I always feel uneasy around Nelly’s photographs. Being black and white, I am enthralled by the way she is able to juxtapose, reconcile or set the absolutes of light and dark at odds. Given that her most famous photographs are portraits of muscular scantily clad or nude men and women among ancient ruins, the way she manages to distil and interpret the cliché of «το Ελληνικό φως» (the Greek sunlight) onto paper is fascinating. For a person who dealt in absolutes, the disquiet she manages to imbue her photographs with through the ambiguous chiaroscuro interplay of light is thoroughly engrossing. It is as if she is either making a confession and retracting it simultaneously, or despite her evident belief in totalitarian ideals, subconsciously revealing her own misgivings about them. Similarly, while her photos at first glance feel lithe, graceful and full of life, subsequent glances evoke feelings of titanic solidity and lifelessness. If anything then, Nelly’s is the master of the art of visual contradiction.
Nelly’s, the sobriquet of Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari was born in Aidini, now Aydin of Asia Minor in 1899 and was related to the great Greek composer Mihalis Sougioul. Prior to the Asia Minor catastrophe, she went to study photography in Germany under Hugo Erfurth and Franz Fiedler, who initiated her into a new approach in photography and European Neο-Romanticism. Settling in Greece in 1924, having lost her home, she opened her first studio at Ermou street in Athens and her lens captured important personalities and themes of that time, such as the famous dancer of Opera Comique Mona Paeva dancing nude in the Parthenon, the Delphic Festival, Eva Sikelianou, and Dimitris Mitropoulos, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. It is not known to what extent the trauma of losing ancestral homeland or the training she received in Germany during the heady days of the Weimar republic, when German society increasingly became polarised and more willing than ever before to embrace absolutist political theories influenced her worldview, but upon her arrival in Greece, Nelly’s appears to have adopted a naive nationalistic and conservative approach to her work.
Such an approach, in particular seeking to portray statuesque modern Greek models amidst stark ancient ruins, as if to underline not the continuity but the unchangeability of the Greek people since times ancient, appealed to various Greek governments, who wished to develop an idealised view of Greece and the Greeks, for export to the West and the promotion of tourism. In this way, Nelly’s can be viewed alternatively as the first Greek national image-maker or, regime propagandist, especially after her appointment as official photographer of the newly established Greek Ministry of Tourism.
In 1929, her avant-garde pictures of the nude Mona Paeva on the Parthenon, published in “Illustration de Paris” shocked Athenian society and her work was defended by intellectual Pavlos Nirvanas in his column in Elefthero Vima newspaper. ”I imagine on the one hand,” he wrote, ”the beautiful priestess, unfastening her girdle in front of Apollo, throwing all the robes covering her divine nudity and bathing in the light, a body like a statue and a rosy complexion like the smile of dawn. And on the other hand I see respectable gentlemen sitting around a table, scratching their heads and writing about desecration. Desecration would occur if, in the throes of archaeological enthusiasm, they happened to throw off their clothes on the Parthenon marbles and pretended to be Hermes of Praxiteles…”
In the picture, typical of her work, a nude Mona Paeva, entwines herself around a veil as sinuous as the snakes in the famous ancient statue of Lacoon and his children. Her fluid jumping form is in stark contrast to the forest of perpendicular and massive columns of the Parthenon behind her. In her work Nelly’s uses artificial light, leaving one part of the form in the dark, while the background remains empty, as a reference to the Great Masters of the Renaissance. This is supposed to symbolise the search for the spiritual element, a poetic atmosphere and the demonstration of the form’s most profound essence.
I think it is Nelly’s removal of backgrounds elements by focusing her attention on the theme, resulting in a reversal of the normal references of orientation, so that the final image to be formed is a mix of realistic and abstract types that creates the most disquiet in me. Somehow, Nelly’s manages to incorporate the spectator’s wonder as an element of the image and as a result I become indignant at this attempt of violation of my perspective, so that in order to relieve the tension, I begin to hope that somewhere underneath her monolithic aesthetic, lurks a subversive satirical picture poem.
