An adventurer in life and art

When Mount Everest pioneer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to scale the imposing peak, he answered, «Because it’s there.» Mallory represented a time in the early 20th century that reflected a powerful fascination with the Himalayas. Explorers scaled seemingly inaccessible peaks, ethnographers undertook seminal studies, and the Himalayas – like the North Pole or the Antarctic – inspired adventurers on a search for the next great frontier. One of those adventurers was a Greek mountaineer named Nikolaos Tombazis, who had moved to Calcutta to work as a high-ranking clerk in the local branch of a large Greek textile company called Ralli Brothers. Tombazis came to India between 1910-1920, when the Himalayas were still pristine and the allure to them nascent. He was an experienced mountaineer and a self-taught photographer who combined his interests to produce beautiful images of the Himalayas and other mountains. Tombazis pursued photography with the same sense of thrill as his expeditions in nature. When he returned to Greece, he climbed his specially designed scaffolding to photograph ancient monuments or other sites from unusual viewpoints. His sense of adventure is captured in the exhibition «Nikolaos Tombazis (1894-1986) India-Greece,» currently on display at the main building of the Benaki Museum in Kolonaki. Included in the exhibition are hand-drawn maps Tombazis used for his expeditions, two of his cameras, and several mementos from India: a Tibetan holy-water font, a prayer wheel with inscription and a Tibetan teapot. Also exhibited are the books that he wrote on his Himalayan expeditions. Finally, there are some images of the Himalayas that the famed Italian photographer Vittorio Sella took during an expedition in 1899. Sella’s images influenced Tombazis’s pictures, and this is well underlined in the Benaki exhibition. Tombazis organized three large expeditions. The last one, in 1925, was the most ambitious of the three. A real feat, it included a team of 25 locals, covered a total distance of 1,400 miles and reached a height of 21,050 feet. Tombazis’s «Account of a Photographic Expedition to the Southern Glaciers of Kangchenjunga in the Sikkim Himalaya» described the images that emerged during the expedition’s course. There are views of the mountains and nature, monasteries and Buddhist monuments and portraits of locals. Tombazis recorded everything he encountered with the detailed eye of an explorer and an artistic flair that gave his views an unusually soothing quality. He turns the formidable and overwhelming landscape of the Himalayan peaks into images of immense calmness, yet documents everything in detail and with precision. He maintains this difficult balance masterfully. The photographs from Greece are more human-oriented. They show the inhabitants of rural Greece at work or in moments of repose. Tombazis is clearly not an outsider here: He has a clear sense of the Greek rural life and its people. In some images, Tombazis also shows a distinct talent for capturing movement and – as is the case in the Himalayan images – of revealing the permutations of light and shadow. A large part of Tombazis’s work in Greece involved the detailed documentation of archaeological excavations. In the early 1950s, he worked with archaeologists Ioannis Papadimitriou and Giorgos Milonas, who were excavating Mycenae at the time. Tombazis recorded every stage of the excavations he was involved in with the detail of a documentary photographer. But he also produced moving images that capture the moment of a discovery and the archaeologists at work. He worked with the dedication of a man who loved photography and who appreciated life. Tombazis believed art and life were immutably one, hinting at the source for the beauty behind his images at the Benaki. A supplementary catalog is available in Greek and English. The exhibition is open at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1006) through June 19 (Thursdays open from 9 a.m to midnight). A traveler of the world Nikolaos Tombazis’s international exposure dates back to his childhood. He was born in 1894 in St Petersburg, where his father – himself a descendent of the Hydriot admiral Tombazis, a fighter in the Greek War of Independence – served his post as ambassador for Greece. Well-versed in English, French and German, Tombazis studied in Greece and served his military service during the Balkan Wars. Afterward, he was hired by the Greek trading firm owned by the Ralli brothers. Following his training with the company in Manchester, he was appointed as a high-ranking clerk in the firm’s Calcutta branch. Thirty years later, in 1946, he decided to return to Greece and reside permanently in Athens. He worked as a photographer and earned a good reputation for photographing documentations of archaeological excavations. This work led him to a professional engagement with the Greek National Tourism Organization. From 1955-67 Tombazis also collaborated with Christian Zervos and published much of his work at the Cahiers d’Art. His archive, which numbers approximately 65,000 negatives and plenty of original prints, was donated by Tombazis’s family to the Photographic Archive of the Benaki Museum.