Fred Boissonas and the personification of Epirus
Dean Kalimniou looks at how the photography of Fred Boissonnas captures the place and person of a region
The photograph of the village woman attached to this Diatribe, is by far the most striking and most evocative portrait I have ever seen. It is, put simply, a work of art. For in portraying what seemingly is a village woman in natural habitat, the photographer has in fact, captured the essence, nay personified the Greek region of Epirus.
Like almost all geographical regions, Epirus, is given the female gender by the Greek language, as is the subject in the photograph. Epirus forms a very ancient component of the Greek identity. It is the Ur-heimat from which, according to Greek mythology, the Greek tribes migrated into the rest of the country. As a result, it was known as Arhegonos Ellas by the geographer Strabon and in the consciousness of the Greeks, always remained the wild, uncompromising, semi-barbarous but ultimately ever faithful ancestral repository of their identity. The terrain of Epirus is overwhelmingly harsh and mountainous, stark and bleak.
In fact, it is an area of extreme infertility, whose inhabitants have barely managed over the centuries, to coax enough plants out of the barren soil in order to subsist. As a result, they have grown hardy and stubborn, resourceful and indomitable, willful yet patient, strong yet ever vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature that seem to blight their lives with depressing constancy. As a result, few of the folk songs of Epirus ever raise themselves above a basic level of despondency. The Epirots are perhaps the only people in the world who begin their celebrations with funeral dirges, lamenting lost loved ones, lost opportunities, lost dreams and even lost homelands. For the harsh and brutish conditions prevailing in Epirus have from the time of the genesis of the Greek people, caused them to abandon that region since in search of a better life.
Nonetheless, the Epirot male always remained tied to his ancestral homeland, returning to procreate, then to relocate male sons to the family business and finally, after a life of roaming in ξενιτιά φαρμακωμένη, returning to die. Epirot women on the other hand, were left at home to battle the elements, along with often precarious political and social circumstances, relying on their own ingenuity, and overseas handouts from their menfolk in order to survive. Epirots are thus stone-reared, and can survive anything. One can see all this, and much more in the photograph.
Against a whitewashed, stark stone background, constructed of the same stones as the brooding mountains of Epirus, stands an Epirot woman. Next to her, there is a hint of a window, yet it looks out onto nothing and its bars provide neither hope of insight or escape. Her stooped and wearied stance denotes that of an old woman. If this is the case then the baby crib or sarmanitsa as it is known in the Epirotic patois, with all its connotations of fertility, comes in stark juxtaposition to its bearer, who manifestly is beyond child-bearing age. It is then, a pictorial poem of aridity, the negation of creativity. Most masterfully, the photographer does not actually reveal to us the actual age of the woman in question.
On closer inspection, it is plausible that she is not old, just wretched and weighed down by the almost unbearable burdens of her existence as a female in Epirus, where again the sarmanitsa constitutes a powerful symbol, not only of her social position but also of hope for the future. As if to show the inevitable peripatetic nature of the Epirotic condition, the woman is photographed just as she appears to go on a journey. Her satchel strapped across her, she pauses and places her head in her hands.
Is she abandoning her home owing to the death of a family member or the destruction of her home? After all this photo was taken in 1913, in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars that both liberated and devastated Epirus. Or is she being compelled to abandon her home due to the overriding poverty of her day to day existence? We cannot tell. All we know is that in capturing her, in a very human moment, the necessity of fleeing is paused to give way to despondency, the photographer achieves a most remarkable feat. In obscuring her face, he removes from his subject her personal identity. She could be anyone. She is in fact, the everywoman of her time, giving way to her emotions but stoically enduring, persisting and moving on, in mute suffering, as generations of her ancestors have done before her. When I look at her, it is as if I can see my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother and hear the sighs of every single other Epirot woman I have ever known. I have seen no other depiction that so evokes a place or a people, so effectively.
The photographer possessed with such gifts of perception, was the Swiss born Fred Boissonnas, a descendant of an eminent dynasty of photographers, who from 1903 when he first came to Greece, up until the year of his death in 1946, became enraptured by the country and its heritage and determined to provide a extensive photographic record of the aspects of Greek life that most enthralled him. Thus, for more than thirty years, Boissonnas proved to be an unlikely but passionate ambassador of Greece, not only in the guise of a photographer but also as a writer, illustrator and publisher of books with themes taken from Greece.
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