The magic of the Ionian

Parts of Greece have starred in so many postcards that to the jaded eye they can register as cliches. Serious photographers who choose them as subjects do so at peril of descending into the merely picturesque. For some years, Topio publications has published illustrated volumes that marry those much-seen images with texts that set them in a broader and deeper context. Their latest effort is «Ionian, Course Westward,» a bilingual Greek-English edition with a text by Dionysis Karatzas and photographs by Dimitris Talianis. Distilled wisdom In Western Greece, writes Karatzas, «we find calm harmony and inner emotion, the shades of ancient promises and the distilled wisdom of radicals.» Photographs of the Ionian – the sea itself, the craft that sail it, the fishermen that live off it, the villages and churches that overlook it, the beaches that skirt it, daybreak and sunset by the water – come with brief texts. A shot of the bell tower and dome of Our Lady of Tenedos Church on Corfu faces a picture of a simple courtyard where buildings of different ages harmonize with an old marble fountain. The caption highlights the connection: «Corners or edges which keep secrets and match eras with style.» Other captions wax poetic. Accompanying an image of wind-gnarled trees by the sea at Boukaris on Corfu is the following: «Beneath every root of water or a tree or stone and deep down in every name there is also a myth. // That is why the mountains descend to the seas and open their caves to enigmas. // That is why the waves break their silences and determine the fate of the winds. // And, as the birds fly, the light prepares itself.» Some of the images revel in the play of light and color on water: Ropes, rusty anchor chains and rudders all dip into silky waters that reflect and refract them creating new compositions. Seagulls rise in elegant patterns. Bare rock strata twist and coil into the sea. And yes, there are sunsets, footprints on deserted beaches and pretty harbor-side tavernas. Does it work? It’s probably a matter of taste. The photographs are charming, conjuring up as they do scenes of great beauty, and the texts sometimes neatly encapsulate information about the Ionian. The introduction, for example, explains how the configuration of land and sea has made communication between the islands difficult, but given rise to special connections with the mainland. «Most of the islands are near the coasts, and it is as if they have been detached from them in hand-to-hand combat or when making love. For centuries they have been turned toward the body of the western mainland, looking for their womb.» Mix of East and West Karatzas describes the Ionian islands as a fleet which, because of its particular geographical position and influences, «combines the metaphysics of the East with and the pragmatism of the West. The islands of the Ionian have their myths, their saints, their poets, their rocks and their seas caves. They also have, however, the west wind of thought, restlessness, questioning, the quest for knowledge and truth.» And, of course, he adds, the Ionian is also the western mainland with its rugged beauty. Out just in time for Christmas shopping, this book is doubtless destined to be a gift. It should appeal to those who already love the Ionian or would like to know it better. The English translation is by Geoffrey Cox.