The stiff, studio-posed wedding photographs of my newly arrived relatives haunt me now. The people they depict have either long departed or, have placed me in the position of living in mortal terror as I consider the prospect of their demise. They are old, their lives have largely played out and as I gaze upon their faces in the black and white photographs, most of them taken in the Chionis Studio, some smiling and brimming with optimism, others hesitant and apprehensive, I wonder whether their life expectations were fulfilled.
As I flick through those photographs, I note how identical they are, from a succession of brides wearing the same hand-me-down wedding dress, because money was tight and the concept of it being “my day” had not yet penetrated the Greek-Australian zeitgeist, to the identical beehive hairdos of the bridesmaids, the mothers-in-law standing a few centimetres askance, clutching a newly purchased handbag self-consciously, all the images expressing the same values, the same aspirations. And in contrast to the wedding photos of our community today, every single person in the photograph is young, for these are the Prometheans, creating their own reality before the world began to age.
Democritus Worker’s League’s current exhibition “Greek Weddings Under the Southern Cross,” featuring a collection of thought-provoking photographs of Greek migrant weddings in Melbourne from the fifties and sixties emphasises the role the camera serves as a tool for capturing evidence. Beyond any manipulation or interpretation of a photograph, it suggests that there exists a deep, existential link between the tangible subject placed in front of the camera’s lens and the resulting photographic image. It posits that every photograph inherently shares a connection with its subject, emphasizing that the photographed subject indisputably existed in the past, albeit as a reality we can no longer physically touch, but which we can, albeit for now, remember.
Democritus’ passionate reaffirmation of retrospective photographic realism should be understood in the context of our community currently being enmeshed in the throes of significant demographic change: the first generation, the subject of the photos, is departing and with it, not only unique cultural memories and traditions but also a way of life transcending the rural and embracing the proletarian, possessed of a desire not only for the acquisition of material goods but also of a profound sense of mission for the betterment of society and achieving equality. The carefully curated photographs that comprise the exhibition attest to a sense of profound loss and a quest for an authentic representation, rather than a superficial, or stereotypical one. The exhibition thus does not seek to bring its subjects back but, rather, to affirm that they existed – to find solace in an unquestionable truth from the past. This is the assurance that a photograph can provide: the certainty of a past truth that remains beyond doubt, while permitting us to argue about its context.
In staging such a unique exhibition, Democritus invites us to recognize that every photograph undergoes specific and highly significant distortions that make its connection to any prior reality deeply problematic. This situation prompts questions about the role of the technical equipment and the social customs surrounding photography. The poses of the protagonists, the clothes they wear, the expressions they affect are a construction, an image created according to established formal conventions and technical procedures. These define allowable manipulations and distortions in a manner that permits skilled and validated interpreters to draw conclusions based on established conventions in specific contexts. It is thus within this institutional framework that otherwise debatable interpretations hold weight and can be upheld, or otherwise, be rejected.
Viewed from the perspective, the photographs, which ostensibly tell the same story over and over again, propound a nuanced commentary on the indexical nature of a photograph, the causal link between the pre-photographic subject and the image. This link is formed through a complex technical, cultural, and historical process where optical and chemical tools are employed to organize experience and desire, resulting in a new reality altogether. As such, the exhibition acts as a mediation on the nature of photography itself: At every stage of the process, chance occurrences, deliberate interventions, choices, and variations contribute to the creation of meaning, regardless of the level of expertise involved and the division of labour within the process. This photograph gains significance in specific interactions and has tangible effects, yet it cannot reference or be referenced by a pre-photographic reality as an absolute truth. The exhibition suggests that its photographs are not some mystical emanation but a tangible product of a physical apparatus operating under particular circumstances, driven by specific forces, and serving more or less defined purposes. Consequently, it demands not mystical transformation but a historical context, without which the essential nature of photography remains hollow and fails to deliver the confirmation of existence, the imprint of a past presence, and an understanding of its manifold perspectives.
Many, as I do, will recognise some of the persons featured in the photographs comprising the exhibition, others they will have heard about through the memories of their children. While examining the photographs, a question arises: Even if we were face to face with the actual person that the photograph is supposed to vouch for in terms of their past existence, would we be in a position to extract the same existential truth as from the conscious and unconscious, cultural, psychological, and perceptual codes and processes that shape our perception of the world and lend significance to even a simple piece of chemically discoloured paper? Our experiences and reality are inseparable from the languages, representations, psychological structures, and practices that frame them and imbue them with meaning, just as they invest meaning in a seemingly ordinary piece of paper. Both experience and reality are entwined with the systems of meaning in which they are embedded and that they disrupt.
Undoubtedly, the photographs can engender in the viewer a palpable sense of loss, triggering a yearning for a pre-linguistic certainty and unity – a nostalgic and regressive fantasy that transcends the transient. This is the foundation of the exhibition’s focus: to make manifest what is absent, or retrospectively real. Yet what transcends representation, by its very nature, cannot be expressed. Furthermore, it is an effect of the subject’s formation through representation to give rise to this notion of something beyond. We are left with no alternative but to work with the reality we have: the reality of the paper representation, the tangible object, on the wall in the Steps Gallery.
At home, I compare more contemporary wedding photographs: those of loved ones who were married in the nineties and the two-thousands. Like those at Democritus Worker’s League’s exhibition, they are largely identical. Like those comprising the exhibition, they invite an exploration of the economic and social power dynamics of the society in which those portrayed inhabit and an analysis into the economic environment, material aspects, and historical background of the photographs. One is compelled to ask, whether these photographs, like those in the exhibition, uphold the economic values responsible for its creation, or do they divulge the conditions and history that gave rise to them? What hidden ideologies might be embedded in the work? How does they contribute to the perpetuation of class and other distinctions?
While the formal dress and stylised poses in the photographs featured in the exhibition harken back to community narratives of purity, innocence, hard work and success, the exhibition also speaks to the ways in which the Greek migrant discourse was commodified, mythologised and ultimately, subverted. It is thus the polyvalency of these ostensibly simple images, and the questions that their interpretation inevitable pose, that render “Greek Weddings Under the Southern Cross,” so noteworthy and so thought-provoking.
Greek Weddings Under the Southern Cross,” will run from 4-12 November at the Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street Carlton