“When I look at my photographs today, I feel like an archaeologist might feel when she or he has uncovered some carefully wrought object from the past that illuminates precious relics from the past that illuminates the history and mores and life and ethos of a long ago era. The photos feel to me like precious relics.”
So wrote photographer Robert Mc Cabe in 2018 of his 1955 photographs of a long ago vanished way of life in Mykonos. Those photos, a masterpiece of chiaroscuro, record a frugal, self-reliant, impoverished but intensely dignified community of islanders going about their daily routine, fishing, shopping, conversing, worshipping and celebrating together. The austere nature of the landscape and the stark contrasts between light and dark give insight into a land and time of absolutes: life and death, sea and land, happiness and despair. The landscape emerges as a primordial and perennial backdrop, upon which people will seasonally appear and then disappear; the photographer reduces, through the crucible of his lens, all of the things that he sees, to their fundamental elements. Statuesque and reminiscent of classical reliefs in the way they pose and carry themselves, the Greeks in McCabe’s photographs form a mythological narrative all of their own and speak to us, even in their supposedly ephemeral nature, over half a century later, of immortality.
“As I look back on this body of work…I am struck by something I hadn’t fully appreciated during the years I was capturing these images. Photography, like the other arts, teaches us to see, not just to look…. The faces I have captured here are of steely resilience, of a people who have tightened their belts, who are sticking together and who are toughing it out.”
Photographer Krasnostein’s album of photographs “A Resilient Spirit: Greek Life During the Lost Decade” recently published by the Hellenic Museum, purports to capture life in the decade in which Greece endured the Financial Crisis. Yet if it were not for title, looking at the photographs, one would struggle to see much in the way of difference, between McCabe’s 1955 portrayals, and those of Krasnostein, half a century later.
Like McCabe, Krasnostein chooses to publish in black and white, the gradations of light and shade giving a gritty edge to his work. Yet while in McCabe’s time colour photography was not widespread, in Krasnostein’s twenty first century, the era of the digital camera, the digital phone and the pixel triumphant, what possible reason could there be in producing photographs that to all intents and purposes look as if they were taken generations ago? Is the artist being anachronistic? Is he enmeshed in his own stylistic stereotype? Or is it the case that Krasnostein instead, is displaying mastery of the genre, in understanding that in the simplicity of a monochromatic image, structure and spatial relationships take precedence, engaging the eyes and drawing the view within?
Similarly, if one compares the themes of Krasnostein’s work to those of McCabe, remarkable parallels emerge. Like McCabe, Krasnostein’s tableaux are organised around social events, working life, sea, sun, the old, the young and worship. Again, is Krasnostein merely arranging his compositions according to some predetermined prevailing thematic clichés pertaining to Greece and its heritage that verge on the orientalistic? Are we compelled to decode the same bas relief of western imposed classical mythology again and again and again? How is it possible that decades later, in different places and time, the same sort of images recur?
In his introduction to Krasnostein’s album, writer Aronld Zable remarks: “The Greece we both know has risen to the challenge over and again. When we take the longer view, we see that the country has backbone. Its people know how to ride out the crises, and survive with their souls intact.” This observation is key in understanding both Krasnostein’s stylistic and thematic approach to his compositions.
In 1955, when McCabe took his photographs, Mykonos was still recovering from the catastrophic economic and social effects of the Second World War. Yet what emerges from his monochrome images is not a gratuitous chronicle of suffering, but rather, a narrative of stoicism and survival. Krasnostein shares McCabe’s artistic vocabulary. The timeless, romantic, nostalgic look of his black-and-white portraits is anything but a cliché. In hearkening back to an early time, Krasnostein is expertly but unobtrusively, asserting a remarkable narrative of continuity. He comments: “I have taken thousands of photos of Greece and they are all in colour, which is how I see and feel Greece. There is no blue like the Greek blue! But the images for my book just demanded to be in black and white.” We may be in the twenty first century but the tools that have seen the Greeks weather the recent financial crisis not only exist in the past, and it is here that the almost indistinguishable scenes of worship on Mykonos in 1955 (McCabe) and in modern day Lefkada, another island (Krasnostein) but, rather, run through the entire Greek discourse through its inception.
