Posts Tagged 'photography'

Years of storage lend nuance to collection of images

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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Paris, 1985.

By Harry van Versendaal

For Constantinos Pittas, a good photograph must elevate the prosaic to the preternatural, the banal to the magical.

Strolling one 1985 evening in Paris’s Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the gates were about to close, Pittas saw the otherwise commonplace spectacle of a couple sitting on a bench. Basking in a ray of dying light peeking through the trees at dusk, the pair appeared to be floating in space. Without a second thought, Pittas pressed the shutter button.

“I felt as if it was the first time I was really seeing a couple sitting on a bench,” he says staring across the table at the photograph, now hanging on the wall of the French Institute in Athens (IFA). “It was like two units becoming one,” he says.

More than 30 years since that day, Pittas, now 59, comfortably recalls the story behind nearly every photograph in his current exhibition, “Athenians & Parisians.” The event comes in the wake of his breakout show at the Benaki Museum late last year, a warmly received collection of previously stowed-away black-and-whites shot in the still-divided Europe of the 1980s. The spin-off exhibition at IFA showcases a selection of images captured in the Greek and French capitals around the middle of the same decade.

Athens and Paris naturally lay on the same side of the Iron Curtain, the infamous divide between the free world and totalitarianism aptly captured in his “Images of Another Europe: 1985-1989.” But for Pittas, who now lives in a coastal suburb northeast of Greece’s sprawling, unruly capital, the connection between these two Western metropoles also has a personal dimension.

Pittas moved to Paris in the early 1980s to pursue postgraduate studies in civil engineering at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech. It was his first time away from home and although he soon realized that civil engineering was not his thing, his time there did not go to waste.

“I made my first meaningful observations about life and about people during the two-and-a-half years I spent there,” he says.

Dwindling resources made him return to Athens to look for work, but distraction was around the corner again.

“I soon found myself wandering around the city streets taking photos,” he says.

Then a skinny, curly-haired youth in his early 20s, Pittas would pound the city’s sidewalks 12-13 hours a day, taking breaks on the Athens-Piraeus urban electric railway (ISAP). A self-taught photographer, Pittas’s understanding of the medium came from his voracious appetite for cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders, Kurosawa and generous helpings of film noir. He relied on a German-made pocket-size Minox 35GT, reputedly the smallest full-frame 35mm camera ever built, and always shot from waist level for that stealth effect.

By 1984, he was done with the Athens photos. A year later, he jumped into a blue Pony-Citroen and started zigzagging across Europe to cities on both sides of the divide with a romantic (if ironically prophetic) ambition to bring the people of the continent together in a single photo book.

“I was familiar with Paris, so I decided to make it my first stop. In a way Athens and Paris are my life’s two biggest milestones,” he says.

The project went on until 1989, when Berliners took their sledgehammers to the Schandmauer – the wall of shame. Events, Pittas thought at the time, had killed it. Thousands of negatives were boxed away in a basement. They sat there for a quarter of a century, until he recently decided to share a selection with the world.

“It makes me happy that some of the things I saw in the two cities back then are now being showcased side by side,” Pittas says.

The work is street photography at its finest: spontaneous, beautiful and telling a story. It is rarely upbeat; the faces are mostly pensive or grim.

“You always see what is close to your state of being. It’s all a projection. You cannot escape your nature,” he says. “That’s why I do not really believe in photojournalism.”

Coming in the wake of a traumatic seven-year military dictatorship, the 1980s were a transformative, if in some ways contradictory period for Greece. Politics was dominated by populism, polarization, clientelism and corruption – all widely seen as the source of many of the country’s woes today. In the economy, living standards and consumption grew while actual productivity nosedived.

Meanwhile, turning a deaf ear to the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of socialist governments, an emerging middle class went on to embrace popular culture, consumerism and an individualistic lifestyle, pretty much in line with the rest of the increasingly globalized Western world.

Now, after seven years of austerity measures, which brought an abrupt end to a controversial period of economic well-being, the photos of Athens have gained an additional layer of interest.

“The identity of the faces has not changed. You can tell that family structure is still dominant here, that it pretty much shapes people. Middle-class families tend to keep their members in check,” Pittas says.

“You don’t see the hordes of lonely people like you do in other big European cities. Ties are stronger here,” he adds.

Change is more evident in the urban environment.

“Neighborhoods used to have a stronger identity back then. Working-class neighborhoods had more character. The uniformity we see today was not there,” he says.

Pittas is no longer keen to raise his camera in the city he first explored and experimented with.

