Aris Georgiou
The Thessaloniki Photographs

May 2008

National Bank Of Greece Cultural Foundation
Thessaloniki Museum Of Photography
Custody: Stergios Karavatos

What was I looking for then? Thessaloniki or photography? Was I concerned with the content or with how it was portrayed? I wonder if I was consciously recording and commenting on Thessaloniki or did I just perceive it as scenery that offered up to me open-handed some of its moments?

I would have answered those questions differently had I faced them then, thirty years ago. I would have invented a “discourse” connected to aesthetics, a reason connected to pathways of photography. Now though, inevitably, I see myself from a distance. Now, I look at photography beyond its “photographicity” and I understand that what was then a pretext for a “good” photograph, now reveals the subconscious concern about the content. What was then photography in Thessaloniki, now is Thessaloniki in photography. And the moments that I summon up when I look at pictures which I once took, assume a much deeper significance that unfortunately I can only share allusively with any third party looking at them... the weakness of photography, and its power at the same time.

Aris Georgiou, 7 March 2008

Aris Georgiou
The Thessaloniki Photographs

On being asked to organize the Aris Georgiou exhibition The Thessaloniki Photographs, I felt not only honoured and priviliged but also somewhat helpless and insecure about coping with the sheer size and the multiform nature of his photographic archive. I realized that I would be faced with not only the boundless personality of a figure who, since the end of the 1960’s, has incorporated the picture and atmosphere of the city in which he was born and works into many of his numerous creative works. The name Aris Georgiou is one of the associations you make when you hear the phrase ‘Thessaloniki and photography.’ This is totally justifiable and not at all partial, as this man’s personality is in many ways responsible for the active proliferation of the art of photography in the city. This is not only due to the foundation of the international festival Photosynkyria, nor to the Camera Obscura publications, not even to his tenure as the first director of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. From his photographic standpoint and his multi-faceted work, the city of Thessaloniki is, both deliberately and incidentally, revealed and projected via images, which discreetly typify the time and place. Moreover, in achieving my task, it was necessary to both overcome my own personal involvement and feelings, and - beyond showing the deserved respect - to objectively and honestly judge his work, which has had a strong influence on my evolution as a photographer.

The first of Georgiou’s photographs to attract my attention, not only in terms of composition and texture, but also because it identified closely with my feelings for the city, was the cropped-view of the statue of Alexander the Great with a backdrop showing the winter sky, made even more bleak-looking by the use of deeply-grained film and harsh contrast, typical of that era (p.…) This photograph was taken in 1974 when, while still studying Architecture in France, he visited the city during the holiday periods and for the summer break and wandered around it looking for visual stimuli. The first major themes to attract his interest were connected with the widespread changes in the city’s infrastructure and town planning. He photographed, as did many others at that time, the effects of new urban building projects, the ‘incompetent’ contractors and their construction work, the asphyxiating and oppressive concrete band surrounding the old neighbourhoods that he knew would soon no longer exist. He also photographed the very different atmosphere of Ano Poli (the old town), as well as the key landmarks in the city centre, which conveyed the feeling of the urban culture of that time. Gradually, he became increasingly influenced by the works of the ‘great’ names in photography: Robert Frank, Diane Arbus or Henri-Cartier Bresson. Without losing any feeling of the subject, the actual recording as a photographic act becomes far less important. Thessaloniki life and the lives of its inhabitants are portrayed through his powerful and vivid snapshots. From the mid-1970’s, the city becomes a scene in which Georgiou - the visitor-resident - discerns, discovers and records situations and circumstances. His aim is photographicity; the city is just the catalyst.

During this same period, Georgiou begins to experiment with other related forms of expression. On occasions, the use of colour film is evident. If somewhat limited in number, his first colour photographs, neglected even by Georgiou himself, provide an indication of his later move towards a clearer artistic tone in his photographs. Besides his studied balance of colour and form, those first, truly realistic colour photographs present a Thessaloniki free from the nostalgic recollections often suggested by black and white photographs.

In addition to the use of both black and white and colour film, Georgiou continually changes his photographic viewpoint. The snapshot approach, which has already provided interesting samples of classic humanistic street photography, merges with a frontal and often typological depiction. Increasingly austere and less provocative, Georgiou’s viewpoint becomes more mature, and he creates images of the city based on a deeper concern for the study of space and for suggestive commentary. One exceptional example of this is the photographic juxtaposition of the two facing Art Nouveau-style doorways in the centre of the city (p. >>).

As the 1970’s draw to a close, Aris Georgiou first begins to methodically photograph subjects of clearly-defined content and certain aesthetics. In particular, two of his photographic projects, later displayed in respective exhibitions, constitute a key stage not only in his own artistic evolution but also for the city.

