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Monday, November 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Beyond Borders

European South by Ilias Bourgiotis. Ellênika Grammata, Athens, 2002, 160 pages, 32 euros.

I first saw photographs by Ilias Bourgiotis several years ago, at a group show of Greek photographers at the New York branch of the Foundation for Hellenic Culture. One of his photographs, of a group of bare-chested boys, is now the only one I remember from the exhibit. The boys stand in two rows, some on a stone wall and others below, so close to one another that they sometimes overlap. There might be a wind, for their hair is ruffled; the boys’ hands are on their hips, or they’ve crossed their arms, and all but one stare at the camera in such a way that the viewer immediately understands their bonds are, given their age and this moment, inviolable. The expressions on their faces are, for the most part, inscrutable, formal. Behind them, a barren hillside sprouts bunker-like, one-story houses that seem to have no glass in the windows, no doors in the doorways, beneath a blank sky that constitutes half the photograph. The boys, and those houses, that sky, that hill, are somewhere in Greece that’s nowhere, a dislocation rendered in textured, varied grays. In the upper left field of the photograph, in the air, is a soccer ball; somewhere, at a remove from what became the photograph’s frame, someone kicked it.

The presence of that ball, hanging motionless, was astonishing. Who kicked it, or why, is irrelevant; I didn’t know or care whether the shot had been orchestrated (it hadn’t). That ball spoke volumes about the fact that something is always occurring in photography that doesn’t meet the eye, that what’s seen — what’s revealed within the frame — isn’t the only thing to see. While many photographers work very hard to edit out this reality, Ilias Bourgiotis does the opposite: this photograph can be read as cautionary, for the viewer is made aware that there’s someone not in the picture, that the ball will fall to the ground, the boys disband to go on with whatever it was they were doing, the photographer turn away and eventually leave — that lives will be lived in this anywhere/nowhere place, perhaps mostly poorly and as best as circumstances allow. Things come before and after any shutter clicks, things neither the photographer nor the viewer will be privileged to see or, certainly, experience. To be made conscious of a world beyond the edges of a photograph because of a photograph is no small thing: it may well be the measure of what makes photography art.

The photograph I’ve described is part of Bourgiotis’s collection in his book, Atheatê Ellada (Unseen Greece). The title is evocative, as is the book, of places beyond the beaten tracks — there are no postcard-pretty places here — and of what might or might not lie beyond the frame, outside and independent of the photographer’s negotiation of the moment. European South, Bourgiotis’s most recent book of photographs, as expansive as its title suggests, opens with a shot of the sea, the boundary that edges — and begins or ends in, depending upon perspective — Greece, Italy, southern France, Spain, and Portugal (the countries included in the volume). No one is in the photograph, but those low-lying islands in the distance — land — under the press of sky signify presence, just as the sea, which makes up most of the composition, suggests commonality. The bonds and similarities among those who inhabit the southernmost reaches of a continent, those who are nowhere to be seen within Bourgiotis’s first frame, begin here.

The European South was — has always been — a state of mind (I think of Boswell in Corsica and Byron in Italy and Greece, among others, as well as Thomas Mann’s Venice), imbued with unique attributes in the eyes of its beholders that served to differentiate it from whence they came. Bourgiotis’s South is a state of mind, too, but one in which places and people are not unlike; indeed, they’re so similar as to be easily mistaken for one another. The truth of European South is that Bourgiotis underscores the speciousness of the differences created by nationalism, ethnicity, and religion by homing in on the more profound, universal divisions — urban, rural, poor, rich, young, old, beautiful, ugly — that separate those who are urban, or who work the land, or who are rich, or poor, young, old, beautiful, or ugly, from their opposing numbers elsewhere, anywhere, in the European South.

Within this context, each photograph is simply given a location. Bourgiotis’s captions are place names: Madrid, Athens, Trapani (Italy), s. Bartolomeu do Mar (Portugal), Nice, and so on. People wade into or gaze at the sea or both, as in “Viana do Castelo, Portugal” (p. 49), in contrast to those who work by its edges (“Kalamata, Greece” [p. 50]); people also fish on wharves, travel by ferry and train, hold their children and grandchildren. They attend marriages, celebrate religious festivals, go to bullfights or play soccer, have picnics, shop, embrace, go sightseeing, go nowhere. Children frolic, or are shy, cry or are silent; kids play in alleys, older kids dive off bridges; some cool off in fountains. But even in the most static photographs, such as “Messina, Italy” (p. 147), there’s a sense of motion: the hunchback in the station corner stands gazing into his hands (at change? at the lines of his palm?) under a monitor screening train timetables. This is a place where people come and go, they are coming and going beyond the camera’s eye, and those newspaper pages in the lower left of the frame were surely read. Or there’s a sense of expectancy, as in “Kerkini, Greece” (p. 79), which creates its own balletic tension in the stances of the three figures in the background, or a muscular apprehension, as with the tethered Andalusian in “Seville, Spain” (p. 123) — before a bullfight? after? — as a groom rests an elbow on its back. A dog in a car gazes in the opposite direction of sightseers in “Marseille, France” (p. 124), caught in an anthropomorphic moment that will change any second; the girls in “Tinos, Greece” (p. 73) will witness, or not, a miracle, but they will leave the church. European South is a world in which likenesses (between people, between places) are held in suspension by the force of photography; at the same time, Bourgiotis’s talent lies in his constant capture of motion (like that soccer ball in the sky) or of appositions whose tensions (like that elbow on the horse’s back, or motorcycles heading in different directions while one man stands on a corner and a couple walk past in “Napoli, Italy” [p. 149]) dispel suspension, render it fluid, make the viewer understand that the moment did not last, could never be permanent, but only remains a splice of something richer, something real.

Bourgiotis’s signature grays, in shades of granite, mercury, slate, silver, hoarfrost, duskshadow, and graphite, are haunting. In this book, as in Unseen Greece, they render life in the European South in unfamiliar tones — the sun’s glare, dappled shorelines, clouds, and whitewash are never truly bleached — because Bourgiotis demands that we see (and thereby consider) the unexpected, indeed, the obverse of what we expect, of what we think we know. (This is not the Mediterranean, or the South, typified by advertising hype and tourist posters; there are no familiar glints of endless sunshine, no places for romantic getaways.) Just as he uses the static medium of photography to express continuums (of time and action that extend beyond his frames’ borders), Bourgiotis exploits grays to add yet another layer onto what becomes, page after page, artistically and intellectually coherent. The people and landscapes in European South resemble one another as persons and places not only because they do, but also because they share, stand under, and are defined by — on shores, in alleys, on streets, in train stations — the same grimed light, the same shades of darkness. These Southern lives, which were lived before the shutter snapped and continued thereafter, are nothing if not textured.

I met Ilias Bourgiotis years after Atheatê Ellada was published, and we’ve become casual friends, which is how I happen to know that the soccer ball floating through the air was pure happenstance. We’ve never spoken about photography (except once, when I asked him about that ball). In a very brief preface, Bourgiotis writes that European South was inspired by curiosity born of stories he’d been told of Sicily; the more he traveled, the more deeply he was struck by how similar, how familiar, people and places seemed, for the European South was, he found, a place where “boundaries of civilizations, nationalities, different beliefs and languages fall apart.” It’s an argument that his work makes eloquently.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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