Recent publication records 19th century photographic panoramas of Greece

In a photo of Athens from 1906, a rotunda-shaped, windowless building is seen standing next to the entrance of the Panathenaic Stadium. The building opened on the occasion of the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896 and was used for the projection of the so-called show panoramas, the display of paintings, drawings or photos on a 360 degree angle so as to give the illusion of reality. Show panoramas were a form of entertainment that had gained much popularity in the 19th century. Their themes usually featured the rise of the urban metropolis, «re-enacted» historical events or captured the sense of traveling, usually to distant and exotic places. All fashionable themes at the time, they were depicted in an equably fashionable medium which, moreover, reflected the 19th century bent toward empiricism, the exploration of visuality and the rise of the notion of a spectacle. The panorama building in Athens was carried in crates from Paris (show panoramas were actually invented by an Irish painter in the 1790s) and opened with the recreation of the siege of Paris. It was demolished around 1919 and, as a panoramic photograph from the early 1930s shows, the site on which it stood was subsequently occupied by a large mansion known as the Megaron Koundourioti. Photographic panoramas of cities are an excellent source of information on urban transformation, particularly as panoramas of a given city are often taken from a single angle; even when they are not, their inclusive views allow for comparisons with other, partial views. This valuable attribute is one of the reasons for their significance as historical documents for the contemporary viewer. The problem, however, is that these documents are rarely gathered together, either because they are scattered in different archives or because photographic panoramas are sometimes found in fragments. «Early Photographic Panoramas of Greece,» published by Potamos publications in English earlier this year, is a superb album that presents rare photographic panoramas of Greece together, for the first time. Beautifully bound and designed, the book is foreworded by the historian Mark Mazower and contains extensive and highly informative texts edited by John Davis and Annie Correal that make for a pleasant, stimulating read. For the most part, the book is based on the photography collection of Michael Tsangaris who started searching for panoramas in the early 1980s. It also contains images from the collection of Evi Antonatos. The book is actually the outcome of a mutual interest in photographic panoramas shared by Tsangaris, Antonatos and Marie Mauzy, a Swedish-born photographer and curator of the Photographic Archives at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Its scope ranges from images of Athens, Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Nafplion and other cities to Halkida, the Ionian islands, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, Crete and various archaeological sites. In Greece, photographic panoramas became especially prevalent in the second half of the 19th century. Compared with most photographic images of Greece cast in an idealized and a-historical vision, photographic panoramas are distinctive for focusing less on ancient sites or idyllic landscapes than on what the newly emerging towns and cities of Greece looked like. An illustration of this lack of idealization is a photographic panorama of Thessaloniki, a desolate view of the city in ruins after the fire that broke out in 1917. Whether in good or bad times, urban views are the main subject of photographic panoramas. As the Potamos publication makes evident, photographic panoramas of Greece in the 19th and early 20th centuries draw attention to urban development, social transformation and economic growth beginning with the country’s post-liberation years and continuing to the economic development of the ’50s and ’60s. The urban transformation that took place in the interim is impressive. The earliest known panoramic image of a Greek town is a depiction of Ermoupolis in Syros and was taken by the Frenchman Alfred-Nicolas Normand in 1852. Normand was an architect, which probably explains why contrary to other images of Syros, the port and sea are left out in favor of attention on the buildings. The earliest panorama of a Greek city was not a photographic image but a drawing of Athens, painted in 1818 by Barker and Burford in England. The panorama was based on the drawings of Simone Romandi, a Roman artist and assistant to Edward Dodwell, a British artist who had visited Greece several times in order to record the landscape and monuments. For accuracy, Dodwell had used a camera obscura as a drawing device, copying the projected image by tracing its outlines on paper. The connection between painting – particularly 19th century landscape painting – and photographic panoramas is actually traced to the origins of the latter. For example Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype, was a panorama painter for 10 years. Photographic panoramas often required the distinctive vision of an artist for an aesthetic effect. It also required skill and technical expertise. One way of making photographic panoramas was by using the so-called Cirkut camera, which rotated on a tripod with the help of a clockwork motor to take successive shots from a different angle each time. Another was with a conventional static camera fitted with a wide-angle lens. The final image was made by two or more separate photos joined together to form an uninterrupted view. For the most part, photographic panoramas were made for the emerging tourist industry and were sold as souvenirs for the traveler. Besides this commercial use, they were also used as empirical documentation for archaeologists or as archive material for various state institutions. As a medium, it grew along the 19th century ethos of traveling and discovery, the expansion of archaeology and the new value placed on scientific truth. Indeed, photographic panoramas offer invaluable evidence about what cities looked like in the course of almost a century. «Early Photographic Panoramas of Greece» systemizes this evidence in a wonderful book that provides rare visual material and dense historical information on the history of Greek cities.