“I find it impossible to shoot this complete lack of hope that I see in Athenians’ faces today, this air of resignation. It’s as if the sky has fallen on their heads,” he says.

“The faces I see in the streets of Athens remind me of those I came across in the countries of the communist bloc. It’s all a bit scary,” remarks the photographer.

It’s clear that his bygone journeys across the former Soviet satellites continue to inform his perspective on Greece’s current predicament.

“If we compare ourselves to what other people on the continent went through, our situation is not that terrible,” he says. “The difference here is that we were spoiled. A society that’s totally dependent on the state will inevitably suffer when the state runs into trouble.”

Although his photos are free from in-your-face political commentary, the man does not shy away from voicing his political opinions in public. He does so on a less sophisticated yet more direct medium: Facebook.

“I used to be allergic to politics and political debate. If I talk politics today, it is in reaction to the awful things we’ve had to put up with in the past couple of years,” he says in reference to Greece’s leftist-led government.

This lingering malaise has naturally generated a wave of nostalgia for the pre-crisis years – a reflex that often comes with a certain level of oblivion about the era’s part in creating the mess of today.

“Athenians & Parisians” is taking place on the sidelines of the much-publicized “GR80s” show at the Technopolis cultural complex in downtown Gazi, which is a political, social and cultural anatomy of Greece in the 1980s. The event has sparked a wave of nostalgia, as large crowds flock to see, among other items, a splendid reconstruction of an archetypal 1980s flat.

Pittas admits that part of the response to his long-buried body work is a result of this backward-looking mood.

It’s not all bad.

“Nostalgia is fed by a desire to return to an idealized time, which may coincide with our youth, or what we may regard as being innocent when it was probably anything but,” he says.

“But it could also spark a soul-searching process that helps us understand how we ended up where we are today,” he says.

None of that takes away from the value of the work, or from the existential fulfillment that this born-again photographer experiences today when seeing his work receive long-overdue recognition.

“I find it amazing that something I once did in the spirit of youthful frivolity seems to make sense to people today, to tell them something about their lives,” he says.

“Athenians & Parisians” (French Institute in Athens, 31 Sina, tel 210.339.8600, http://www.ifa.gr) runs through March 31. “GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis” (100 Pireos, Gazi) runs to March 12.

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Long-buried photographs document divided Europe ahead of watershed moment

East Berlin, DDR, 1987

By Harry van Versendaal

There is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Constantinos Pittas embedded in one of his photographs currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex in Athens. The 29-year-old’s skinny silhouette and dark curly hair are reflected in the left-hand corner of a shop window as he presses the shutter release on his pocket-size camera. It’s Prague, 1986.

There is a road-not-taken existential quality to the selfie (before it was a word). Pittas would soon put down his camera and box up this and thousands of other negatives shot during that time.

For a good 25 years.

“It’s strange, I feel sad and happy at the same time about this. Sad because you realize that ‘this was my talent’ which I had to give up so I could do other things for a living. If I had kept going I would probably have amassed a serious body of work by now,” says Pittas, now 59, before guiding a group tour through the exhibition “Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989.”

Between 1985 and 1989, he drove a now-iconic blue Pony (which he also slept in) across 17 countries, capturing street scenes on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. He would spend the autumns in Athens doing odd jobs to save money and set off again in spring. Over those five years, Pittas, a self-taught photographer, went through about 650 black-and-white film rolls, producing some 25,000 negatives.

“I always thought that this was a very personal project and that no one would take any interest in it. I was neither doing photojournalism, like recording the end of the Cold War, nor was I doing art photography,” he says.

“It was something personal, a momentary madness that I just needed to pursue and I saw no point in touting it afterward or trying to build a career on it,” he says.

As the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs and history on the Continent accelerated, Pittas settled down, got married and had children. He had a go at several jobs, including teaching as a mathematician and founding a small advertising business, to make a living.

One day in 2014, he came across his old camera. It prompted him to look for the negatives from his Europe project before posting some scanned images on his Facebook wall.

And so it began.

“In the next couple of years I uploaded more than 600 photos. I realized there was a whole bunch of people out there who were keenly interested in this,” he says.

Besides outside interest, a more profound motive was at work.

“There was something that made me feel a bit bad about myself. It was as if I had locked up all those people I had photographed in the basement for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to myself. It was a mistake,” he says.

The project was put back in motion.

