The theme of Yiorgos Depollas’s series of photographs On the Beach is, at least at first glance, a particularly popular aspect of modern Greek life: summer recreation at the seaside with activities as variant as the height of the waves. Yet how did the Greek beach become baptised as the font of rejuvenation and the playground for summer romping?
Historically the discovery of the beach as an autonomous landscape theme and at the same time as a possibility for recreation occurred in England in the late 18th century1. In Greece this discovery came much later since the conscious observation and the aesthetic appraisal of the landscape in general didn’t occur until the early 20th century when Pericles Yiannopoulos came out with his polemic essays about Greek colour and line2. At the same time the famous Swiss photographer Fred Boissonas set out on his almost 30-year odyssey to photographically imprint aesthetic, historical and mythological images of Greece. This is also when Greek painters, satiated by decades of ethography, turned their attention to the landscape essentially for the first time. In the mid-war years, the celebrated ‘30s Generation, in its search for Greekness, pointed to the Aegean and the Greek language as a twin cradle of this civilisation and the ark that would carry it through time. The Aegean metaphysic of light, which later sparkled in the poetry of Odysseas Elytis, owes its discernible roots to precisely this ideological context. The conclusion is that the intellectual and visual conquest of the Greek landscape and the rebirth of the Aegean as a primordial hub of civilisation was a complex procedure and began with much delay only just during the first half of the 20th century.
Towards the end of the 1920s the Greek Tourism Organisation was created, signalling the State’s interest in the economic development of the Greek landscape. When the turmoil of W.W.II and the subsequent Greek Civil War died down, tourism seemed to be one of the few economic hopes of a country shaken at its very foundations. Along with its attempts at reconstruction, the Greek landscape, be it of archaeological interest or not, was elevated almost officially to the level of a national ideal. The sea became, at the mercy of tourism, Greece’s crowning glory in the national collective consciousness. This ideology was also helped along by international film productions which from 1955 to 1965 turned their spotlights onto Rhodes, Hydra and other islands, inspiring admiration and laying the foundations for mass tourism. So as great European and American studios invested on a large or small scale in technicolor productions focusing on Greece’s photogenic land and seascape, a large wave of national self-confidence washed over the country while similar Greek film productions became more frequent, establishing the contemporary mythology of the sea. The fact remains that yet again a major part of the natural beauty and intellectual ideals of Greece had to be validated by the ‘cultural superiority’ of the imported gazes of tourists in order for the Greeks to discover them for themselves.
As the mesh of ideological, aesthetic and financial values concerning the Greek seaside began to tighten, the average Greek began visiting the beach in the 1950s, somewhat disconcerting the bourgeois excursionist who had already begun savouring its delights since before the war. The rise in the standard of living in the 60s made seaside holidays a new-born cultural value, while changes in labour legislature (establishing obligatory month-long holidays), the rise in the number of cars, the increase in public transportation and the improvement of the roads significantly facilitated access to the much-coveted coastline3. In the ‘70s holidays were by then an established concept and the Greek beaches were receiving crowds of people from all social strata. In the ‘80s, even the Prime Minister referred to the need for Greek people to enjoy their annual swims, stressing the full-blown popularisation of summer seaside holidays. From this brief outline, it can be safely said that the peaceful colonisation of the Greek beach, with its triumphant beach umbrella in the stead of a flag, is definitely a post-war phenomenon.
When at the beginning of the ‘80s Depollas focused his lens on the Greek beaches, he found himself, perhaps subconsciously, face to face with the end of an era: it was the watershed where the early etiquette of the seaside holiday, with all its enthusiasm and simplicity, met modern light summer industry. All sorts of consumer mechanisms started becoming increasingly common, gradually surrendering the coast and its particular atmosphere to the social mimicry of the ‘tyrannical majority of the holiday-maker’4 and the unreasonable and arbitrary exploitation of this newly acquired treasure.
The seaside that Depollas places at the centre of observation is not the graceful arm of a slender-bodied Cycladic isle giving birth to many a promise through the spectacular quaintness of a picture postcard. It is the commonplace Attica beach he portrays. This bears witness to the photographer’s intention of probing modern Greek reality beyond the standards of international tourism. In addition, for Depollas, with years of experience in travel photography, the selection and significance of an average lying outside the dictates of what is considered aesthetically pleasing satisfactorily counterbalances the well-structured hierarchy of idealised landscape photography.
