The distillation of a past era

In «The Greek Schools of Istanbul,» published by Agra, Thessaloniki-born photographer Paris Petridis has captured those old schools. The Zappeion, Zografeio and Megali tou Genous schools, and the lesser-known Astiki Vlangas, Galata Primary and Koinotiki Astiki of Halkidona, once part of a thriving Greek world, are now in a state of dignified decline. They give rise to nostalgic associations of ideas that fan out like an accordion: school photographs, Kemal and Jesus, the crescent and the cross, Greek «Victorian» style, imposing buildings and crisp classicism in the urban fabric of Istanbul. Remnants of a bygone era, the Greek schools remind us how much has changed in the past century. Petridis’s camera enters the buildings like an uninvited visitor, going from room to room on tiptoe, as it were. It doesn’t break in; it doesn’t intrude. It portrays a whole world – the tranquillity that fills the rooms, the shadows that lie on the stairs, the windows that filter the city’s light, half-open gates, desks that are still warm, old-fashioned files and wreaths from school celebrations, the chemistry lab, the empty stage in the theater, a still-life on a wall, the neckties with their emblems, a solitary ball on the black-and-white tiles of the gym. It’s as if you can hear the footsteps and the sound of chalk on the blackboard, but the reality is silence; there are no children in these photographs. Yet nostalgia is not a component of the photographs, which are simply witnesses of a situation. The schools suddenly become like a tunnel through which you travel the shores of the recent past. It’s like «listening to our memory» or «glancing at the lines on our hand» as the photographer says. Apart from any connection readers might have with the schools pictured, Petridis’s photographs highlight and amplify the aesthetic value of those spaces. The grand, high-ceilinged rooms with their immense windows inspire awe. And the view is breathtaking – glimpses or fully framed views of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. ‘It is like archaeology of the present,» Petridis told Kathimerini in a brief telephone conversation. I hang onto that phrase, which suits his photographs to perfection. Measuring 20.5×26 centimeters each, they are satisfying, thought-provoking, and they almost inundate you, like a wave that foams silently on the sand. It is that greenish-blue on the walls, the dark brown of the shadows, the maroon and gold on curtains and cornices, the mahogany and walnut furniture, the odor of worship, the squeak of the parquetry, the dust in a ray of sunshine. It’s the feeling that the spaces have been made warm by the children who have passed into history or have been forgotten, but who have left their mark, and of educators with a mission to teach. Wise frugality Built in the last quarter of the 19th century, the schools reflect the importance of symbolism in architecture. «It is almost a physical emotion,» said Petridis, who chose to photograph the historic schools devoid of human presence, with his lens bringing the dead to life. The bilingual Greek-English volume is laudably simple. The captions are straightforward, without any emotional overload. This refusal to dramatize makes the photographs all the more moving. Distance adds a protective layer to the images. There are just a few of them. «Images please easily but they are easily forgotten,» said Petridis. These are the distillation: 37 pictures taken on many trips to Istanbul. There is a kind of wisdom in his frugality.