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Latent local talent discovered December 13, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Exhibitions Greece.

Haunting work of late photographer Panayiotis Iliopoulos goes public for first time at Benaki Museum 

Unless they had an eye for artistic creativity, the inhabitants of the village of Philiatra who, during the interwar and postwar period, visited the photographic studio of Panayiotis Iliopoulos to have their photograph taken, must have been somewhat surprised by the rather unconventional images that Iliopoulos finally presented them with. Although there is nothing extravagant in the portraits taken by Iliopoulos, all have something unusual about them, an element of underlying eccentricity found in the small details, the setting of the portrait or the positioning of the sitters. Iliopoulos had a distinctive, artistic style. He also had a rare talent for delving beyond appearances into the psychology of the individual and for making the viewer of his pictures imagine the stories and the lives of the people that are portrayed.

Strangely, Iliopoulos (1897-1985) was, up until recently, hardly known to historians of Greek photography nor did he live to see his work gain wider recognition. But thanks to the recent donation of his work by his children to the Photographic Archive of the Benaki Museum as well as an exhibition organized by the museum in recognition of the donation, the work of this talented, unusual photographer will be solidly placed in the high ranks of 20th-century Greek photography.

Photographer and photography writer Platon Rivellis, the person who suggested to Iliopoulos’s children that they contact the museum, has curated “Panos Iliopoulos: A Life’s Adventure and the Poetry of Photography,” a wonderful exhibition that introduces the work of this artist to the public. Rivellis has made an unusual choice of arranging selected portraits in pairs. Although one might be misled into thinking otherwise, the choice of pairing the portraits was principally made for the practical reason of fitting as many images as possible into the given space. Yet, the arrangement also helps the viewer make comparisons and associations.

In some images, one will find humor. The portrait of a young woman kneeling as if in prayer seems to poke fun at the staged artificiality of studio photography. A surreal element also pervades most images. The potrait of a timid-looking man photographed in the studio with his motorbike is one of the best examples.

In some portraits, Iliopoulos has tried to capture a relaxed pose and a spur-of-the-moment feel. A young man lighting a cigarette or another reading a letter have that typical, unpretentious aspect of Iliopoulos’s photos and show his rare capacity for bringing to life the persona of each sitter.

Iliopoulos’s self-portraits are some of the most unusual in the exhibition. In one of them, he is shown full body, extending his arm to an imagined person opposite him. In others, he casts himself in roles, or is simply shown among friends or the members of his family. In some cases, he is shown holding a painting or a religious icon, elements that also feature in the exibition’s other portraits; it is likely that they express the photographer’s inclination toward painting and religious icon painting, which he studied and practiced along with photography.

It is possible that Iliopoulos’s self-portraits stem from the same incentive that led the artist to compose an extensive autobiographical essay in the mid-50s.

The essay, which is included in the exhibition’s informative catalogue, art historian Elisavet Plessa has edited the catalogue, recounts an adventurous life filled with hardships but also displays a rare appreciation for life.

An orphan from an early age, Iliopoulos fought in the Asia Minor campaign and witnessed the ensuing great disaster. Destitute and with no hope for a better future at home, he decided to try his luck in the United States. Traveling via Mexico as an illegal immigrant, he arrived in Detroit, Michigan, in 1923 where he worked in the railway construction business. A few years later, he discovered his inclination for art and photography and joined Chicago’s School of Photography, a branch of New York’s Institute of Photography.

With the economic depression of the late 1920s, Iliopoulos returned to Greece, back to his hometown of Philiatra, a village in Messinia in the Peloponnese, where he set up his first photographic studio.

Besides portraits, Iliopoulos also took documentary images that have historic value. Scenes from the Asia Minor campaign or events related to the history of his hometown, for example the visit by Ioannis Metaxas to Kyparissia in 1939, are among them. They are all included in the Iliopoulos archive of 3,500 negatives and a great number of photographs that the Iliopoulos family donated to the Benaki Photographic Archive along with other documents and photographic equipment that belonged to the artist.

The exhibition which is currently hosted at the Benaki focuses on just one aspect of the photographer’s work, yet the one that Rivellis believes to have the greatest artistic significance. It is a beautiful, unusual and moving exhibition on the oeuvre of an artist who lived his life with the same force that permeates his work.

At the Benaki Museum, 1 Koumbari street, Kolonaki, Athens, tel 210 3671000 to January 14.

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