Pittas carefully picked out nearly 100 of the images and released a photo book using a self-publishing platform. One of the 1,000 copies ended up in the hands of Costis Antoniadis, a professor of photography at the Department of Photography and Audiovisual Arts at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens. Antoniadis was a catalyst in introducing the work to a broader audience. He first helped Pittas organize an exhibition on the island of Kythera, and then curated the current show, a selection of 155 images.

The Benaki collection is street photography at its best – natural, opportunistic and artfully composed. Clean and pure, as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the images document a bygone era. Although Pittas did not intend to make a political statement with his work, the impact of the Eastern Bloc’s jailhouse habits is evident in the pictures, particularly the oppression and poverty of Ceausescu-era Romania.

It was not quite what he had anticipated. Like many Greek university graduates in the years following the country’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, Pittas, who has a degree in civil engineering, had the delusion that things in the Eastern Bloc were much better there than they actually were.

“It was an absolute shock. You could see the imprint of totalitarianism on people’s faces. You could see the differences between East and West Germans, one people divided by two political systems for over 40 years,” he says.

Pittas experienced strong-handed tactics firsthand. Twice he was detained by police and had his films confiscated. However, his small-sized camera – a German-made Minox 35 GT, one of the smallest full-frame 35mm cameras ever produced – made him invisible most of the time, allowing him to capture a few risky shots, including a black leather jacket-wearing senior Politburo member that can be viewed at the exhibition.

Despite the disturbing asymmetry between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe, in the eyes of the young photographer there were resemblances that pointed to a European family of sorts.

“I always thought there was something underneath. That the Portuguese university professor and the Polish farmer have something in common. It was something that I did not see when I traveled outside Europe. Maybe this feeling was fed by my idealism and my fascination with Mitteleuropa,” Pittas says.

In the late 1980s Europe was approaching its watershed moment, but, Pittas admits, this was certainly not something you could feel in the air.

“Anyone can be a prophet in hindsight. With the exception of Poland and the Solidarity movement, the rest of Europe at the time was in a state of total inertia. If someone were to say in 1986 that the world would turn upside-down in three years’ time, they would be regarded either as a madman or a great visionary. There was no way you could sense the change that was to come,” he says.

As the communist system started to implode, Pittas felt it was time to wrap up his project.

“I had this naive dream of bringing Europe together in one book. However, Europe was now reuniting on its own, it did not have to wait for me. My plan was dead,” he says.

“I was also very tired,” he says.

Listening to Pittas explaining his work to a small group of visitors at the exhibition, you see a man with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I was never interested in making a name for myself. I never felt I had something to prove. But it is still a joy – and this certainly does not classify as vanity – even at this age, to feel that there was a meaning to it all. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction,” he says.

Pittas has resumed his old hobby. He again relies on a humble (though now digital) pocket camera and always shoots from waist level. “You don’t change your style,” he says.

Going down into that basement, Pittas seems to have found much more than he was searching for, including a part of himself.


“Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989” runs at the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, http://www.benaki.gr) through November 20.

Can shock value spur change?

By Harry van Versendaal

The decision by most mainstream Western news organizations last week to run a – now iconic – photo of a drowned Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach generated a substantial amount of commentary and polarized views.

It is not the first time that broadcasters and print media have faced such a dilemma. Responsible editors – not the titillating tabloid type – regularly scratch their heads in seeking a path between maximizing truth-telling and minimizing harm. Harm, for that matter, can go two ways: offending the public that views these images as well as violating the dignity of those who are depicted in them.

Shoot

Professional photographers are, inevitably, the first to make the call.

Giorgos Moutafis, a freelance photographer who has over the years documented the struggle of Europe-bound migrants and refugees for several foreign publications, has no qualms.

“I would have definitely taken that picture. Perhaps I would not have shot it the way it was, but I would take it. All my images are made to be published, or I would not be doing this job,” he told Kathimerini English Edition.

That does not mean that anything goes, Moutafis says. Just like a story, a photograph too can be made in different ways. “You need to protect these people. Put your own moral values before the lens. It’s not always straightforward,” he said.

“The important thing is to document what happened, not to personify the incident. You have to make sure you stay focused on the facts. For me it is not just about one dead Syrian boy, it’s about the hundreds of people who perish on the way to Europe,” he said.

Viral

The image went viral on social media last Wednesday after at least 12 presumed Syrian refugees died trying to reach Greece’s eastern Aegean island of Kos – a popular gateway to Europe for thousands of people seeking to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The boy’s body was washed ashore along with several other victims.

