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2005-2006 Visiting Fellows

Aliki Tsirgialou
Chief curator of the Photographic Archive
Benaki Museum

“Nineteenth century photography in Greece: The case of Dimitris Constantinou”

The travelers’ interest in Greece has a long history and judging from the growing number of visitors, the desire to visit this country remained unaffected by the constant political and social changes within Greece. Due to its geographical location the country served both as a passage for voyagers to the Holy Land and a destination in itself. Although commercial motives became an increasingly important reason for travelling to Greece, the antiquarian interest remained the principle attraction.     

During their visit to Greece, many writers and artists produced textual and pictorial documentation of their voyages and since their interest was exclusively directed to antiquities, this was reflected in the work they produced. This interest grew because of an increase in demand for information concerning Greece and its ancient history. The texts largely consisted of descriptions of the character of the archaeological sites which were usually accompanied by a historical account associated with a specific antiquity. Similarly, paintings, drawings, engravings, and lithographs also depicted the ruins. Evidence of any artistic interest in other subjects, such as contemporary social scene or modern Greek architecture, is almost non-existent. Over the years, this preference for the ancient Greek world, which monopolised the visual output of travelers’ in the 19th century, helped to create a stereotyped prism through which the ideologically annotated landscape of Greece was identified with that of Classical times.

This visual stereotype was also adopted by photographers, who, confined by the limitations of the medium, established their own choices of subject matter in photographing the ancient monuments, seeking for the Greek ideal in their turn. As a result, the photographic work produced in Greece during the 19th century has often been characterised by a certain sameness. The study of the photographic material held in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Firestone Library demonstrates this uniformity in subject matter.

A Friends of the Princeton University Library Research Grant allowed me to examine the whole 19th century photographic collection of Greece. I had the opportunity to look at the work of foreign photographers visiting the country in the 19th century such as the depictions taken by the French Felix Bonfils, the Austrians Alois Beer and Ch. Scolik, the American diplomat William James Stillman and the Turk Pascal Sebah, as well as the images captured by local photographers such as Philippos Margaritis, Dimitris Constantinou, Konstantinos Athanasiou, Petros Moraites, Konstantinos Dimitriou and the Rhomaides Brothers.

The rich archival material mentioned above confirms the thesis that early photographers visiting or living in Greece adopted the already established iconographic tradition. Yet, beyond this thematic unity an underlying diversity in approach is revealed; a closer analysis of these photographs supports the argument that the same subject of Greek antiquities was seen, examined and documented by each photographer from a different perspective. In this sense, the photographic work produced by Dimitris Constantinou, the second in line professional Greek photographer of the 19th century stands out. The main purpose of my study in the Firestone Library was to form a more thorough analysis of the work of this “mysterious” photographer as to his thematic choices and aesthetic approach with the aim to place him in a high position among the finest professional photographers working in Greece during 19th century.

Constantinou set up his first studio in 1858 in a central road of Athens (Aiolou Street 925), only to move it some years later, between 1865 and 1875, a few blocks closer to the New York Hotel. Although he issued an announcement inviting those “who wished to be photographed” to his studio, he does not seem to have devoted much time to portrait photographs. The wealth of material kept in private collections and museums suggests that his interest was aroused mainly by the ancient monuments and the Greek countryside. It is said that he worked with the Greek Archaeological Society, on behalf of which he photographed the antiquities of Athens and the objects in the Society’s collection. As part of this collaboration, he visited some of the important archaeological sites of Greece and recorded the excavation works undergone. However, it is necessary to carry out further research on this aspect of Constantinou’s work.

His austere and scholarly approach to these sites is produced by the photographer’s interest in the archaeological as opposed to the picturesque details of the antiquities. He treats the ancient monuments as geometric forms isolated from the surrounding area, presenting them as timeless symbols and gives prominence to their volumes through the studied use of chiaroscuro. His photographs of the Greek urban landscape are equally austere. In contrast with other photographers, he does not restrain himself only to the depiction of the capital but illustrates also cities such as Piraeus, Corfu and Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. In Constantinous’ photographs of Athens, captured from original view points, the city appears deserted, as if uninhabited. One could characterize Constantinous’ landscape images as beautiful, but at the same time conventional, satisfying the taste of the eager market of the 19th century.

The technical development of photography, particularly the new ability to produce a large number of prints, was exploited by Constantinou. Despite the amount of photographic prints that exist today in institutions and private collections, his life and oeuvre have not yet been fully explored. There exists very little information connected to him or written about him. Alas, most information derives mainly from the close examination of his images.

For example, studying his images held in the Firestone Library, I was able to establish Constantinou’s relation to Konstantinos Athanasiou, his assistant for several years. It is believed that Athanasiou took over Constantinou’s photographic practice and thus printed photographs based on the latter’s negatives using his own numbering system. However, examples indicating the aforementioned statement had not come to my attention before the study conducted in Princeton, where the comparison of two prints depicting the temple of Hephaistos in Theseion, one found in the Dimitris Constantinou’s collection (C0887) and another in the Konstantinos Athanasiou collection (C0946), confirmed that Athanasiou marketed photographs originally taken by Constantinou.

Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to express my warmest gratitude to Kalliopi Balatsouka, assistant curator for Modern Greek Collections at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the Firestone Library for her invaluable help. I would also like to thank Linda Oliveira and the reading room staff for their exceptional patience, support and expertise. In general, my research in the Firestone Library was highly productive and has thoroughly enriched my understanding of 19th century photography in Greece. I am especially grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library, the Committee on Hellenic Studies and Mr. Stanley J. Seeger for supporting my research project. 

libraryf@princeton.edu


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