When browsing through the album On the Beach, one thing is certain: at some point the reader will smile. The reader will realize that the dark aura enveloping the bodies of the bathers hints at their consecration, at their transubstantiation into characters of a very personal mythology. He or she will realize that with these photographs, Yiorgos Depollas does not describe situations, but tells stories with a smile drawn upon his own face.
For those who have followed Yiorgos Depollas’s work, this smile is of particular significance first of all because the people in On the Beach are very dear to him. He is bound to them with longstanding ties, which one may say date back to the early ‘70s when he started photographing them, then looking them straight in the eye and listening to their stories. That’s how he started to get to know them, observe them and collect a considerable amount of photographic material which was finally presented in the thematic units: Lonely People in 1979 and Portraits in 1980. These were the people he came across on his travels through the countryside to small provincial towns and villages. They are couples locked in an embrace, men absorbed in thought, faces that are sometimes stern and at other times sweet, with a smile that crowns their meeting with the photographer.
Even from these first photos Yiorgos Depollas’s desire to tell stories comes shining through. During this period of his work, the stories are largely based on the characters of the people portrayed, something he himself mentions when he speaks of the first stages of his career in photography: "In my first steps as a photographer, the only things I knew had to do with cinematography and I was greatly influenced by American films, Italian neo-Realism and English Free Cinema and a little later by certain more difficult and elaborate themes from French cinema. It was only natural to carry along with me images of faces that bring together all the emotionalism of the particular mythology to which they belong – images such as those in the films of Monicelli, De Sica, Fellini and others, or the lonesome, distant figures of men in the film noir and western film genres. Elements that entangle destiny, loneliness, lyricism and social documentation were the ones that had always captured my interest and directed my choices."These photographs were taken in the ‘70s when the international photography scene was dominated by the idea of social documentation, something which placed strict expressive limits on the form of photographic representation. It demanded unadorned and clear depictions showing what was significant ‘out there’ while correspondingly limiting the photograph to the role of the insignificant go-between. The photograph/document thus came into complete opposition with the photograph/narrative, which presupposes the reconstruction of a fact or event on the outer edges of reality. In the photograph/document what matters most is the description: a clear and comprehensive depiction which aims at the objective conveyance of visible reality onto the photographic paper. On the other hand, in the photograph/narrative, what is most important is the illustration, that is, the dressing of a narrative with visual elements that draw their significance from a broader world of images. In this case, reality for the photographers is the quest for people and situations, the depiction of which will correspond most faithfully to what they themselves believe about people and their social surroundings. The great humanist photographers, whether they were aware of this or not, always employed narrative. And Yiorgos Depollas belongs to a younger generation of humanist photographers, which, however, is more aware of what it is trying to convey. It knows full well that the direct and clear depiction of the conditions of life cannot reveal any objective truth and the only truth photography is able to convey has to do with emotion, participation and love for fellow human beings. This is why all that is needed is the expression of a personal and sincere idiom, the narration of a story.
This austerity of form is tangibly expressed even in the Portraits album. While the approach in the representation of the people is systematic (the same distance from the subject in all photos, the use of the same lens, the same angle and unvarying lighting), intimating the genre of anthropological standardized photography, where the photographer selects the subject precisely for its similarity to a homogenous whole, Yiorgos Depollas on the other hand, chooses his subjects for the singular characters they embody.
Between the early Portraits and Lonely People, and the later On the Beach there is a gap of a decade and in this space of time many things changed in the world of photography. The form of the photographs in On the Beach is considerably different, simultaneously showing in an exemplary way the transition of photography to the new expressive mode of the ‘80s. In these new conceptions about photography Yiorgos Depollas finds fertile ground to develop his own idiom. These are snapshots of bathers on the beaches of Attica, mainly on the beach of Loutsa, a few miles from the Athens metropolis.
The printing on the photographic paper creates the impression of a gray fog, a melancholic mist that emanates from the bodies of the bathers. It resembles whirlwind of sand that the seabreeze raises from the ground and stains the sky, creating circular spots; it is diffused in the edges of the square frame and darkens the light of the sun. These are inexplicable as natural phenomena, but also unprecedented in the language of photography.
