© Andreas Muller-Pohle
from The Danube River Project © Andreas Muller-Pohle

Today, with digital photography having diluted the medium of photography in the same way Kodak’s Brownie $1 cameras did in the early 20th century, photography is becoming a medium that is constantly being redefined. From digital compacts to compact SLRs, to mobile phone cameras packing more megapixels than the first digital cameras that came out on the market, everyone can be photographer, and absolutely anything can be a subject.

In a sense, this is what this year’s Athens Photo Festival – one of the world’s oldest photography festivals – touches on. In a country that straddles east and west, the event brings together young and more established photographers from Greece and abroad under the main theme of Crossroads. Held in what was once the garage for the Olympic stadium next door, with a pedestrianized flyover swooping overhead, the seafront outside and networks of roads encircling the premises, the theme could not be made more physically apparent.

Metaphorically, we are all at a crossroads. Every minute of one’s waking life could arguably be seen as a crossroad of choice, desire and need, something Penelope Koliopoulou in the Young Greek photographers 09 portion of the show captures in her moody, self-portraits of a non-eventful life. Panayiotis Tomaras expresses similar sentiments in his 38 Seconds series that appropriates slit-scan photography to break down the process of everyday movement into sequences – something Panos Kokkinas chooses to freeze frame in a panoramic view of the metro platform at Athens’ central station Syntagma – reminiscent of Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip series.

© Panayiotis Tomaras
from 38 Seconds © Panayiotis Tomaras

Beyond the individual’s predicament, Chinese photographer Wei Bi touches on the junctions in which societies find themselves today, with staged, black and white compositions focusing on the Chinese state and its relationship with its people. Images that bring to mind disturbing pictures that emerged amidst revelations of torture in American army camps in Iraq, Wei Bi clearly composes his political point. Statements are also a feature of the Mutations II. Moving Stills section. Olga Chernysheva’s Windows commandeers the aesthetics of closed circuit television cameras to film apartment window scenes in a way that highlights the relationship between citizens and their governments. As we photograph society, society photographs us back in return.

The idea of staging and composing images as opposed to reflecting and capturing moments in photography is something that is looked into in great detail at the Xippas Gallery’s satellite exhibition, Realities and Plausibilities, as does the travelling exhibition Faces to Faces, curated by Isabelle De Montfumat for CultureFrance. Pushing the boundaries by which photography is defined as a tool for observation, the show visually maps out the junction between art, photography and representations of reality, eloquently described in the surrealist imagery of Philippe Ramette, a photographer with the same poetic ability as Belgian painter Renee Magritte.

© Yorgos Yerolymbos
from Realities and Plausibilities © Yorgos Yerolymbos

Yet it was the photography of Pavlos Fysakis that most literally juxtaposed art with the photographer’s eye. An image of a man’s head jutting out of a hole in the ground taken from Fysakis’s Land Ends; Gavdos/South series appears to be – at least to anyone familiar with the work of Maurizio Cattelan – a direct reference to Untitled, 2001. Alongside the lamda prints of Manolis Baboussis, a teacher at the Athens School of Fine Art, whose series of four works bear the same painterly mastery of a Renaissance still life, and Athena Chroni’s Victorian-esque self-portraits, it is clear that photography has come a long way since the Daguerrotype process was first announced in Paris, 1838.

But when it comes to literal narrative, the idea of being at a crossroads is best expressed through the journey, and for Demosthenes Agrafiotis – who pins his entire photographic career on the journey – the journey itself is what makes photography a performance. Indeed, Yannis Tzortzis’ ephemeral shots taken on a journey from Athens to Beijing via the Silk Road in 2008 is a case in point.

© Yannis Tzortzis
© Yannis Tzortzis

As the world is on the tipping point of what most predict to be an environmental disaster, Tzortzis and his team travelled by car along difficult terrain to assess the proliferation of renewable energy sources in the countries along their route. The images captured are a monument to the space and time that exists in the middle of nowhere. Lone subjects in vast landscapes express the human presence, yet the only humanity within scarce or industrial scenes are the eyes that view them.

Andreas Muller-Pohle’s journey took a more scientific approach. Comprised of 72 images, The Danube River Project looks at the river that connects ten European states in a way that questions, like Tzortzis, whether we truly see the world around us. With his lens half in the water and half out, the river’s co-existence with the manmade and natural world is visually exposed. The chemical analyses of water samples taken at the point each image was captured is printed on the lower part of the image itself. Truly drawing the viewer into the life of the river, it becomes something real, rather than something that is (like most city rivers) taken for granted, a poignant reminder of man’s diminishing relationship with the natural world.

As one reaches the end of the main exhibition and having travelled with the photographers into metaphorical and literal worlds, photography’s capability of relating the experience of the human soul in a way that other disciplines of the visual arts cannot becomes all the more apparent – something the BA Diploma exhibition from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland seems to celebrate. Since the commercialisation of photography in the early 1900s, the photograph has taken on the position of being the prime visual representative of what it is to be alive, with each photographic snapshot, landscape, portrait and composition isolating an aspect of reality that is instantly recognizable and un-obscured. Perhaps it is this simplicity that makes photography so accessible.  

© Pavlos Fysakis
© Pavlos Fysakis

At the same time, the Photo Folio review revealed an astonishing number of young photographers with portfolios dedicated to photojournalism and street photography. Repeated mentions of Henri-Cartier Bresson, analogue cameras, 35mm lenses and darkroom chemicals reflected a continuing desire to observe and reflect the world in a way that defined the medium from the 1960’s onwards. Apparently, returning to the photography’s analogue glory days is a way in which photographers can feel separate to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a camera, in much the same way art photography and commercial photography were defined by the use of black and white, or colour.

Nevertheless, when it comes to photography, the future is undefined, and therefore should and will continue to be as broad as the number of camera models that exist today. What we see, and how we define it will continue to change, as will the media and technology that will help in appeasing the all too human need to reflect on its surroundings. Both a portrait of our world today and the medium that captures it, the Athens Photo Festival documents a changing world whilst contemplating the ramifications of transformation while reflecting on photography’s own developing identity in a digitally-defined age. That’s what makes the festival so illuminating. We are all at a crossroads – and that is not a bad thing. At a crossroads, the idea of choice means anything could happen.
Stephanie Bailey

Athens Photo Festival

6 November – 6 December 2009