At first glance, the picture, taken on a beach not far from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, is deceptively benign. It shows a dark-haired toddler wearing a bright-red T-shirt and shorts and lying prone in a sleeping position, soaked, with his head resting on the sand as the waves lap at his hair.

The photo sparked a barrage of photoshopped memes and tribute videos on Facebook and other social media.

A second, less jarring image that many news organizations chose to run instead portrayed a grim-faced police officer carrying the tiny body away from the scene.

The boy was subsequently identified as 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the war-ravaged town of Kobani in northern Syria, where Kurdish regional forces have fought against ISIS militia. His 5-year-old brother and their mother also drowned.

Share

Aris Chatzistefanou, an Athens-based journalist and left-wing activist, has often shared online graphic images of asylum seekers who died trying to enter Europe. He uploaded Aylan’s photo as well as a number of other, more graphic images from recent migrant tragedies. He defends publication on political terms.

“If journalists showed the world what really happens on the battlefield, then the idea of war would be unacceptable to all men,” Chatzistefanou said.

Warnings of compassion fatigue and claims that insensitive visibility risks sacrificing the dignity of the dead, he says, smack of irony and hypocrisy.

“These people were shown little respect while they were alive,” he said, slamming Western compassion over the dead bodies along the European border as hypocritical.

“We show compassion for political reasons: to evade criticism of the notion of Fortress Europe,” he said regarding the 28-member bloc’s migration and asylum policy.

Thousands of refugees drown each year in their desperate bid to reach Europe. The EU spends billions of euros guarding its borders as its member states squabble over which shoulders this undue and unwanted burden should fall on – a burden that is, at least in part, of their own making: It was Britain, France and the United States which backed the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and then left them to their own devices.

Confront

Lilie Chouliaraki, a media and communications professor  at the London School of Economics, is critical of what she calls “the distribution of witnessing ‘roles’ in the global distribution of images.”

More often than not, she argues, those who witness images of suffering are viewers in the West, while those who suffer belong to non-Western zones of war, disaster and poverty.

“Part of this global distribution is a particular regulation of the flow of images of death so that extreme images of distant others are kept away from Western public spheres on the grounds that the West needs to be protected from the potential trauma of seeing others suffer,” she said attacking the taboo of public visibility as “hypocritical.”

“It privileges the protection of those who safely watch over those who truly suffer; and it obscures the indirect responsibility of the ‘innocent’ West in the wars or disasters it is to be protected from,” said Chouliaraki, an expert on the mediation of disaster news and author of several books, including most recently “The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.”

“My view is that avoiding confronting the shock of a child’s death on screen or other similar spectacles runs the risk of turning Western publics into self-concerned, inward-looking and ultimately narcissistic publics who may show compassion for others like ‘us’ but don’t really think about or feel for the tragic fates of those far away,” she said.

The law

Publishing some of these photographs could be challenged on legal grounds, legal expert Niki Kollia notes, even though it would involve separate actions being taken in each country the image has appeared.

In Greece, the law foresees imprisonment of up to six months for anyone charged with disrespecting the memory of the deceased.

But Kollia believes that this is wrong when the photograph is taken in the context of reporting the news.

“Banning these images for ethical, political or religious reasons would deal a hefty blow to journalism,” said Kollia.

Empathize

But critics warn against giving in to what has been called “the pornography of pain” and the superficial, self-satisfied feelings of sadness and morality when sharing a grisly picture on social media.

Alexia Skoutari, an Athens-based activist who works with refugees, is skeptical of the use of visceral imagery even if that is employed in a bid to awaken people to humanitarian disasters. Resorting to emotionalism instead of thoughtful discussion is an unwelcome sign.

“It shocks me that it would take pictures of a dead toddler to mobilize empathy. Why would you need to see something so brutal to feel compassion and understanding about another man’s plight?” she said.

Impact

Do the people who saw Aylan’s pictures have a better understanding of the situation than they did before? Can the image of a lifeless boy on a beach change the refugee debate?

During his annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy, including the opening of legal channels to coordinate arrivals in Europe and permanent systems for distributing the influx of refugees across the continent.

For Chouliaraki, dramatic footage has the power to raise awareness and donations, as well as put pressure on urgent and more efficient measures to tackle the refugee crisis. But it can do little insofar as it concerns tackling the broader causes of the crisis.

“This is a matter of geopolitical and economic interests and it would be naive to believe that images have the power to decisively affect global politics,” she said.

The truth is that rarely has media coverage of humanitarian disasters managed to prompt Europeans to action.

In October 2014, a boat went down off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 migrants and asylum seekers on board.