These pictures were taken at a time which was characterized by ‘the reading of the photography medium’
The accidental is welcomed and this essentially explains the peculiar form of the photographic images in On the Beach. After using an expired roll of black and white film to take pictures on the Loutsa beach, Yiorgos Depollas notices that numbers, stamps and in some cases the texture of the paper wrapping have been imprinted on the photographs. The pictures seem to have been destroyed. But this is only a momentary deduction. This accident is used as an expressive means which is subsequently reinforced with unorthodox interventions during the printing phase.
The coupling of text and photograph is another new element which appears in On the Beach. The photographer himself explains his need to accompany his photos with captions, "I had a specific idea and I went looking for the images that would correspond to it." The intention to narrate is now clearly apparent. The characters in Yiorgos Depollas’s mythology have been formed through his longstanding observation of various situations and the act of photography is essentially the quest for a story in which real people will embody the characters.
The ‘80s are simultaneously a time of intense questioning that touched every mature photographic thought in Europe. The search for a national photography identity, the relation of photography to the visual arts, the definition of photography in all the fields of expression and communication are the dominant themes of discussion which photographers explore in their work. On the Beach as the object of critical research overturns the correct use of the photographic medium, tests its verisimilitude and discourages the intention of raising it to the level of art. The most expensive medium format camera (a Hasselblad), the expiration date of the film (which here is expired, hence the spots on the photographs), the correct printing of tones on the photographic paper (which is violated while printing the negatives by using light-diffusing filters) are rules that Depollas defies with a hint of sarcasm.
The captions (which normally intend to explain or add information to the photographic depiction of a scene) do not add any information to the corresponding themes, but only state the obvious. The caption ‘Boy Coming Out’ or ‘Couple Cooling Off’ leave no margin for interpretation other than the idea being photographically illustrated. The way the captions are phrased shows something more. In the picture of the woman wearing waterwings, for instance, a caption such as ‘The Frightened Woman’ or ‘A Woman Who is Frightened’ would correspond more appropriately to the snapshot-style and to the idiom of the photographic medium. When the caption is phrased as ‘Woman who is Frightened’, it lends the photograph an emblematic title, which weakens the concept of the accidental and arbitrarily promotes the snapshot-style depiction to an idealized form of depiction of the decisive moment. The photograph, in this case, is presented as a complete and independent work, able to put across not the image of the specific woman (as photography always does), but to establish a visual stereotype of the "Woman Who is Frightened’ (as a painting would). And in order to certify that this is a complete and independent work, the creator takes great care to put his signature on every picture.
The deconstruction of both the photographic work and the photographer himself also indirectly appears in Depollas’s statements. Thus, we find out, for example, that the reason the photographer has chosen this specific beach as the backdrop to his photos is not because this is where what truly interests him takes place, but because the photographer prefers to go to this one because he is not a good swimmer and the waters are shallow there. He also reveals that in certain cases the pre-designed title of a theme is not pre-designed at all, but the result of a chance photographic event. The unusual posture of the young man bending forward while sitting on his motorcycle (‘Young Man Bending’) is simply due to the fact that he is eating an ice-cream at the moment.
In later works, such as Unpublished Documents, Yiorgos Depollas’s criticism is turned more towards the news report photo, with staged situations and longer captions accompanying the photographs. Under the pressure of words, even the most unconvincing situations are imposed as proof of real events. The photographer who is a bad swimmer appears here as the professional photo-reporter who lays down his life’s work through these pictures, these photographic documents, unpublished supposedly because these were censored. A few years later in another work entitled Thirteen Strange Deaths the photographer portrays a secret agent who captures scenes of unsolved crimes on a Polaroid.
From On the Beach to this last work, one may observe Depollas shaking off the role of the photographer while scorning the photographic medium. The narrative develops at the same time allowing more and more room for his story-telling. The time gap that separates us from On the Beach allows us today to better comprehend the artist’s choice to decorate his narratives with caustic humor, which also underscores, however, the diffused melancholy enveloping the photographic landscape of the ‘80s.
Naxos, Summer 2002
1. Yiorgos Depollas, Photographs 1975-1995, Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, p. 18.
2. This is a term given to this period by Yiannis Stathatos in the catalog of the exhibition Image and Idol:
modern Greek photography 1975-1995, Athens: ministry of Culture, 1997, p. LIX.
3. Yiorgos Depollas, Photographs 1975-1995, Thessaloniki: University Studio Press, p. 90.