Contrasting coexisting images

Timeless values and a dignified respect for life and the past emanate from the work of two completely different renowned Greek photographers and their images of Greece as presented in two separate photographic albums. «Kostas Balafas: Epirus» released by Potamos Publications in cooperation with the Benaki Museum, and «Antiquities: Greece 1925-1939: Nelly’s,» published by Melissa again jointly with the Benaki, record two contrasting worlds of Greek culture – the one rural and poor, a world of nature and its people, the other classical, refined, unspoiled and devoid of human presence – yet with a somewhat similar idealized view and quest for the eternal. Each photographer prioritized a different aspect of Greece and this can partly be ascribed to their backgrounds: Balafas was raised in a family of farmers in a small village of Epirus. A self-trained artist, he identified with rural Greece and its people and for years roamed the country to get a feel for what he was photographing. Nelly’s, on the other hand, was raised in the cosmopolitan environment of Asia Minor, was educated as a photographer in Germany and first came to Greece in 1924. When World War II broke out, she left for the US where she remained until the mid ’60s before returning to Greece. That World War II stands between the images of each artist also explains much of the difference and makes clear how each work derives from distinct cultural ideologies. The earliest photos included in the Balafas album date from 1945 (they go all the way to 1970). The postwar compassion for people’s struggle against the devastation of war is the dominant mood in the artist’s work. The influence of human-interest photography that prevailed throughout the world makes this body of work a current expression of those times. Society was a dominant subject-matter for photography in the interwar period as well. There was also the strong influence of surrealism and a general tendency toward establishing a national identity; in the aftermath of the Asia Minor disaster, this tendency was particularly acute in Greece. Broadly speaking, the so-called Thirties Generation captures this national identity quest. Dating from the mid 1920s to the declaration of WWII, Nelly’s pictures of antiquities capture the nation’s reclamation of its history and cultural heritage. But they also express the German admiration for Greece’s classical past as well as a Western tradition of viewing Greece in terms of its classical past rather than from a contemporary viewpoint. Kostas Balafas’s Epirus The mountainous region of Epirus and its rural life are the dominant themes in Balafas’s pictures. In some of the images, nature is depicted starkly, grand and overwhelming. It is a landscape that suggests hard living conditions but also represents refuge (Greek mountains are tied to the Resistance in which Balafas fought) and a sense of timelessness, a moral purity untainted by modernization. Most of Balafas’s photos, however, are of people. They capture life as it progresses throughout the year, the winter pastures, the grazing of the sheep, the festivities, the social gatherings, the endurance and pride in the faces of his fellow Epirotes. His images emanate lyricism and humanism as well as a stoic melancholy. Balafas depicts an arduous world but his faith in human nature creates a positive, almost encouraging, outcome. An extensive text he wrote himself is printed in the Potamos publication (the other text is that of Angelos Delivorias, director of the Benaki Museum) and puts across his empathy for and faith in the people of Epirus. Balafas claims that human relationships in Epirus seem genuine and in harmony with nature. His photos are an extension of this belief. Collected in this copious album, they are arranged in a careful order that reveals the artist’s vision. Following an earlier album on Balafas’s pictures from Meteora, this recent Potamos publication continues the documentation of the work of a photographer who marked Greek postwar photography. Nelly’s antiquities The Acropolis was one of the first subjects that Nelly’s turned to upon her arrival in Greece in the mid 1920s. Through the late ’30s, she took hundreds of photographs that depict the Acropolis monuments not in the traditionally objective, documentary like fashion but in an artistic way, characterized by unusual angles, different lighting (when photographing ancient sculptures in the museum) and an imaginative use of the picture’s foreground and background. Seen together with the pictures that Nelly’s took of other sites – Ancient Corinth, Epidaurus, Delphi – these images suggest a candid interest in archaeology and the country’s classical past. Strangely, few of these images were published in the guides of Athens’s archaeological sites or museums of the time. Apparently, Nelly’s never worked for the Greek Archaeological Association. A likely explanation is that Nelly’s controversial picture from 1927, showing the dancer Mona Paiva posing naked at the Acropolis, had insulted then conservative mores, resulting in Nelly’s exclusion from the more conventional photography commissions. In the mid ’30s, however, the Greek Bureau of Press and Tourism printed Nelly’s photos of antiquities in the periodical En Grece. Interest in her images was part of a broader project by the Metaxas regime which looked to the classical past as a resource for promotion of the country and tourism. It seems that Nelly’s career took off once she settled in the US. Today her images of Greek antiquities are acknowledged for their distinctive creativity. A large number, most of them previously unpublished, is reproduced in the Melissa publication, which constitutes a thorough study of her work on the subject and includes well-written texts that argue this point.