“Back then, again, European leaders were shocked,” said Eva Cosse, an Athens-based expert with Human Rights Watch.

“But did they replace the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives and providing refuge to those in need? No, they didn’t.”

Communist structures risk fate of Ozymandias

By Harry van Versendaal

“Searching for information on something that happened in Bulgaria 30 years ago is much like being an archaeologist collecting evidence on an event that occurred many centuries ago.”

Sofia-born artist Nikola Mihov has been documenting the fate of communist-era public monuments scattered around his homeland for the last few years, amassing a growing body of images and text.

Political controversy surrounding Bulgaria’s communist years, as well as pure negligence, have ensured this is not a straightforward task.

“Many of the archives were destroyed on purpose because they were related to communism. Others were lost because the people behind them were simply not around anymore,” Mihov says.

A select few of these images can presently be seen at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, part of an exhibition labeled “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast.”

Mihov, who currently splits his time between Sofia and Paris, was 7 years old when communism, under strongman Todor Zhivkov, came to an end. He experienced the early transitional years as a schoolboy before his mother’s job as a diplomat took the family to France. After spending five years in Western Europe, Mihov found he had to move back in 2006. His French was not good enough to gain him a place in the French university system, something which would also have bagged him a visa. “After I came back, I had this feeling of a huge gap. So I began researching,” he says.

Filling the gap

Influenced by the communist-style imagery of his childhood years, Mihov went on to capture black-and-white, mainly frontal views of these monuments. The pictures of the abandoned, derelict and vandalized anti-utopia structures resonate with the ostentatious statements of socialist realism; the grandeur of the concrete masses and statues is still there, but Mihov manages to show how they have sunken into reality.

Interest in them first came from outside Bulgaria. In the fall of 2009, a French magazine did a story on the photos and, a few months later, Mihov was selected for London’s Photomonth festival. “Bulgarians are like that. Once your name is heard abroad, then there is suddenly interest at home,” he says.

Another exhibition followed in Sofia. Mihov began to meet more and more people who were related to these monuments in one way or another. “I spent five years studying archives, meeting with architects, sculptors and construction workers who were still alive. One person would lead me to the next,” he says.

Inevitably, he also visited the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Located on Buzludzha, a peak in the Central Balkan Mountains, it is Bulgaria’s biggest monument and looks like a concrete Starship Enterprise. The memorial, which took seven years to build, opened in 1981. No longer maintained, it has fallen prey to vandals and time. A huge piece of graffiti painted above the main entrance reads “Forget your past.” “It was the perfect name for the project,” Mihov says.

“I do not believe that we should forget the past, and that is why I did this project,” he says. “However, I feel awkward when journalists ask me if I feel nostalgia. You cannot feel nostalgic about something you did not really experience. The new generation is not nostalgic. The problem is that there is not enough information.”

Recorded memories

The exhibition “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast” features works by 22 artists from 11 countries. The works, which include photographs and video footage, explore different aspects of collective memory in the region, such as landmarks, places and cultures of memory as well as the role of the image in each process.

The show, a collaboration between the Goethe Institute and the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, has been curated by Constanze Wicke. It will remain in Thessaloniki through May 18.

Bulgaria’s communist regime came to an end in 1989. Elections held in the summer of the following year were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party – basically the rebranded communists. Bulgaria, a close ally of Moscow in communist times, is now a member of NATO and the European Union. A recent Eurostat survey found Bulgaria is by far the most unhappy country in the bloc.

“There is all this opposition between the people who love the country’s [communist] past and those who hate it. But there are also those who just don’t know enough about it. I am part of that group, and I am trying to delve deeper and deeper,” Mihov says.

“It is not safe to generalize about the whole period – a long 45 years – and, similarly, it is not safe to generalize about the monuments. Some are ugly, some are impressive, some are unbelievable. But they are all here, and they are part of our history.”

Museum of Photography, 1st Floor, Warehouse A, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port; Army Warehouses, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port. Opening hours are Tuesdays-Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, log on to http://www.thmphoto.gr.

Photographers create ‘unofficial history’ of Greek crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

“Depression Era,” a show of 250 photographs that opens Wednesday at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum, documents the far-reaching impact of Greece’s brutal economic crisis on the country’s urban and social fabric.

The works presented in the exhibition, which also features a few video installations and a big collage comprising cutouts from print media related to the crisis, are by the Depression Era Project, a collective of more than 35 local photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. The photos were shot over the past four years.

