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Creative Photography in Archaeology Reveals Work from Ancient, Modern Travelers



Just what were the intentions of 11 photographers who devoted so much time and energy to capturing Greek antiquities on film? Did they aim to create art? Or was their intent simply to document what they saw, to convey specific information to the viewer?

Those are among the questions posed in "The Creative Photograph in Archaeology -- from the Traveling Photographers of the 19th Century to the Creative Photography of the 20th Century," the autumn exhibition at Fairfield University's Walsh Gallery. It will be on view through Dec. 9. Featured are 76 large-format black-and-white photographs, taken during the last 150 years, of the Parthenon and other major Greek antiquities. The exhibition was organized by Socratis Mavrommatis, chief photographer of the Acropolis Restoration Service and the Benaki Museum, both in Athens, in collaboration with his friend and colleague Katherine Schwab, associate professor of art history in Fairfield University's Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Curated by Costis Antoniadis, professor of photography at the Technological Educational Institution of Athens, the exhibition includes photos by several of the leading archaeological photographers of the past, including Swiss-born Frederic Boissonnas (1858-1946); and Germans Walter Hege (1893-1955), Herbert List (1903-1975) and Goesta Hellner (born in 1938).

Mavrommatis, 58, who has spent the last 28 years documenting the ongoing restoration of the Acropolis, is represented by 13 photos -- among the most recent in the collection -- taken between 1979 and 2002.

For Mavrommatis, who was on hand last week to mount the show, the answer to the exhibition's questions is obvious.

Although scholars continue to debate whether photography can be considered an art form, Mavrommatis believes that the exhibit's photographs demonstrate that "artistic intention and conveying information have co-existed more or less in history."

The show opens with what Mavrommatis considers "travel" photography -- sweeping panoramic views that were taken of the antiquities in the 1850s (when photography was still in its infancy) to share with a public eager to "see" far-away places. Archaeological photography as a genre, Mavrommatis said, began in earnest with the photos of Boissonnas, who first went to Greece in 1903, and during the subsequent 27 years visited frequently.

Boissonnas "packs a lot of information" into each photo, which is the goal of archaeological photography, Mavrommatis explained.

"It's not practical to have a million photographs it becomes useless to have so many. You must have a few" that are crammed with as much information as possible.

"It's good for the archivist, good for publication, good for our understanding."

In the years between World War I and World War II, Walter Hege and Herbert List leaned to "detail over documentation," often focusing on one or two particular aspects of an archaeological site. Their photography was born of its time, when it was considered de rigueur to dramatize and idealize the subject matter, and to use light and shadow for bold effects, he said.

In addition to Mavrommatis, contemporary photography is represented by Goesta Hellner, who helped to change the way photographers shoot classical sculpture. His style was to minimize the drama by often shooting the sculpture against background of white cloth, letting the works speak for themselves, Mavrommatis said. Mavrommatis' photos -- some stunning in their near-abstract qualities -- often examine the minute details of the site: the texture of the stone, the ancient markings of tools, the effects of wind, erosion and pollution on a tiny piece of monument.

"For many years, archaeological photography focused on what you can see if you're not there. I focus on what you can't see even if you are there."

All the photographs in the show are inkjet prints in the same size (in 61 by 61 centimeter frames) from the original negatives or photographs of the period. Scratches and other imperfections caused by aging were removed so "we can see what the photographer saw, so that we can see with his eye," Mavrommatis explained. After leaving the Walsh Gallery, the exhibition will go on a tour of the United States and Europe, culminating in an exhibition and conference at the Benaki Museum in 2008. In Fairfield, the collection is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue in English, edited by Mavrommatis. Next year, another publication will be available, with contributions by scholars from Greece and the United States, including essays by Schwab and Dr. Diana Mille, director of the Walsh Art Gallery.

The "Creative Photography in Archaeology" is an outgrowth of an exhibition that took place at Fairfield University in the fall of 2004 that featured Mavrommatis' photographs from the Acropolis Restoration Project taken over more than two decades.

A complementary exhibition, "19th Century Impressions of the Parthenon Frieze," is on view through Oct. 17 at the University's Lukacs Gallery in the Studio Art program's facilities in Loyola Hall. Featured is a selection of 19th century plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze that were donated to the university in 2004 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Schwab is curator of the university's cast collection.)

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