A photographer’s snapshots

A seven-year period may seem short compared to a full-span professional career, but in the case of the independent photojournalist Dimitris Soulas (born 1938) this hardly matters. Soulas worked as a photographer in Germany between 1967 and 1974, a period that coincided with the junta regime in Greece. It was a short but highly creative period that earned him success and recognition. «Dimitris Soulas, Snapshots, Photographs 1967-1974,» an exhibition currently being held at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, reveals the strength and richness in the work of this artist whose commitment to photography, although brief, was substantial. The first large presentation held on the work of Soulas worldwide, it is a touring exhibition that begins from Greece (at the artist’s request). It has been organized by the Museum of Photography in the City of Munich to which Soulas donated his archive, to mark the photographer’s 70th birthday. It is being held in collaboration with the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography and is jointly curated by Ulrich Pohlmann (director of the German museum) and Heracles Papaioannou, curator at the Thessaloniki museum. An album with researched essays that place the work of Soulas in its time has been published by both museums on the occasion. Soulas, who was often praised as the photographer of the «decisive moment» (a term coined by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Breton to describe the merging of form and content, a story and its image), was a sensitive observer of everyday life and could pick out the full force, emotion and meaning from the fleeting moment. In the tradition of postwar humanist photography, he photographed people on the street, incidents and characters of Munich’s urban life during the late 1960s and early 70s. His subject varies: an old lady looking at a store window, people at a flea market, a demonstration or a students’ riot, a man helping an alcoholic, a couple kissing goodbye on a train station platform, the «Gastarbeiters» (immigrant workers in Germany) and their everyday dramas. There are also images of actors and celebrities and the series from the 1972 Olympic Games. In all of his photos, Soulas dissects human behavior, raises all facades and offers a distanced, realistic, but ultimately sympathetic view of people and their «adventures» in life. In ways that are sometimes more direct than others, Soulas also sought to capture the class structures in German society, the social contradictions and underlying tension. What partly explains this political content in his work is the interest that Soulas took in the Frankfurt School (the famous school of neo-Marxist critical theory and philosophy). In his essay, Pohlmann writes that Soulas’s view on photography as an art that should reveal the full scope of society’s structure is owed to the influence of the Frankfurt School. Soulas had actually studied economics at the Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt and then at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, the institutional home of the Frankfurt School. According to Pohlmann, Soulas was also inspired by cinema, particularly the French Nouvelle Vague. As a young man, he wanted to become a film director, although his father (who was in the tobacco business in Thessaloniki) wanted him to become a doctor or an engineer. Soulas left Greece in 1959 and enrolled in Frankfurt’s dental school but quit a few months later to study economics. He was fired from his first job in the marketing department of a multinational food company when, in 1967 – the year that the junta seized power in Greece – Soulas, still in Germany, established a Panhellenic anti-junta association. This was the end of his career in finance and the beginning of his work as a photographer. His work for The Associated Press opened the way for collaboration with well-known magazines such as Stern, Quick or Neue Revue. He also worked for the daily newspaper TZ. At the time, photojournalism was a good field to work in. Television culture had not yet set in and photojournalism still enjoyed great influence and demand. Soulas had a market to which he could sell his work. However, in 1974 he decided to quit working as a professional photographer (he continued taking photographs until 1976). When the junta fell, he felt he wanted to return home. Estimating that photojournalism had still not matured in Greece, he turned toward business and trade. He established an import business for children’s toys and subsequently worked as a marketing consultant. He currently shares his time between Germany and Thessaloniki and works in film documentary. Soulas shot only one film in Greece, in the winter of 1974. In the photographs he depicts a poor country, the world of the working class. Compared to the photos taken in Germany, the range of subject matter is more limited. But the images share that immediacy, vividness and candor that make his work so compelling. «Dimitris Soulas, Snapshots, Photographs 1967-1974,» at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography (at the city’s old port, 2310.566.716) to 29/2.