Another era, another world: 1960s rural Greece

The picture of Greece that emerges in the photographs taken by Constantine Manos during his travels around the countryside in the early 1960s is a rocky, dusty, wild land with mostly unsmiling people. Even shots taken at weddings and festivals are dominated by a sense of sadness. In what is one of Manos’s most marvelous images of rural Greece at that time, musicians can be seen immersed in their playing: The tranquillity on their faces create the impression that the music has transported them elsewhere for a few precious moments, helping them to forget their daily toils.

Manos was born in North Carolina to Greek immigrant parents. He traveled to Greece for the first time in the early 1960s, visiting the islands and the countryside, capturing unique moments of life with his lens. He made another tour of the country in 1967 and in 1972 published a collection of photographs titled “A Greek Portfolio,” which are today on display at the Benaki Museum in Athens along with another 219 original prints that he donated to the foundation’s Photographic Archive and which weren’t included in the original publication.

The exhibition, which runs through August 28, was curated by John Demos, the Aurion Image and Sound photographic agency and Aliki Tsirigianou from the Benaki’s Photographic Archive.

Manos has written captions for the images in the exhibition. In one of them, he says that once a photograph has been taken, the experience is over. That caption goes with a photograph of a solitary shepherd on the southern coast of Crete. If it had a title, it could have been “Melancholy Mediterranean,” or something along those lines. However, even though the photograph was taken years ago, for the viewer, it continues to exude life.

According to historian Vasias Tsokopoulous, who recently guided me around the exhibition, “Manos succeeds in isolating a moment, but he goes beyond that as well: Every one of his photographs contains the entire cycle and routine of life. This means that while every moment is unique, an entire structure of living is reproduced through his photographs.” He added, “A single shot encompasses the life of people in rural Greece during that era.”

Tsokopoulos is fascinated by the geometry that is evident in Manos’s photographs, by the well-studied play between the human figures and the lines of the landscape and surrounding buildings. However, he noted, “Manos is not a formalist. He uses formalism to best serve his theme. He is interested in the content and that is why formalism here is a tool rather than a purpose. There is no aestheticism. Anyway, how could he possibly be cold and cerebral given his subjects?”

Ariadni, aged 15, is Tsokopoulos’s daughter and she accompanied us at the museum. Her impression of Manos’s work was that it shows “intense emotions, beautiful symmetry but also a lot of misery.” She is almost surprised to see a few smiling faces. To put the era into some historical context and explain the overbearing mood, we need to remember that in the 1960s, Greece was struggling to rebuild itself after a devastating civil war, poverty was rife, hundreds of thousands had immigrated, looking for a better future, the political stage was in utter turmoil and economic recovery was only just beginning to show results.

“That recovery had not made an impact on the countryside yet,” the historian said. “In general, life there still maintained the old value systems and was not easily influenced by the dramatic developments that were going on in urban parts of the country.”

Manos’s photographs present rural Greece in a nutshell: fishermen untangling their nets, Cretan men sipping raki, sheep being sheared, women mourning in Mani, boys with shaved heads, babies asleep in the arms of their melancholic mothers, a priest carrying a lamb (to the slaughter?), farmers with their animals, a solid relationship between the living with their dead and with their land, musicians, graves tended by lonely women: These sound like images of a cleaner, purer Greece that is gone.

“But,” noted Tsokopoulos, “there is nothing nostalgic, picturesque or romantic about them, nothing is idealized. One sees how difficult life was then. And that is why the memory industry cannot use such photographs: Nothing is prettified to suggest that people then had purer hearts; there are no such stereotypes.

“The photographs give us a picture of pre-capitalist societies that have never made it into the annals of history, that don’t belong to the linear narrative. If there is a sense of time, it is cyclical rather than linear: the routine of nature, rites and traditions, memorials, the cycle of life. Nothing runs in a straight line and this is the definition of time as understood before the advent of capitalism. Religion and tradition are the dominant factor, of course,” Tsokopoulos added.

The historian compared the photographs with those taken of urban Greece at the same period, in the 1950s and 60s.

“Voula Papaioannou and Dimitris Harisiadis come to mind. And, of course, foreign photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson: In their photographs, too, we see this balance between aesthetic and powerful content.”

The truth is that looking at the snapshots, slices of life, I was reminded of a fascinating memoir that flirts with ethnography, Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Exiled by the Mussolini regime, Levi, an doctor and leftist intellectual, finds himself at an isolated village in southern Italy, which, according to locals, was never reached by Christ because he stopped at Eboli.

“I respected the amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origins and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy,” Levi writes.

In a similar manner, Manos travels through the mountains of Macedonia, Crete and Karpathos, as “a friendly observer… without haste or a particular plan,” Manos says.

Ultimately, what emerges from his lens is a melancholy Aegean, but also, heavy, almost static, small communities in the mountains that are cut off from the rest of the world. The morose Cretan shepherd who essentially welcomes visitors to the exhibition, is alone, bent and surrounded by an unforgiving environment, and there is something almost existential about the image.

“Why not?” asked Tsokopoulos. “In these mountainous parts, people are alone a lot and have plenty of time. Melancholy is not something rare.”

In Manos’s Greece, there is a certain tenderness that coexists with roughness, the mundane with the metaphysical, effort with resignation, much like the isolated villages of Italy in the 1930s. Observing the villagers returning from their fields at night, Levi writes that they were “surging into their houses, like they did every evening, with the monotony of a ceaseless tide, in a dark, mysterious world of their own where there was no hope.”