Athos between the wars as seen by Swiss photographer

A great number of photographers have over the years turned their lenses on to monastic life on Mount Athos. Of these, Fred Boissonnas’s images are perhaps some of the most important testimony to the community’s life between the wars. Part of this photographic wealth is showcased in «Odiporiko ston Atho, 1928-1930» (Athos Travelogue, 1928-1930), an exhibition at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. With it, the museum is also beginning to draw on the Swiss photographer’s archive, a permanent loan by the Hellenic Culture Organization SA (OPEP), on the subject of Greece. The Boissonnas archive includes thousands of photographs from around Greece and some 400 pictures from Mount Athos. Initially bought by OPEP, it is now managed by the Thessaloniki museum. The visual material stems from two, separate missions by Boissonnas to the monastic community, which took place in August 1928 and October 1930. Throughout both trips, as Iraklis Papaioannou and Anneta Tsouka note in the exhibition’s catalog, the photographer recorded monastic architecture, a small number of frescoes, icons and other religious items. Boissonnas, however, stayed away from religious ceremonies and rituals and did not attempt to approach life on Mount Athos on a metaphysical level. Instead, he set out to portray the Holy Mountain in a broader sense, through a series of photographs which combined pure documentation with artistic photography. Many photographs focus on Mount Athos’s architecture – either through general shots of interior courtyards or closeups and detailed shots. In other instances, Boissonnas attempts to incorporate architecture into a broader context in terms of the natural, mountainous landscape, stressing the community’s medieval organization, such as developing fortifications for defense against piracy, for instance. The absence of the human element is due to the reluctance of monks living on Mount Athos at the time to be photographed. To them, appearing in a photograph was an action completely opposed to the monastic spirit of humility.

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