Chaos and humor of Athens captured through the lens

It was much easier when Athens was a gaggle of red roofs clustered in a semicircle to the north of the Acropolis rock, although even then people tended to take pictures of the town’s ancient monuments rather than the bits under the roof tiles. For the contemporary photographer, the city of 4 million that has already spilled well over the hills which have always defined Athens to the east and north presents a complex, even daunting subject. Even more so as prevailing trends favor quirky, tongue-in-cheek shots as opposed to the traditional urge to record and convey information through wide-angle shots. An exhibition that opened last month – and, unfortunately, ends on Sunday – at the Benaki Museum in Kolonaki ventures to present an image of the city, with 34 Greek and two French artists contributing their impressions of the capital at the turn of the century. Athens 2001, Photographic Aspects and Views was organized by the museum in cooperation with the Photography Circle, a non-profit society that has been based in Athens since 1988. It constitutes a rare collective attempt by photographers working in the capital to depict their immediate environment – from the outside, as it appears to the passer-by. The portrait of a city is no different from a portrait of a person, Photography Circle founder and president Plato Rivellis writes in the exhibition catalog. No portrait can contain the personality of its subject, nor yet can any series of pictures define the mood and the rhythm of a city. A portrait is no more than the strange encounter of a person’s gaze with that of the photographer… The interest of a photograph lies in the questions it simply suggests, and not in the answers we think it gives us. According to Rivellis, the photographers invited to contribute chose two distinct approaches. Athens is treated either with obvious humor, or as a chaotic, Third World city. But it is true that, after studying the photographs and at the same time observing the city, I could only agree… The character of Athens is mostly to be found in the disorderly but at the same time tender and funny mixture of the village and the big city. Some of the humor, such as the walking Che Guevara poster or the inevitable juxtaposition of advertising pictures with real human beings, is a bit forced. And the Third World parts can be predictable, such as the meat market at night, the flea market trinkets or the curious little shops, all dwindling echoes of 1960s or 1950s Athens which fade completely outside the strictly circumscribed Omonia-Monastiraki area. Zoe Siotropou forges off on her own with a beautiful series of pavement studies, while Pericles Antoniou’s foray into the National Gardens steers clear of the saccharine shots that would have tempted many photographers. In its more immediately recognizable guise of buildings, rooftops and streets, the city appears in the work of Lia Zanni and Dimitris Kanellos, Dimitris Mytas and Dora Tsovili. Angelos Michas takes the building theme one step further, with a set of – mainly skyward-facing – shots of internal courts in blocks dating to the 1930s, ’50s and ’60s. Understandably, the most balanced, confident work is by Bernard Plossu, at 56 one of the most significant contemporary European photographers.

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