While examining the features of form in this series, one observes a rare and exemplary synergy of technique, style and message signposting an oeuvre both original and solid. The square format, with the static of its equal sides, indirectly alludes to the inertia of summer relaxation. Similarly the occasionally arising inclined horizons betray a lack of conventionality (both in seaside behaviour and photographic composition). The distance from which the photograph is snapped is almost invariably medium: the ideal distance for a bather carefreely gazing at the goings on of the beach, keeping the distance of the uninvolved observer. The scale of proportion in the forms and natural surroundings and the relationship between them in the frame of the picture depicts an initial pact of friendship, a harmonious co-existence between man and the environment. In the same way the compositions incorporate the impulsiveness of the snapshot, often leaving an aftertaste of the coincidental wandering gaze and not that of artfully hidden calculated intention.
The tonality of the photographs with the condensed dark regions, the sometimes sharp contrasts, the hazy atmosphere with the lack of clarity and precision in tone distinction appears complex and unusual. In actuality it is wisely chosen. The absolute white of the Greek summer yields considerably, though it is still present in the sense of the momentary blindness one experiences when exposing the naked eye to the harsh glare of the summer sand "annihilating the seas and incapacitating the skies," as Odysseas Elytis wrote5. Here we are in the dominion of a volatile grey which creeps into everything like powdery sand. This tonality implies a diffused sense of embarrassment. Perhaps it is the embarrassment people feel when torn between limiting social conventionalities and the fleeting expiation promised by the seaside. Yet it is also the uneasiness of a Greece taking its first steps along a new social and political path, side-stepping and hesitating at the passage from tradition to progress. Brushing aside the capacity of the camera to record images with singular precision, the blurriness in the portrayal of people and space is transformed into a fertile, ambiguous metaphor for the relaxed atmosphere that still dominated the seaside at that time and also for the uncertainty and vagueness of a post-dictatorship Greece.
Echoing Pericles Yiannopoulos, Le Corbusier wrote in 1934, "I knew that Greece would give us [...] the human line that dissolves and transcends confusion." The vagueness of line in Depollas’s photography, however, restores and reinforces confusion6. It may be possible to interpret this contrast as follows: Le Corbusier refers to the ancient Greek concept of clarity of line, extending this to the architecture of the Aegean, with which he had become acquainted. Depollas, on the other hand, attempts to give the world view of the modern Greek who, despite the clarity of Mediterranean light defining him, yet due to a sort of cultural myopia, does not possess a clear view of himself, of others, of Greece, of the past and of the present. He finds it difficult to program and be programmed, to acquire co-ordination and inner cohesion, to carry out long-term plans within precise limits. He swims, however, courageously and oblivious to danger in the seas of contemporary life.
After all, the descriptive precision of photography was praised in countries where it suited the analytical thinking of the inhabitants and where it could be exploited as documentation aiming at description, knowledge, measurement and even control. Modern Greek thinking was never hard pressed to express itself in minute detail. On the contrary, it stood out for its clever and imponderable abstractness. Thus, the unorthodox style of this series of photographs innovatively recreates the spiritual ambience of the seaside and not the natural surroundings. The gaze, whether individual or collective, is not expressed as a perfunctory imprint of what the eyeball sees, but rather as a construction based on the particular intellectual and psychological co-ordinates of each society.
At the same time this series demonstrates Depollas’s unconventional approach to even some of the most basic principles in photography. Using expired film – the temperature, humidity and overmaturation of the photosensitive emulsion making the preview of the end result extraordinarily difficult – was the photographer’s initial incentive. This lack of absolute control over the procedure indirectly alludes to the social context of Greece. In this way the photograph is remoulded into a poetic idiom masterfully incorporated in the notional context of the work. Creatively questioning the divine laws of photography, art and society in general is one of the most lasting features of Depollas’s artistic development.
The vast majority of the photographs in the series focus on people as the unnamed protagonists and spectators of the microcosmic daily stageplay enacted on the beach. Nonetheless, people often appear with their backs turned and frequently can not be easily distinguished. At first, this seems odd if one thinks back to Depollas’s portraiture, characterised by directness, with the subject looking straight into the camera, boldly stating participation in the act of being photographed. The matter here, however, is obviously not the depiction of figures but the sketching of human types, of the web of human relationships inevitably spun at the water’s edge.
