Athens, the subject of two albums

As the city is preparing for the Summer Olympic Games, Athens and its history is becoming a favorite subject for Greek publications. Athens of the 19th century is captured in an impressive, well-researched photographic album that has just been published by the Benaki Museum. The publication is the enriched version of an earlier album that was printed in 1985 by the Benaki Museum on the occasion of an exhibition on the same theme organized by the museum. «Athens 1839-1900: Photographic Documents» – the title of this hard bound, large volume – brings together more than 300 rare photographs which document the monuments, landscape and everyday life of Athens. Structured chronologically, the album follows the development of photographic techniques, along with the photographers’ changing interests in subject matter. The essays written by Fani Constantinou, Alkis Xanthakis, Gary Edwards and Matoula Skaltsa provide diverse information and reveal photography’s relationship with the ideology of each respective period in time. The book begins in 1839, which is when photography was discovered – initially with the invention of the daguerreotype and then with the calotype. These early images of Greece are mainly by traveling painters, emerging photographers or travelers visiting Athens on their way to the Middle East, Asia Minor or the Holy Land. Philippos Margaritis, who is referred to as the first Greek photographer, experimented with the daguerreotype and, following the aesthetics of his time, focused on the city’s antiquities. Around the middle of the century, techniques of photography were embraced by a wider audience and photography as a profession became more soundly established. Antiquities remained a favorite theme but a picture’s composition and framing suggested the photographer’s creativity: the Briton James Robertson and the American William James Stillman are referred to as two of the most talented photographers of their time. Apart from antiquities, professional photographers were also commissioned to do portraiture. The royal family of Otto I and its court comprise an important part of the photographs produced over that period. Around the 1880s, images of modern-day Athens and everyday life replaced those of antiquities. Development in techniques, especially the discovery of rolled film by George Eastman (Kodak), made photography available to a wider audience of amateurs but also paved the way for documentary photography. The book contains many of those late 19th century views of the city and its people. It also includes a separate section on the 1897 Olympic Games held in Athens. In addition to the rest of the images, they offer a rare glimpse into Athens as an emerging city. Fani Constantinou and Aliki Tsirgialou are the editors of the edition. «Athens 1839-1900: Photographic Documents» was sponsored by Asea Brown Boveri SA. ‘Athens: Then and Now’ At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Athens was not even 200,000 inhabitants and the actual size of the city was 20,000 acres. A century later – which brings us to the present – the city’s population is five times larger and its expanse reaches 37 square kilometers. These figures, supplied by the architect Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, one of the two authors of the photographic album «Athens: Then and Now,» published by Olkos, suggest the transformations that the city underwent from a relatively newly built city in the late 19th century to the country’s contemporary metropolis. «Athens: Then and Now» illustrates this change by juxtaposing photographic images of the city taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the same views of the city taken from the exact same angle in the present by Hungarian photographer Laszlo Lugo Lugosi (Benaki Museum photographer Leonidas Kourgiantakis also assisted in the project) for the purposes of the book. Besides the changes, the book also points at continuity and history. Some of the city’s monuments and public buildings – among them the National Library, the Archaeological Museum, and the Athens Polytechnic – look quite similar in both the old and contemporary photographs, perhaps because they are pictured frontally and isolated from the surrounding urban landscape. In other cases, the pictures underline the change. A stereoscopic image of Omonia Square from 1903 shows the round square’s landscape design and the surrounding neoclassical buildings and the contrast with present-day Omonia is evident. Some pictures overturn an idealized image of the past and prove that modern transformations are sometimes an improvement over the past. The trees that presently stand along Athinas Street, for example, are missing from a 1919 image by Edmond Boissonas and the Old University in Plaka, an old building seen in a dilapidated state in a 1925 photograph by Nelly’s, is now in excellent condition. The book is prefaced by Fani Constantinou and Maro Kardamitsi-Adami. In «Athens: Then and Now» the city’s past and present come together through interesting connections. By replicating the angle of old photographs, the book offers a view of the present through the eyes of the past and by juxtaposing images of the past with present-day photos also makes us think of old Athens through the present condition of the city. In a way, the book is an exercise in learning to read images. Seen hastily, it might be taken as a nostalgic view of the past. But a more careful look motivates the reader to think about how images are the outcome of the aesthetic and ideologies of their time and how, like anything else, are fragmentary and far from value-free depictions of reality.