I remain eternally hopeful. On occasion, Nelly’s was referred to as “the Greek Leni Riefenstahl.” This is because in 1936, she photographed the Berlin Olympic Games, where she met Leni Riefenstahl, accompanied her to Olympia and assisted her during the filming of the Nazi propaganda movie “Triumph of the Will.” It is not easy to discern who influenced who. Leni Riefenstahl displays a similar attitude to light as Nelly’s and the people that populate her works are very similar to Nelly’s – classical profiles, thin, wiry, statuesque bodies powerfully affecting ancient Greek attitudes. The new man of tomorrow, for Nelly’s and the Nazis, would certainly be, in Hitler’s words: “slim and trim, swift as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel…” Consequently, Nelly’s models would not look out of place upon the pediment of the New Reich Chancellery.
Nelly’s collaboration with the Metaxas 4th of August Regime, of which she was one of its most prolific photographers seems to be in keeping with this world view though how it is that the “new man” would emerge from the “Third Greek Civilization,” when that new man was expected to assume the form of a very old archetypal man is a question left unanswered. Nonetheless, for Nelly’s and Metaxas, there is no room for the ambiguous fusion of Orient and Occident within the Greek. All historical elements not conforming to the official stereotype of rational, powerful, disciplined, logical and of course obedient Greek are to be excised from view. This is, in my opinion, the true reason for the starkness of the background in Nelly’s photographs. Apart from directing the spectator’s gaze through the lens of the camera and that he will identify with her position, and accentuated the awe felt by viewers in reading her image in a double way in relation to the earth’s horizon, Nelly’s is removing all historical, cultural or social impediments that would impede the viewer from accepting the premise and parameters of the new fascist ideology. Nonetheless, there is a sense of tragic melancholy in her photos, a tremendous sense of loss and wistfulness that is not present in the works of Riefenstahl, possibly because her assertion of identity is one of aspiration, retrogression and not triumphal dominance.
One could therefore hazard that the ruins in her photographs are always symbols of the ruins of Greek Aidinio. The background is stark and empty because there can be no return. The figures, however much they hearken back to an imagined past, no longer belong in that landscape. They are as foreign and anachronistic as she is, as a refugee. I feel more comfortable with this form of analysis.
Considered more than trustworthy, in 1939, she was commissioned with the decoration of the interior of the Greek pavilion at the New York’s World Fair, which she did with gigantic collages expressing in an extremely selective manner the physical similarities between ancient and modern Greeks and attempting to prove their racial continuity. Nelly’s chose to settle in the United States and thus was spared the horrors of the Second World War.
To focus solely on her “ancient Greek,” work would be to portray only one part of Nelly’s sensitivities. She also dealt with the wounds of her old homeland, creating a unity entitled ‘The yearnings of the Refugees’, depicting the refugee settlements of the Athenian neighbourhood of Kessariani. Furthermore, fascinated by her neighbourhood in Plaka, she prepared a series of sixty photographs; a guided tour, historical and emotional, through the cobbled roads of modern Plaka, and its houses with the small yards built in the shadow of the Acropolis. These photos were printed by the Bromoil method where, through appropriate chemical treatment the paper becomes relief and the photographer, using paintbrushes and oils, intervenes so that the outlines and the gradation of the tones are softened. The result is the appearance of the eerie figures that mark the last aspects of the Romantic Movement, their transitory feel inducing further unease and melancholy.
When Nelly’s returned to Greece in March 1966, she lived with her husband Angelos Seraidaris at Nea Smyrni and gave up photography, mercifully not using her arts in the service of the Junta, whose leaders were artistic philistines. She died in deep old age in 1998, venerated for her prowess, her ideological predilections largely forgiven, for her photos helped shaped the visual image of Greece in the Western mind and conversely, the West’s visual image of Greece in the Greek mind. So powerful is that visual image and so poignantly was it rendered by Nelly’s that it endures to the present day.