The first of these two projects, entitled Papamarkou Street and its surroundings, is an entire series of portraits of craftsmen and their traditional workshops around the area of Plateia Athonos, some of which still exist today (p. ..) What is important to Aris himself at this time is that his photographs now be the result more of conscious study and planning than of the sudden or spontaneous impulse of an errant photographer. For the city itself, the crucial element is that, for the first time ever, it has acquired portraits of its ‘anonymous’ inhabitants, now viewed as actual individuals in their own right rather than as just part of a photograph’s ‘deco.’

The second series of photographs, which appear the following year, in 1980, is named ‘Colour.’ The structural elements of the city, depicted through entirely geometric and almost minimalistic colour compositions, become the tool and the raw material guiding him down a new artistic pathway. In ‘Colour,’ the aim is artistic interpretation, and Georgiou’s long-term involvement with design and painting contribute significantly to achieving this. This work is doubly-important for Thessaloniki. First of all, for that time, it constituted an innovative work by the standards of the city, and, secondly, for us today, as other more descriptive photographs from the same films, not previously displayed and in which the colours and the relationship between them dominate, offer us a new perspective of different aspects of the city.

In the years that follow, Aris Georgiou examines art photography more closely. At the same time, his activity goes beyond his personal work. Together with other restless personalities from the city, but also often alone, Georgiou begins to establish and support the first institutional framework for the dissemination of photographic art in the city, which itself will soon become deeply involved in an international network dealing with photographic matters. Much later, Georgiou himself will go on to proudly cite this as evidence of the formation of the ‘photographic scene’ in Thessaloniki.

During this period, photographs of the city appear far less frequently in his work, and are far fewer in number. However, these sporadic snapshots manage to directly encapsulate the time and the place. Moreover, the function of photography as a means of recalling the past dominates the vast majority of his work at this time. In doing this, he records, through small-scale projects, places within the city, which are on the verge of change and about to fade into oblivion. As such, he takes photographs of the interior of the listed building housing his own office. He also takes pictures of the Vassiliko Theatro (Royal Theatre) located next to the White Tower before its initial restoration as well as of the well-known restaurant Olympus-Naousa before and after its closure. From the same viewpoint, eleven years later, he revisits Papamarkou Street to depict the portraits of the same people and the same places, this time in colour, mounting and displaying them beside the original black and white portraits. All the above series and their publication constitute the basis of the connection between his photographic work and the historical memory of the city.

I would also like to mention here a previous photograph of his taken in front of the renowned cosmopolitan Mediterranean Palace Hotel immediately following its demolition (p. >>.) Looking at this historical symbol, I made an ironic association. This ephemeral scene which photography has transformed into an emblematic icon acts as a substitute for Thessaloniki’s lack of classical marble ruins and their ancient forms fitting in with the contemporary environment. However, this is an emblem which does not define any connection with the past but one which reveals the final end of an entire era.

One remarkable part of Aris Georgiou’s work is that of travel photography. Not at all by accident, Georgiou himself considers that the best photographs which he has taken in Thessaloniki are those from the period when he was living abroad or from his return in 1978 up until the early 1980’s when he experienced the more hectic, day-to-day working life of the city. Though I do not agree fully, it is easy to appreciate that his view is based on the ‘natural’ and inevitable principles of urban life. Inevitably, as the sands of time alter one’s impressions, similarly, a place will no longer offer new raw images or, at least, cannot arouse the same strong emotions for an invitation to roam. Sometimes a new motive is needed.

By then, in his third decade as an active photographer, Georgiou discovers a new means to help him view the city in a new light. During the mid-90s, he begins to experiment with small, disposable panoramic cameras. Although this choice was initially made to photograph specific subjects, the panoramic format proved perfectly adequate for a new cycle of photographs depicting public life. The realistic view provided by such a screen and by the use of colour, aided by an experienced and well-trained eye, leads to not only simple but also near-surrealistic images, which once again reveal different features and aspects of the city. The photograph of the red Datsun car parked on the old seafront (p. ..) has little in common – in photographic terms- with the picture of the statue of Alexander the Great taken two decades earlier. However, notionally, they draw together the whole course of our urban cultural development along with its obvious and inconspicuous symbols.

In recent years, Aris Georgiou has turned back to his archive and has been re-categorizing his photographs in a different way, often according to the subject matter and primarily to the meaning they convey. It is not easy to discern with any certainty whether his initial intention of gathering and exhibiting images of Thessaloniki was imposed by a similar need or whether the sentimentality of this photographer from Thessaloniki, who glances back at the city from his former viewpoint, was the dominant element. Perhaps both are the case. Leaving such psychological pursuits aside, his exhibition is taking place at a very apt moment: it comes thirty years after his first exhibition in Thessaloniki and twenty years after the organization of the first Photosykyria Fetsival by Georgiou himself. That alone is worth celebrating.

Stergios Karavatos

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