Encounters with the photography of Greece

In Western literature and painting, Kythera has been legendary as a mythic destination. But for the island of Kythera itself, life during the last period of its recent history has been defined by a single, pervasive and continuing phenomenon: emigration. The first big wave of emigration began in the mid-19th century with Smyrna in Asia Minor as a destination. An exodus of emigrants leaving for the USA and Australia (Greeks from Kastellorizo and Kythera are in fact the majority in the Greek communities in Australia) followed at the beginning of the 20th century and another great wave marked the period right after the German occupation. This began a succession whose traces are still felt today in the abandoned or sparsely inhabited areas across the island but also in an awareness, among the locals, of dispersed family lineages. For both those who remained on the island and the offspring of former emigrants who made their way back, family ties and the concept of rootedness must hold a symbolic significance and anything that documents the past, especially old photographs or family relics, is much valued. Set against this background, «The Kythera Photographic Encounters,» a conference on Greek photography recently held on the island, was a distinctive event well suited to the historical context of Kythera. The study of continuity and origin in Greek photography that was part of the conference’s objective echoed the search for continuity that is part of the island’s identity. Particularly so, as the conference was also linked to the preservation and study of the Kytherean photographic archives, another ambitious project undertaken by the conference’s organizers. Apart from the fact that this is one of the few concerted efforts to help advance the study of Greek photography – a neglected field for too long – what also makes this cultural event noteworthy is that it took place due to the enthusiasm of a single man for whom photography and the island of Kythera have become inseparable aspects of life. A year ago, John Stathatos, a London-based photographer, writer and curator, decided to spend more time in Kythera, in the home he built during the late 1970s. Along with five other young people (most of whom were already involved in running the Kythera Cinema Club in 1998), he formed the Kythera Cultural Association which, in turn, garnered the help of the community and organized the Kythera Encounters, the conference on photography. What makes this association and the activities it produces special is that they they are a self-subsidized initiative that has grown out of local zeal. Costas Spiliadis, an expatriate originally from Kythera, is one of the people who has helped the cause by offering the association a piece of real estate in the the area of Aroniadika. The building will soon house the Cultural Association’s offices as well as the Kytherean Photographic Archives whose documentation and study is one of the Cultural Association’s main tasks. The association plans to organize exhibitions, lectures and concerts and will also encourage research into aspects of Kytherean cultural history, such as folk music. Among these various activities, the Photographic Encounters is its most ambitious, not to mention the most international, project. It involves an annual three-day conference on the history of Greek photography flanked by three or four exhibitions (dispersed around different parts of the island), as well as a multimedia event; this year the multimedia event included a concert of the music of composer Panayiotis Lefteris, one of the members of the Cultural Association. The main exhibition complementing this year’s conference was on the early 20th-century Kytherean photographer Panayiotis Fatseas, whose work John Stathatos has rescued from the wear of time and poor preservation. Stathatos, who lectured on the work of Fatseas at the conference, holds the work of Fatseas in great esteem and believes that he will eventually be recognized as a significant artist in the history of Greek photography. «Fatseas was a humble craftsman whose principal concern was to earn an honest living for his family; in order to do so, he inevitably had to work according to a formula. What makes his work unique, as does that of Martin Chambi in Peru and of Michael Disfamer in the States, is his astonishing ability to overcome the limitations of provincial portraiture and imbue his subjects with a presence that speaks to us across a gap of eight decades in a way very few of his contemporaries were able to do,» Stathatos told Kathimerini English Edition. If the exhibition on Fatseas had to do with Kythera and its past, another group show of images of the island taken by a number of contemporary photographers (Louisa Lindback, Nikos Panayiotopoulos, Costis Pavlakis, James Prineas, Evridiki Spiliadi, Angeliki Stamatiadou and Tzeli Hadzidimitriou) gave a modern angle to the connection to Kythera via photography. A third exhibition showed the work of fledgling Greek photographers, all graduates of the National Technical University of Athens. The exhibition bolstered one of the Kythera Photographic Encounters more general objectives, which involves the advancement of contemporary Greek photography. An annual commission to a young photographer is, in fact, one of the future plans of the Kythera Encounters. Each exhibition has some connection to the issues covered at the conference. The exhibition of the work of the extraordinary Voula Papaioannou, one of the biggest names in Greek photography, was, for example, complemented by a lecture by Fani Constantinou (director of the photographic archives at the Benaki Museum) on the images of Papaioannou from the occupation. Because the Kythera Encounters deals with the history of Greek photography, the lectures were either on Greek photographers or on photographs of Greece taken by foreign photographers. Topics included Henri-Paul Boissonas photographs in relationship to the foreign policy of Venizelos, the mid-19th-century daguerreotypes of Pierre de Sevastionoff from Mt Athos and the photos of William James Stillman of the Acropolis in Athens from the late 19th century. Modernism in Greek photography, documentary Greek photography in the 1980s and domestic images in contemporary Greek photography were also some of the other matters discussed. Stathatos kept this first conference as all-encompassing as possible. The idea was to test the grounds of a field that remains poorly studied. «Greek photography as a field of academic study is still in its infancy, while – with few exceptions – serious photographic criticism is virtually non-existent. One of the purposes behind the founding of the Kythera Photographic Encounters was precisely to encourage serious consideration of Greek photographic history and criticism,» says Stathatos. As matters that require further study gradually arise, it is possible that future conferences will be structured upon a single theme. All of this is extremely useful, especially as initiatives for the study of Greek photography remain scarce. (The establishment of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography under Aris Georgiou is an important exception.) «The position of photography is even more confused in Greece than elsewhere, bedeviled as the medium is by issues of artistic status, institutional insecurity and fluctuations of identity. The situation is obviously exacerbated by the reactionary attitude of the state fine art schools, by the fact that many Greek art critics are woefully ignorant of photographic history and, above all, by commercial and institutional pressures which insist on a rigid distinction between ‘photography’ and ‘fine-art photographic practice,’ as though the two can be distinguished by anything more than context,» says Stathatos. It is this lack of research and study in the field of Greek photography that prompted Stathatos to institute the Kythera Photographic Encounters. Another cause of concern is related to the upcoming Olympic Games. «The fact that the Cultural Olympics committee has, for reasons best known to itself, chosen to completely ignore the carefully reasoned and fully documented set of proposals that, at the express urging of the Ministry of Culture, were jointly submitted by the country’s leading photographic institutions nearly two years ago, has resulted in photography being, if not entirely absent, included in the Cultural Olympics program on an ad hoc basis» says Stathatos. Hopefully, the history of Greek photography will one day become a full-fledged and well-researched area of discipline. When this happens, it will be largely thanks to initiatives like the one made by this handful of people in Kythera.

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