The show, which runs through January 11, includes works by Panos Kokkinias, Spyros Staveris, Pavlos Fysakis, Dimitris Michalakis, Eirini Vourloumis and Yiannis Theodoropoulos, and has been curated by Petros Babasikas, Pavlos Fysakis, Yorgos Prinos, Dimitris Tsoumplekas and Pasqua Vorgia.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, organizers said that the project aims to document the social, historical and economic transformation currently under way in the debt-wracked nation as a way of creating an “unofficial history” of recent developments. Among the objectives set out by the collective is to question the mainstream belief in progress and human improvement.

While personal styles may differ, a sense of gloom, defeat and discontinuity runs through most of the 250 images on the walls of the Benaki. A nondescript dystopian cityscape, a half-finished home, a central Athens street scarred by a rowdy protest rally, a suburban villa behind a closed metal gate, contrasted against occasional flashbacks to the 2004 Olympic euphoria and the days of irrational exuberance.

“The project was inspired by the need to forge a new narrative amid all the noise created by the Greek crisis,” Fysakis, who masterminded the project, told journalists.

Parts of the project have already been showcased at the Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, at the Mois de la Photo in Paris, the PhotoBiennale of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, and the Ebros theater squat in Athens.

The Depression Era collective and the KOLEKTIV8 nonprofit group which supports it were founded in 2011. The current project is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, tel 210 345 3111. Wednesday’s opening starts at 8 p.m. Regular visiting hours are Thursdays & Sundays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

For more information, visit depressionera.gr.

Staring at the big picture

Image

By Harry van Versendaal

Photo-sharing app Instagram last week announced it had reached the 100 million-user milestone. Jennifer Trausch is one of them. But the Berlin-based artist much prefers to make her instant photographs using a refrigerator-sized vintage Polaroid camera.

Trausch, 36, can normally be found operating one of the five such machines, built in the late 1970s by the former US tech giant, at her studio in Berlin, where she moved this January after spending a year in Paris.

Before moving to Europe, the Ohio-born artist lectured and made photographs at the 20×24 Polaroid studio in Manhattan, where she was director of photography for about eight years. In a daring project that spanned from 2006 to 2011, Trausch, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, took the vintage camera out of the comfort zone of the protected studio environment and onto the rural roads of the American South to shoot poster-size, black-and-white pictures of fairs, auctions, bars and rodeos – a project that gave birth to her well-received “Touching Ground” exhibition.

From Germany, Trausch is currently trying to spread the love for instant photography, putting much of her time and energy into Impossible Works, a Berlin-based nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, a company that manufactures new instant film for Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films.

Trausch was recently invited to Greece to participate in the jury of the 4th Cedefop Photomuseum Award – a 5,000-euro prize granted to photographers from all over the world by the EU’s European Center for the Development of Vocational Training and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography in the context of its PhotoBiennale.

During her stay in the northern port city, Trausch delivered two two-hour workshops at the museum on the basics of working with Impossible Project instant films with a variety of cameras and film types.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Trausch discussed her love for large-format photography and the particularities of her work in the digital era.

What drew you to large-format photography? What do you think is special about the 20×24?

I started out in photojournalism / documentary photography, so I really began my career shooting with small- and medium-format cameras. In 2001, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to use the 20×24 Polaroid camera, and I have been working almost exclusively on large format ever since. I like how laborious shooting with big cameras is, how much attention you end up giving to each image.

Large cameras, especially the 20×24, also demand much more out of their subjects. The 20×24’s grandiosity makes people look into it in a different way, perhaps because it commands a certain kind of respect as a human-scale object. With the 20×24, there’s always a limited depth of field, and the way the world falls off behind the focal plane can be quite surreal, soft and graceful.

The 20×24 instant prints also have a material, painterly quality that is all their own; it is the sharp detail of a 20×24 negative in a contact-print, mixed with the softness of a print made by the diffusion transfer process.

How are you able to carry around and work with such a big and heavy machine that was meant for indoor use? Is it a hindrance?

The 20×24 Polaroid cameras – there are five original units built in the late 1970s – each weigh 105 kilos, so I had no choice but to find a way of working that was relatively easy. For my “Touching Ground” project, I chose B&W film since the film is fast enough that I could work in most conditions without extra lighting or equipment. I tried to simplify the shooting process so that it was just the camera, film, black cloths to keep the light out, and my assistant Kimberlee Venable and I.

