Original eye trained on far-off isles

In these shivery days, nothing seems more inappropriate than sun-filled albums of the Aegean Islands (NB: There are not many clouds in these pictures). Yet with Christmas not far off, it’s perhaps time to think of gifts, especially for those with a tendency to hibernate. Perhaps these albums will cheer them up. Topio publications, which has produced a whole series of albums based on the photographs of Dimitris Talianis, has brought out yet two more books (with text in Greek and English) on the more remote of the Aegean Islands, «Kasos: The End of the Line to the Remote Islands» and «Halki Island, Dodecanese,» presented at the Stoa tou Vivliou on November 6. These are not pictorial guidebooks. While much of their subject matter would suit a tourist brochure, the gaze here is of a subtler, more artistic kind. The Kasos volume in particular is a lyrical evocation of life on the island, both in words (the text is by Nikolas Mastropavlos) and pictures. Mastropavlos describes a harsh land whose inhabitants lived off – and thus had a special relationship with – the sea, which they looked on not as the «confining boundary of their small island but rather as the sole road to make their bounds unlimited.» As a result, they became prosperous, with a fleet of more than 80 ships, a prosperity that is reflected in the ornate interiors of the kapetanospitia (sea captains’ houses), beautifully photographed here. Most of the island’s features are covered: the harbor of Bouka, the sea chests, dry stone walls – even the collection of sea salt. Snippets from the island’s mantinades (folk songs) in Mastropavolos’s text add to the interest. By contrast, the Halki book, written by Vangelis Eliadis, concentrates more on a descriptive tour of the island. But the same, quintessentially insular themes are dealt with: caique, alleyway, sea, rock, chapel, stone wall, food and festival. Old photographs at the beginning of each book suggest the past, but they are hints, not elaborated upon. This is true of the albums throughout. Talianis’s focus is narrow, rather than panoramic, an exception being Halki’s harbor of Imboreios as seen from on deck (with some of those rare clouds making an appearance). His camera glides past the faded wall of an old shuttered house that almost hides a caique riding at anchor in the stunningly blue and turquoise sea of Halki harbor. He picks out events – threshing oxen on Kasos, for example – and homes in on buildings, nestling behind walls, like the Church of the Holy Trinity on Kasos, carved out of the sky, modestly shaded by trees or sprawled lazily like lions on bold rocks. The broader landscape is sometimes a soupcon of blue, sometime a hint of a vista. Not all of the subject matter is of the obvious kind. A bend in a road, starting from nowhere and apparently leading nowhere, by its very lines delineates the harsh, dry, hills. This is just the kind of summer snapshot that one never quite pulls off, which faithfully records what the eye actually sees. But a suspicion arises: Perhaps the lens focus is so narrow because it needs to be. It may find beauty when there is rather less to meet the eye in the panoramic view, which these days is invaded by a crowd of non-photogenic subjects: haphazard buildings, ugly hotels, the landscape drowned in unchecked construction. It’s what’s not shown that gives rise to worry. Have pearls been dug out of manure? Talianis’s stated objective is to «depict the soul of Greece, the beauty and poetry of its landscape, and to stay clear of the consumer or tourist angle.» Has he done so? One of the problems with such albums (and these are not helped by their picture-postcard covers) is that it’s hard to draw the line between a photograph and a tourist brochure image; the two overlap, especially with subjects that, frankly, can only be tourist destinations (the advent of steam did away with Kasos’s prosperity). Talianis’s eye is original, but his themes are shaped by common perceptions of what is beautiful about the islands. And the hopeful foreword by Halki’s mayor indicates the hard reasons behind the books: to attract tourists. In fact, apart from armchair travelers or hibernators, the people most likely to buy them are past or prospective visitors (At 20 euros, they are cheap at the price). They should hurry. The rapid pace of destruction of the islands means travelers will never see them again as seen here; for Kasos and Halki, it may well be the end of the line.