“What happened to the caiques, those magnificent wooden boats that flourished in Mykonos and whose roots went back millennia? You will see them in these photographs but you will not sεe them on the island anymore.” McCabe laments. Yet one will see vessels of similar description populating Krasnostein’s album, denoting the continued relevance not only of the craft, but also of its vital element, the sea. The faces of the elderly women McCabe immortalizes are not the same faces as those captured by Krasnostein. Though separated by half a century, their frowns and furrows form a common alphabet of confined pain and contained hope, forming a perpetual prescription for perseverance. In inadvertent dialogue with Mc Cabe, (for as the artist admits: “I was not aware of McCabe’s work but looking at his photos, he and I, I think shared an interest in the same things,”) Krasnostein’s austere but sensitive images achieve the almost impossible: a foray into the four dimensions, incorporating depth and time, as a means of contextualizing the modern Greek experience so that it can be seen within the corpus of its own tradition. Far from being stereotypical or culturally appropriating, his is a revolutionary and highly accurate depiction of the many layers of history and social memory encoded within each evocative image.
READ MORE: 1950’s Mykonos through Robert McCabe’s lens
Despite the similarities between the two artists’ works, on page 87 of Krasnostein’s album there exists an arresting and powerful image. In McCabe’s work, people are generally depicted in action. Even when they are stationary, they are invariably engrossed in some task. The background may be stark and bleak, but a sense of movement and progress prevails and much of Krasnostein’s work echoes this. When we get to his photograph of a bearded man standing alone in Syntagma, however, we would do well to pause. On the opposite page, another solitary figure stands, the expressionless guard of Syntagma, a symbol of endurance and strength given that the soldier remains there motionless, in perpetual vigil, not even relaxing the expression on his face. On the wall behind him are inscribed the names of places where Greeks have fought heroic battles to ensure their own survival. A sleeping dog lies at the steps some distance away.
He is secure in the knowledge of his continued existence. Juxtaposed against the evzone’s light foustanella, the black-clad man’s gaze is anything but reassuring. He has come, quite literally to the end of the road, the bright tessellated pavement butting up distinctly against the dark river of asphalt. Everything has stopped. The man looks up at the sky and there is a look of complete confusion and ambivalence in his face. Where to from here? No other image in the album conveys such a feeling of insecurity. And yet, in his subtle way, in the predictable pattern of the pavement tiles, in the steely, unwavering gaze of the evzone and the writing on the wall, in the blind faith of the quadruped at his feet, the answer is everywhere. Just turn your head, connect and engage.
Krasnostein’s paean to the enduring relevance and dignity of the Greek people, “A Resilient Spirit,” was to be launched at the Hellenic Museum in April. It is possibly fitting that the intervention of the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the launch, for Greece and indeed all of humanity, is now embarked on another major quest for survival, one which will inevitably cause us to question the dross with which we surround ourselves as a comfortable bourgeois society and confront those elements that are inimical to our vitality. Now, we are placed in a unique position to critique the folly of a consumerist society that values the novel without drawing lessons from and discarding the experience of the old. More than ever, the fundamentals encapsulated by Krasnostein’s images provide us with much needed inspiration to endure our trials, taking as our example, the constant, unwavering hardiness and strength of the Greek people. And we take comfort and courage in the message that Krasnostein conveys: We will get through this, all of us. As Arnold Zable writes of Krasnostein’s Greece: ” It is a country where people understand that at the heart of life there must be humanity. Conversation. A longing for communion.”
The Greeks, through Krasnostein, have shown us the way.
- ‘A Resilient Spirit – Greek Life During the Lost Decade’ is available at the Hellenic Museum (280 Williams Street, Melbourne). Call (03) 8615 9016.