CULTURE

Images of fleeting encounters

Novorossiysk is one of the most important Russian cities on the Black Sea, the biggest Russian oil export port and a big cement industry center. It is not the easiest place to live and for a Westerner who arrives as a stranger, life in this distant and essentially industrial city can be quite alienating. When in 2000 Greek diplomat Pericles Boutos arrived in this northern Russian city as consul-general of Greece he was not only faced with unpleasant living conditions but with a corrupt infrastructure both at the consulate (which was weathering a controversy involving fake visas and the false nationalizations of Russian citizens) and in local centers of authority. Compared to Vienna, where Boutos had worked as a diplomat at the Greek Embassy, and Venice, where he had served as consul of Greece, Novorossiysk seemed bleak. Boutos, a self-taught photographer, turned to photography for solace. He had always used the medium as a way to understand the cities to which he was posted and discover their hidden charms. In Novorossiysk, Boutos walked the streets with a translator and asked strangers if he could photograph them. He then gave them his camera and asked them to photograph him. These double portraits of chance meetings are included in «Reversible,» the album (with a foreword by Giuliano Serafini) that Boutos published on this body of work on the occasion of an exhibition held a few months ago in Florence. Direct and documentary-like (a small map in the bottom left corner of the pictures as well as the name and age of the sitter as a title enhances that effect) the pictures have nevertheless something warm and touching about them. They resonate with a feeling of melancholy – of fleeting encounters, perhaps, and of gazes that meet just for a few seconds. They are the way a diplomat-artist sensed the city, breaking the sense of estrangement and ephemerality. «I had a feeling of unreality in my being there, like a sort of a ghost whose movement within that environment was undetectable and would leave no trace of its passage after it had departed,» Boutos writes in the album. His photographs hold traces of both him and the people of Novorossiysk. It is a distanced yet feeling record of a man’s stay in a strange city.