Old Greece revealed in images

Two new books of old photographs taken in Greece reveal diverse aspects of an infinitely photogenic country. Both are an invitation to browse and reflect. «Exerevnontas tin Ellada: Photografies 1898-1913» (Exploring Greece: Photographs 1898-1913), published by Olkos, contains the previously unpublished photographs of French Hellenist Hubert Pernot, from the collection of the Sorbonne Institute of Modern Greek Studies, where he was director. In the course of his language research, Pernot traveled extensively in Greece, as well as to places with Greek populations that were still under Ottoman rule, recording local phonetics and dialects. A talented photographer, he also documented a multiplicity of places and customs. Maroula Kliafa’s «Anthropoi tou mochthou: Thessalia» (People of Toil: Thessaly) published by Metaichmio, began as a project to collect information about disappearing trades. The author then broadened her scope, dedicating the book to human toil. Big picture Pernot was unusual among Hellenists of his era in that he came to his knowledge of the Greek world through modern rather than ancient Greece, notes Aikaterini Komourianou, who edited the book. As a young man, he had accompanied his mother when she came to Athens to teach French, and that local knowledge proved invaluable in his research. Besides, when it came to language, he valued the big picture as well as the detail, writing, «A place, the people, the ideas, these are what make up a language.» It’s all here, in the photographs. Athens, the grandeur of its classical monuments and neoclassical buildings, a smaller, more spacious city, peopled mainly by pedestrians, some of them still in traditional garb. Peddlers with donkeys sell fresh produce; shoeshine boys ply their trade in Syntagma Square; carters walk beside their mules on a dirt road leading to Piraeus. Most striking to those who know the megalopolis that Athens has become is the sense of space in the panoramic photographs taken from vantage points like Lycabettus Hill, where the city still looks like a collection of separate villages. Faliron, then a bathing resort with facilities along the shore, looks like a distinct improvement on today’s spaghetti junction and lack of access to the seafront. There’s much more. Pernot, and his fellow travelers, Dr Mercier and Auguste Petre (who may have taken some of the pictures – not all can be positively attributed) captured the spirit of mainland and island Greece, its villages, harbors, archaeological sites and people at a moment that is both recognizable and definitively of the past. Though Kliafa’s book includes images by noted photographers, the cover photo by Takis Tloupas being a case in point, most of the pictures are by amateurs. They illustrate a treasury of information about the work of shepherds, lumberjacks, knife sharpeners, fishermen, tanners, tin platers, saddlers, charcoal workers and the makers of brooms, shoes and copperware. Initial inspiration came in the late 1970s, when an itinerant peddler, from whom she bought her fruit and vegetables, told the author she was giving up her job. When the last photographer in Trikala’s main square offered to sell Kliafa his camera because he no longer had any work, she made up her mind. Process of work What she was interested in documenting, she writes, was both the work itself – how artisans processed wool or copper, for instance – and how they learnt their trades, what relations they had with customers and what they earned. Though they led hard lives, often in difficult times, Kliafa found that the people she spoke to were happy with their lot. They were aware of their contribution to the local economy, proud of their craft and thankful to make a living. Gathering information was easy; what was hard, Kliafa reports, was collecting photographs. Old chests yielded individual snapshots in abundance, but entire series that recorded the process of tanning leather or the lives of shepherds were much harder to come by. Later she also collected photographs from people in the professions, shopkeepers and industrial workers. Seeking information about people’s efforts to improve their work conditions, the author drew on press archives in Thessaly for articles, announcements and advertisements. That yielded material reflecting the militancy of the Thessalian workers in the early 20th century, recorded here in rallies and meetings.

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