photographers of the diaspora, to have the museum acquire the archives of all the Greek-related photos by Herbert List, to organize the museum’s archives, and to advance contemporary Greek photography. In his absence, it is questionable whether any of this will be realized. The museum and its present director, Costis Antoniadis (a photographer whom Georgiou holds in esteem), do, of course, have their own plans and it is to everybody’s advantage that they are effected smoothly and successfully. The future course of both the museum and Photosynkyria is unknown. But the withdrawal of Aris Georgiou makes it important to remember that this future would not have been possible without the past, long-time efforts and devotion of the man who founded Photosynkyria and helped pave the course of photography in Greece.