I tend to not like when too much credence is given to the technical side of photography, as in what equipment or techniques were used for a certain effect, but I have to admit that in this case the camera had a huge influence over what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes it held us back as the camera couldn’t always go where we wanted it to go (on a rooftop or on an oil rig) and other times it was exhausting to push it up muddy hills or to lift it over train tracks. Taking the camera out and setting up always took a lot of effort, which added a certain pressure on each shoot to get things right.

This also meant that when I didn’t “get the shot” I hoped for, it felt much more devastating because of the extreme physical effort it took to set it up in the first place. Perhaps if I had had more hands to help we wouldn’t have felt this pressure and disappointment so much, but I really preferred to work without a giant crew so that the process with my subjects could be intimate.

What are your favorite themes? What kind of things do you like to photograph?

I am interested in the idea of place, the culture and traditions surrounding a particular place at a particular time, and whether I can take you there to feel it.

For me this is always a mix of portraits, landscapes and activities that are indicative of that place. Sometimes it is specific to one environment, such as my “Skateland” series, or in the case of “Touching Ground,” it’s about a much broader portrait of regional American culture.

I also am interested in the idea of sensations in photography – whether images can elicit the physical sensations of being there for the viewer standing in front of the final print. It is always my goal to make images where you could almost feel the heavy humidity on your skin, hear the leaves rustling, or taste a swamp’s scent wafting through the air.

Could you tell us a few things about the Impossible Works project?

Impossible Works is a nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, the main manufacturer of instant films today. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films. We accept proposals from anyone looking to use and challenge the instant medium.

How does it feel taking photographs with a huge, slow and hard-to-move analog camera in an age when people upload thousands of pictures a second on social media that it takes them all of a second to frame, and their friends all of another second to “like”?

The process of working at 20×24 definitely creates a different kind of image, in the attention that you and your subjects inherently end up giving during a shoot.

The final prints can be shared as you work, in all of their incredible scale and detail, which transforms the building of an image. While this can partly be equated to sharing digital files online or during a shoot, it’s pretty easy to lose the fine, subtle details of an image looking at it on a glowing screen or on the back of a digital camera.

I do share some of my images online in similar ways to many digital photographers, but only as a teaser, not as an end to themselves – I don’t think you can really experience the work until you’re in the room with the original full-size prints.

Do you own any smaller cameras, and, if so, do you like using them?

Yes, quite a few. I use them mostly when I am traveling, which these days is quite often. When I am traveling, I test a lot of Impossible Projects small-format materials on Polaroid SX-70, 680, and 110B cameras, mostly for sketching out ideas.

But in general I’ve gotten quite accustomed to working on a larger ground glass and seeing my images upside down. I think this is the way my brain is wired these days.

Photographer offers glimpse into Lebanon’s paradise lost

By Harry van Versendaal

Two black IKEA-style chairs sitting empty on a balcony overlooking a bombarded apartment building, a black Mercedes, partly covered by a tablecloth in an empty lot next to a derelict building, a tangle of trees sprouting through the floorboards of a bullet-riddled church.

Demetris Koilalous does not pretend to be a documentary photographer. “My style of photography is intrinsically connected to the way I see the world. A beautiful landscape, for example, does not interest me — I don’t even lift my camera,” he says, sitting on the sofa of his colorful apartment in the northern Athens suburb of Halandri.

This jagged juxtaposition of the mundane with the war-torn is what the 50-year-old photographer seeks to bring out in his photo exhibition of present-day Lebanon currently on display at the Museum of Photography, located in a former warehouse designed by Eli Modiano in the northern port city of Thessaloniki and the only Greek institution exclusively dedicated to the medium.

Koilalous spent 18 hectic days last year in the Land of the Cedars on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He was on a photographic assignment commissioned by the museum which sent five professionals to the Middle East as part of a Greek Culture Ministry program. Featuring some 200 images shot in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, “Oriented and Disoriented in the Middle East,” will run through May 13.

Intrigued by the delicate balance found in Mideast societies, Koilalous went to Lebanon intentionally seeking out places that would illustrate a country on the brink — “a rather European preconception,” he admits. Carrying a Canon DSLR camera, he looked for places where battles took place, where massacres occurred, where people were driven out of their homes, places that formed the border between different minorities.

“At some point during the second day, I was in the center of Lebanon and I happened upon this church that was totally pockmarked by bullets; you know Beirut, it’s all cement, ruins, torn-down houses, rebuilt houses, there are really modern buildings and not much green at all. And so suddenly I see this incredible anarchic greenery. It was an old church, it didn’t have a roof, and when you walked inside it was like walking through a forest. And that’s when I remembered another photographer’s project called ’Paradise Lost.’ And it just kept going through my mind that there is a lost paradise over there. This country that’s living its very own anti-paradise,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind the somewhat awkward project title.

