When Greeks emerged from the dark, at the flick of a switch

When heavy snowfall cut power supplies to the island of Cephalonia a few weeks ago, plunging it into darkness for several days, the alarm that sounded at the Public Power Corporation (PPC) not only mobilized officials, technicians and other expert staff. The company team that went to the Ionian island to monitor the situation also included three photographers. In 20 or 30 years’ time, scenes from 2006 showing desperate islanders trying to survive winter without the benefit of electricity because of bad weather might be of historical interest. In 1950, photographers employed by what was then the Athens-Piraeus Electrical Company found it worth immortalizing scenes that then seemed miraculous. Their photographs are currently on show at the 24th International Festival of Photography which opened in Thessaloniki on February 24. PPC’s photographic archive is truly a hidden treasure trove, with over 400,000 negatives covering almost the entire 20th century. When the archive was begun in 1902, PPC did not even exist. Its forerunners, the Distribution and Production Companies, merged in 1930 to create the Athens-Piraeus Electricity Company (APEC) funded by the British firm Power and Traction. APEC’s photo archive, organized by the British firm, consists of 7,500 negatives and plates stored in files dating from 1902. They refer solely to the Athens area; in 1950 only 30 percent of the country was supplied with electricity. The firm was absorbed by PPC in 1967, and the film archive soon numbered 400,000 negatives, and is continually being added to. Part of the selection currently on show in Thessaloniki was exhibited last summer by the Skopelos Photography Center at a show titled «Emerging from the War Years.» Only a very small selection of the archive will be on show, of course. The curator has focused on the 1950-1965 period and the changes that access to electricity brought to Greek society. «To bring some order into the large volume of photographs,» said curator Nina Kassianou, «we divided them into two sub-groups covering the social and the industrial aspects. The former came from the APEC archive and shows the social and home lives of the firm’s workers. The latter deals with industrial growth and its effects on society and the workers.» There is no dearth of photographs from the 1950s in Greece, but those in the current exhibition are not the work of well-known photographers, who generally recorded the difficulties of postwar reconstruction, the flight from the countryside and people’s desperation. The PPC photos present a different Greece, a more optimistic, happier place. Although the company photographers’ main job was to record the technical achievements with shots of the interior of factories, a large number of their shots display aspects of urban life. Some show advertisements lauding new electrical appliances, young housewives in modern homes using electrical stoves, refrigerators, toasters and mixers, heaters, sewing machines and hairdryers, sitting with their children around the dinner table or with a female friend admiring their new acquisitions of electrical gadgets. If asked to single out a particular photographer from that period, it would have to be Emilios Serafis (1905-1990), also known in the business as Foto-Emile. The Thessaloniki exhibition includes a sample of his work for APEC, which totaled about 3,000 negatives. «Pioneers of Technical Civilization» is on display at Thessaloniki’s Municipal Art Gallery until March 12. This article first appeared in the February 26 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.