Photography and its relationship to narrative potential

In the early days of photography, an American named Eadweard Muybridge and a Frenchman by the name of Etienne-Jules Marey experimented with serial, successive images in the hope that they could capture time via the photographic medium. Something like the forerunner of cinema, their so-called chronophotography was, back then, the result of technical experiments that were expected to occur in the relatively new field of photography. Seen in retrospect, these experimentations pose the challenging question of whether photography is capable of narrating entire stories in the way that film or video does. Is photography the depiction of the moment that it records in time or can it also be a tool for telling stories that evolve with time? The narrative potential of photography is the subject explored by PhotoSynkyria 2004, the annual, big photographic event in Thessaloniki that, this year, includes more than 20 photography exhibitions held throughout the city’s venues. Organized by the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography and with Yiannis Stathatos as its artistic director, «Ways of Telling: Photography and Narrative» sets out to show the intricate and diverse ways in which photography can produce narrative content. (Co-curators are Alexandra Moschovi and Panos Kokkinias.) This content may include the obvious description of an event or simple narration, but may also reach beyond that into more sophisticated and indirect levels of visual storytelling. The concept of narration is meant in a broad and varied way, which also explains how images of divergent styles and dating from different periods are all presented within the same context. The photo-essay One of the most straightforward forms of photographic narrative is the documentary photo-essay, a genre closely associated with photojournalism, in which a number of photographs on the same theme are arranged in a narrative sequence. Traced back to the interwar period and associated with magazines such as Life, Fortune and Look, photo-essays unfold their story image by image, in an almost cinematic way. It is perhaps not by chance that one of the most extensive photo-essays presented at PhotoSynkyria is by a filmmaker, the Italian Giuseppe Tornatore. Presented at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, this extensive body of work depicts life in the distant Siberian city of Novij Urengoi through melancholic vistas and portraits of its inhabitants. Photo-essays tell stories that unravel through time but also require time for their development. An example is the work that Dimitris Charisiadis took of the Epidaurus Festival from 1954-1966 (he was the appointed photographer of the National Theater). A selection of those pictures, which now belong to the Benaki Museum Photographic Archive, are displayed in the elegant halls of the National Bank Cultural Foundation. The pictures, which take the viewer through the rehearsals of ancient drama to the arrival of the audience and the actual performance, also evoke images of Greece as it was stepping into modernization. A gifted photographer (he was the only Greek who was included in «The Family of Man,» the large exhibition organized by Edward Steichen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1950s) Charisiadis photographed his subjects with clarity and a spare style but also with expressive vigor. Other documentary photo-essays in PhotoSynkyria include Yiannis Kondos’s pictures of post-Taleban Afghanistan or Paul Graham’s color pictures of Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s, all subtle visual expressions of the region’s political turmoil. A political theme that is not immediately recognizable also runs through Paul Seawright’s images of Afghanistan taken during the recent war. What seem like landscape images are filled with small, significant details that suggest danger and defense in times of war. In the main, group exhibition presented at the Museum of Photography, George Rodger’s post-WWII images of Europe are moving and beautiful in all the melancholy and catastrophe they display. Also in the same exhibition is Nan Goldin’s essay on the teenage model James King, a series that reflects the artist’s habit of casually photographing her friends without any use of staging. Besides documentation, PhotoSynkyria also points to a narrative that is based on invention. This genre in photography that can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s photo romance, tells stories that, unlike documentary photography, rely on staged or constructed photographs. Gregory Crewdson’s eerie but strangely humorous images of American suburbia are an example of such fiction. Staging is also utilized by Wendy McMurdo in her digitally manipulated images of children, all psychologically probing and somehow ominous photos of childhood. There is also Victor Burgin’s unusual and sophisticated series, combinations of text and image, and the artist’s critical perspective on American consumer culture of the 1970s. Other artists use photography to tell more personal narratives. Such is the case with the photos taken between 1924 and 1938 by amateur photographer Giorgos Vafiadakis. Compiled in 24 homemade albums that now belong to the Greek Literary and Historical Archive, these pictures show the artist in his immediate social environment. Also in the form of a visual diary are the melancholic and introspective pictures that Korean artist Young Kyun Lim took during his voyage around the world. A selection of them are presented at the National Bank Cultural Foundation. Seen together, the photographs by Young Kyun Lim set out an entire story. This example shows that photography is not just about static imagery or the mere depiction of reality but can also be a form of visual narration. As in every narration, reality blends with fiction, objectivity becomes subject to the narrator’s approach and the viewer’s perception adds to the layers of narration. The exhibitions organized in this year’s PhotoSynkyria demonstrate this vivid, narrative capability of photography and helps the viewer to see photographs as multilayered, sophisticated stories. For info on the PhotoSynkyria exhibitions, contact the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography: 2310.566.717 or visit

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