John Demos, Shadows of Silence

Apeiron, Dewi Lewis, Actes Sud & Peliti, 2003. 150pp. ISBN 960 87442 0 2.
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Greek Photography

Drama is what you make of it. Some photographers introduce pyrotechnics into the most mundane of scenes, while others specialise in deliberately lowering emotional temperature to the point where the depiction of a mass grave becomes as neutral as that of a field of potatoes. John Demos avoids both extremes, opting instead for an almost paradoxical middle ground: in Shadows of Silence, he approaches inherently dramatic subject matter with distanced elegance.

Demos, a founder member in 1979 of the Photography Centre of Athens and one of the pioneers of the New Greek Photography movement, was the first Greek photographer of his generation to acquire a substantial reputation abroad. In the late eighties he founded Apeiron, which has gone on to become the leading Greek photo agency, representing Magnum and Sygma among others, while in the mid-nineties he was appointed director of the Skopelos summer photography festival. Shadows of Silence, published simultaneously in Greece, France, Italy and Britain, is his first major monograph; the work included covers the period 1975-1997, arranged in the form of short, untitled sequences rather than chronologically or by subject.

Despite the admixture of one or two photographs taken in Turkey, and of a few from Albania, Demos's subject is Greece - but a very particular and far from characteristic version of Greece, concentrating as it does on a handful of exotic locations and situations. These include the pilgrimage island of Tinos, the firewalkers of Thrace, the mountain enclave of Mani and the remote village of Olymbos on the island of Karpathos, whose inhabitants have persisted in the wearing of elaborate traditional dress on formal occasions, much to the delight of photographers from Constantine Manos onwards. Focusing on some of the odder aspects of Orthodox ritual and belief, they could be an illustration of the old proposition that the Greek religious impulse is intellectually agnostic but temperamentally superstitious; though like all sweeping statements, this one should be approached with caution, experience suggests that it has at least some basis in fact.

The photographs are at first sight often chaotic, with strongly contrasted areas of light and shadow out of which emerge truncated, restless figures or the twisted forms of blasted trees. A small number of calmer, more formally architectonic images act as punctuation marks; oddly enough, they include nearly all of the few vertical compositions, among them one of a huge icon of the Virgin sailing placidly past a whitewashed wall on the shoulders of an almost invisible deacon on Patmos.

Across this book lies the monumental shadow of Josef Koudelka, who remains the single most potent influence on Demos, not just as teacher and exemplar but also as a friend and associate, and is mentioned in the acknowledgements along with fellow Magnum photographers Constantine Manos and Willy Ronis. His influence is most evident in the subject matter chosen - marginalised or antiquated social groups, the persistence of folk customs, magic and superstition - and in the way it is approached, but goes much deeper than that; Demos has clearly assimilated the images of Koudelka's early and middle periods, particularly those of the classic Gypsies, to the extent that certain of his photographs become uncannily like meditations on, or homages to, those of the enigmatic Czech master. There is the same sense of inevitability and awe, of windows opening briefly upon the lives of mysterious and unknowable others, the same passages from darkness to light and back again.

There are also important differences, ascribable in part to the difference in background between the two photographers. Koudelka, particularly during the sixties, was a visceral photographer of great but seemingly instinctive genius. His photographs from that period, whatever might lie behind them, appear spontaneous, even unreflexive, but they have an immediacy which contradicts their apparent naivete and lack of structure. He was also, if not a part of the culture he depicted, at least very close to it; he photographed people who knew and trusted him, so that it comes as no surprise to find that he so often depicted intimate domestic interiors. His many portraits, though unidentified, are clearly of specific, differentiated individuals.  Demos, on the other hand, is a sophisticated photographer whose images - even the most apparently chaotic - are carefully and knowingly composed. More significantly, he is a sympathetic but essentially uninvolved outsider, an observer rather than a participant. As a result, the viewer in turn feels no particular sense of involvement with the subjects of his photographs, who are in any case almost never individualised; they often remain no more than dark silhouettes, rarely if ever returning the camera's gaze.

In fact, what they appear to be above all is actors absorbed in some unspecified, obscure drama. Finn Thrane's introductory essay is appropriately enough entitled "Primal Theatre", and he accurately identifies both theatrical illusion and allegorical attitudes in Demos's work; inevitably, however, allegorical status is achieved at the expense of individuality. Only very young children seem to escape Demos's pervasive mythopoeia: the young boy leaning back and rolling his eyes between three sombre matrons in the church at Karpathos, the self-possessed little girl brushing past the crawling penitent in Tinos, the child coolly confronting the old crone with her threateningly raised stick are all sharply delineated personalities, etched against a background of formless and anonymous adults.

Surprisingly, although all but ten of the photographs in Shadows of Silence are landscape (horizontal) format, nearly all are reproduced across double-page spreads - a layout apparently chosen by the photographer himself, rather than by an insensitive designer. The effect is disconcerting, since the inevitable distortions leave the viewer with a nagging sense that significant parts of the image are being drawn down into the gutter. In practice, the effect is often to divorce the two unequal halves of a photograph: in Mani, 1995 for instance, a woman in black covers her face with her hands, while on the right another identically-clad figure marches off briskly and indifferently towards the gutter.

For Aris Marangopoulos, the author of the book's metaphysically inclined afterword, "there is unbearable pain running through all of the photographs", but it's surprisingly hard to pinpoint. There are certainly some painful subjects here, not least the figure of what might be the village idiot looking wistfully on from the outskirts of a communal village feast, but Demos' knowingness transforms them into skilled photographic images, sophisticated cultural artefacts taking their place in the continuum of Western pictorial tradition. Thrane's references to Caravaggio, Bergman, Dreyer and the Maitre de Saint Gilles underscore precisely what it is that militates against an overly emotive reading of this work. The perfectly modulated image of a gypsy woman and her baby sitting cross-legged against a white wall in Messolonghi is stylishly in the extreme, but the young woman is unlikely to be harbouring "hidden, inconceivable thoughts", nor do we need her to; it is enough that Demos has caught the perfectly pure lines formed by the inclination of her head and the movement of her arm.

John Stathatos - Γιάννης Σταθάτος
European Photography 73/74
January 2003