The titles of the photographs, concise, witty and hand-written on the photograph, reminiscent of Duane Michals in the 60s, lend the images a more personal and playful note. Wherever it is grammatically possible, the passive voice is used in Greek, once again indirectly indicating a relaxed distancing, symbolic of the languidness of summer. Depollas underscores the indissoluble relation between words and images, as these two means of communication not only overlap but also contain one another in a practical way. At the same time the series acquires a seeming lightness, perhaps similar to that of the seaside, where all worries temporarily melt away. This emerges in the photographer’s personal stance. While avoiding melodramatic gravity, he aims at scathing satire, with discreet comical elements, through which a solid structure of social criticism is erected.
The background of the photographs is plain and dominated by the austerity of two lines: the coastline and the horizon. These make up the foundations of the stage where the shadow theatre of the seaside will unfold, complete with a large cast of characters improvising the same sketch in innumerable versions – a sketch which could be entitled "Idyllic Escape from the Burdens of Urban Routine". But why a shadow theatre? Mainly because the temporary tenants of Depollas’s beach remain for us vague figures, smudges projected on this singular sheet of photographic paper. Another reason it can be called thus is because the cast of characters involuntarily parading across Depollas’s stage also has its origins in the Greek popular social strata.
On this backdrop, literally and figuratively, visually and socially set up by the photographer, the outlining process takes place: firstly by documenting the behaviour and customs of the beach as this is expressed in the ritual of summer baptism in the sea under the omniscient eye of the sweltering sun. It is there one comes across the plump lady in her sun hat and waterwings, the grandma going back and forth with string bags, the gentlemen with the straw mats and straw hats, the couple playing the noisy game of racquetball, the young woman striking a pose for a snapshot, the ritual of being buried in the sand, the weary pushing of the stalled car, the wandering tradespeople singing their wares to the accompaniment of the waves breaking on the shore. In some photographs, Depollas artfully calls upon a latent eroticism residing in seaside regions since it is there where the sight of the hip-swaying half-naked body, partially freed of the social shackles of clothing, ignites the fantasies of furtive glances, freely cultivates expectations and gives ground to aspiring and frequently flamboyant flirtatiousness.
Secondly, the sketch is filled out by pinpointing and underlining the details of this seaside microcosm, enriching the atmosphere and simultaneously conveying its spirit: covered up cars and canteen sheds, newspapers blown about by the wind and rusting washing machines, discarded mirrors and public signs, cut-off tree trunks and telephone boxes, stray dogs and plodding donkeys, water cycles and wounded piers. The beach itself, with the foot-pitted sand, resembles a war field, the traces of which the weak breeze struggles to soften. The end result is a location both peculiar and unpredictable, confirming the summertime necessity of Greek mood swings, urging one to view the beach sometimes as a heaven on earth that soothes the spirit and rejuvenates the body and sometimes as a trodden plot of land where each person sows his/her own arbitrariness to a fluctuating degree of arrogance.
Depollas’s satirical ethography depicts an order not exhausted in summer scenes and the languid pastimes of the seaside holidays. It points to elements of modern Greek daily life and identity going far beneath the surface. It concerns itself with the way time and space are managed, with the public image of the self and of social relationships. It also has to do with the representation of a physical limitation, of a front where man expresses his existential equilibrium or angst and comes face to face with the unknown deep blue sea and the infinity of the horizon.
Depollas keeps an equal distance from the two strong currents of contemporary Greek affect: unbridled idealisation and insensible enthusiasm on the one hand and dour defeatism and doleful romanticism on the other. The representation of physical and psychological space he achieves is an emphatic contradistinction to the imported obsessions with the picturesque and the classical landscape, which belatedly bewitched 20th century Greece. Using the invaluable tools of a liberated and creative imagination, careful social observation and apt critical questioning, Depollas dives into the deep waters of Greek public life to fish for his photographic catch. The aesthetic idiom he creates is characterised by particular originality, far beyond the fashionable obsession with searching for pretentious originality or regurgitating infertile styles and themes. Thus, his work On the Beach is transformed into crucial reflection on Greek society proceeding with lacking spiritual perspicuity into an internally and externally uncertain landscape. It miraculously and dangerously totters between the rational and the experiential, between order and excessively increased entropy. Depollas’s original visual conception gives shape to something latent, to a speck of Greek mentality that rarely finds a visual outlet, thus transforming it into something of an ideogram. His photography could well bear testimony to what Frank Zappa meant when he said in one of his last interviews that anything genuinely personal or regional ultimately becomes interesting to everyone.