Conflict-prone Lebanon is split along sectarian lines that dictate not only politics but also living arrangements and standards of living. The 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 cost an estimated 150,000 lives while many more were wounded or displaced. Originally fought between Christian militias and leftists allied with the Palestinians, the conflict triggered a wide array of clashes as Syria, Israel and others stepped into the fray. Social peace remains fragile and contemporary events are so disputed that school history books stop at independence from France in 1943.

Understandably, time pressure was not the only problem Koilalous had to deal with. Security guards were constantly monitoring his movements and the photographs he was taking. He was armed with documents from the Greek Embassy in Lebanon, the Museum of Photography, and Greece’s Culture Ministry. He also had written permission from Lebanon’s Information Ministry, police force and military to take pictures in public spaces. But often he would find out these were not enough.

“There’s this hotel called the Monroe with a great view of the sea where I wanted to take a shot. So I showed them all my papers. The guy responds that the paper says I am allowed to take pictures inside Beirut but nothing about overhead shots,” he says, explaining that it was not army officials but private security guards that would give him the most trouble.

“If I were his cousin he would have let me in — just like in Greece. But because I took the legal route he wouldn’t let me. Some people find an excuse to exercise the little power they have left. A security guard trying to impose his own interpretation of a ministry document in order to legitimize his position.”

Born in Athens in 1962, Koilalous initially studied urban planning in Edinburgh and geography at the London School of Economics before gravitating to photography. It was only after he started to teach the craft about 10 years ago, he says, that he began to take good photographs. First noticed thanks to the dreamlike quality of the black-and-white panoramic landscapes of “Deja vu,” showcased in the 2008 PhotoBiennale, Koilalous has steadily evolved with more sharply focused work. His open-ended “Growth” project, a rather lyrical commentary on the changing landscape along Greece’s national highways, has shown him to be a good master of color and symbolism.

Koilalous keeps no secret of his wide range of influences — from the activist photojournalism of Sebastiao Salgado and the iconic images of Magnum master Josef Koudelka, to outsider photographer Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin, to Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth of the Dusseldorf school. “It’s a lot of contrary things. But I gradually came to appreciate the simplicity of photographers like [Andre] Kertesz.”

However, as his experience working as a teacher has shown him, no amount of quality influences and hard work can match a generous dose of talent. “The outcome is a matter of hard work, but instinct is a question of talent. There are people out there who can see through walls. It’s incredible. Some things can be cultivated, particularly some stereotypes — but instinct cannot.”

Skeptics often complain that contemporary art, particularly its conceptual genre, has lowered the bar to the point where actual talent is made redundant. If you want to succeed, the argument goes, make sure you have good market connections. The argument seems to strike a rather emotional chord with Koilalous, who is ready to defend his more conceptual counterparts.

“I am not denying the fact that the market defines things to a certain extent, but it’s bulls**t to say that art is determined by curators. The price of an artwork is one thing, its value however is quite another. It’s good that a photograph can sell for a lot of money. The more people want a photograph, the more its price will rise. Something that nobody wants to buy will never sell,” he says before going on to deconstruct a couple of Gursky photos from a Dusseldorf school photo book.

The German artist’s “Rhine II,” a picture of the gray river under gray skies, last year fetched a record 4.3 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. The image, described by Gursky as “an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are,” was digitally manipulated to leave out elements that bothered him. Many found the photo “overrated.” Writing for the Guardian, Maev Kennedy called it a ”sludgy image of desolate, featureless landscape.”

“It’s immature to say that Gursky, whose works hang in MoMa, Berlin and the Tate Modern, is a creation of marketing. Only someone with an inferiority complex would claim that.”

It’s not easy being a pioneer. If you want to use photography to talk about new things, Koilalous suggests, you have to overcome the huge obstacle that is reality. As a photographer who is an artist, you have to make use of what is commonly perceived as reality and illustrate it in a subjective way, but still communicate it to the audience, he says. “This is an important part in photography that you need to get used to.”

One of the “anti-paradise” pictures depicts a pair of empty armchairs flanking a little round table with decorative objects — including a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle. His intent, Koilalous explains, was not a comment on religiosity or kitsch, but rather an allegory on the absence of dialogue in the divided country. “This is what I am trying to say. I am not sure if this will resonate with the audience at all. But I want my images to make people think twice.”


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