Capturing monumental changes

Archaeology and photography have shared a long, complementary journey together. From the mid-19th century, each field helped nurture the other; photography’s clarity and documentary-like objectivity fitted the scientific objectives of archaeology, while archaeological expeditions provided a specialized subject matter for photography and helped draw attention to the medium’s inherent «scientific» properties. But for some artists, «objectivity» was seen as a compromise of photography’s expressive power. When it came to photographing ancient monuments, those artists tended to offer idealized images rather than documentary material. Although this tension harks back to photography’s early days, it somehow still colors the way we think of photography as related to archaeology, as mostly dry and technical or too predictable and postcard-like. But a visit to an exhibition currently on at the Benaki Museum shows that even when photography is in the service of archaeology, the images produced are not just documented information but can be enjoyed for their own visual qualities. The pictures on show, which are all by Socratis Mavromatis – a photographer with the Committee for the Preservation of the Acropolis since the mid-1970s – trace 30 years of preservation work (from 1975-2002) carried out on the Acropolis. Beautifully placed in a frieze-like arrangement that stretches throughout the halls of the exhibition, the pictures (all black-and-white) read like a story. They begin with what caused the monument’s deterioration (mainly the oxidization of the iron parts used in former restoration projects but also pollution combined with humidity), then move to images that show the preparations for preservation, the restoration itself and the monuments. The exhibition highlights what is one of the most important and extensive archaeological projects under way in this country. The show is organized by the Acropolis Preservation Service which was established two years ago along with an approved larger budget in order to precipitate work on the Acropolis, most likely in view of the forthcoming Olympics. The Committee for the Preservation of the Acropolis which was previously responsible for the work, now serves as a scientific advisory committee. The Benaki Museum exhibition is also being held on the occasion of an international conference on the Acropolis preservation work which begins tomorrow. Part of what makes this exhibit so distinctive is that the images show details and views one would not be able to see otherwise. Images from unusual, but not distorting angles, capture both the beauty of the monuments and the industry of works in process and also show a connection between the past and contemporary urban reality. It is almost as if the viewer is carried onto the construction site itself and made part of the working team throughout the duration of the project. An exhibit for both expert and layman alike, it puts across information with an artistically sensitive perspective, while making everybody feel more involved in this city’s history and more concerned with the preservation of what are Athens’s greatest monuments.