Monday, January 29, 2007


“You don't take a photograph. You ask, quietly, to borrow it.” Author unknown.

I am rather wary of photographs, both taking them and being in them. This is because, as NKEE old boy Dimitri “Come on at least try to look relaxed” Tsahuridis can attest, I am extremely unphotogenic, possessed of a bizarre tendency to stare or snarl, rather than smile at the camera. Though not averse to the taking of photographs per se, I am conscious of the fact that invariably and in Orwellian fashion, the photograph one takes gradually supplants one’s actual memory of the event or scene it is supposed to record for posterity. Further, unlike painting, which empowers the artist to recreate or reinterpret his own cosmos anew through the use of colour, texture and depth, photography is flat, a parody of the created world at best and in its subjective portrayal of the objective eye, contrived. It lends itself easily by its very physical nature, to the danger of being superficially considered, giving credibility to Ansel Adam’s words: “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom into.”
When I first met Ari Hatzis, photographer extraordinaire, he was completing his Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, where he also taught black and white photography. Having become entranced by Palamite theology, which encourages one to view the world through their noetic eyes rather than their physical organs, as well as Klusian philosophic thought, which holds that the artist creates the myth in order to obscure the art, I voiced voluminous objections against the art of photography, wielding as my final weapon, as I hoped to devastating effect, W Eugene Smith’s conviction that: “The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera.” Ari turned, laughed and riposted in a paraphrasis of Ansel Adams: “Yes, but there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”
We became firm friends, a friendship cemented by spending a summer in Greece, a country that Ari considers to be of special significance to him as a photographer. In his eyes, it is fitting that the land of gnosis is bathed in an apocalyptic sunlight that heightens and highlights all things that are hidden but at the same time, knows what to conceal in shadow. In Greece the sun illumines an augmented reality, the epitome of surrealism. Truly, then in Greece, technical distinctions become blurred and ultimately inverted. As Ambrose Bierce held, a photograph taken there is “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.”
Over the space of three months, we reveled in the bizarre, the uncanny and the downright incongruous, Ari faithfully snapping away with his camera, myself looking on, both of us working diligently in concert to impress a certain but not unmanageable quantity of remarkably pneumatic Eastern European exchange students of Byzantine history. Together we discovered the pea green lawn of seaweed lining the lagoon of Messolongi like a psychedelic putting green, the mysterious reflections of geometric immortality in the compact eyes of the saints in the golden mosaics of Osios Loukas and the flaming blood red passage carved upon the waters below Mount Taygetus at sunset; a silent scream of the murdered Spartan infants emanating from the depths of time.
The apogee of that exploration would definitely have to have been our visit to the temple of Athena Aphaea at Aegina. Intoxicated by the inexorable light mitigated by the trees and the straight lines of the Doric columns, or so I assume, as a British tourist had trod on my glasses minutes before, causing me to take in the scene only through my noetic eyes, Ari lay on the ground and stared up at the temple above him. Then he stretched out his arms as if to embrace the soil beneath him and exclaimed ecstatically: «Φίλε, τα έχω παίξει παντελώς.»
It is this attitude to photography, that of a lover perenially exploring the labyrinthine and sensuous curves of his beloved’s corporeal and psychic existence, that marks Ari Hatzis as a truly accomplished photographer. Returning from Greece, we gradually lost touch, though I still have a black and white photograph he had taken of me, on the back of which he had scrawled: “If you’re photographing in color you show the color of their clothes - if you use black and white, you will show the color of their soul.”
He went on to graduate from the internationally renowned photography department of RMIT University and soon after exhibited his first published work, entitled: “When Fish had Feathers.” This entailed a series of black and white portraits and forms part of a permanent exhibition in Collingwood. His work has since been exhibited and awarded numerous times in Australia. In 2006, he received an honourable mention for his work “Reconciliation Place” in the prestigious International Photography Awards.
He worked commercially as a freelance photographer in many different areas, and his knowledge of the digital aspect of the industry has allowed him to work as a Mac operator and digital retoucher for leading professionals. Not being able to withstand his innate longing for Greece, he returned there, particularly to Rhodes, where he sojourned with his partner, Martina Gemmola and set about capturing the essence of that magical place. Now he is using its inexorable light to pursue his career among the neon lights of America.
Ari Hatzis’ and Martina Gemmola’s joint exhibition, currently at Degani Bakery, 106 Station Street, Faifield encapsulates in a visual medium as few others can, Dirk Bogarde’s assertion that: “The camera can photograph thought.” It is an artful exploration and juxtaposition of light and everyday life. Their photographs, of ruinous buildings, terrifyingly empty beaches and elderly inhabitants of Rhodes have the unnerving stillness and brooding monolithic character of historical monuments yet are simultaneously light, affectionate and often facetious.
“So what myth have you created to obscure your art?” I spar. “What is Klus but the remainder recurring of Boolean logic?” he ripostes. Indeed, it is a most difficult thing to interview a person who knows you well, for he has power over you, can guess the motivation behind most of your questions and turn them against you. Thus, to my question: “Why photos of Greece? What does Greece mean to you?” his eyes widened in surprise as he answered incredulously: “Come on, you know. You have seen.” And he points me to a picture taken by Martina Gemmola of the interior of a ruinous building, the picture featured in this diatribe. A flaking red wall in the foreground, symbolizing the immediacy of passion but also its transitory nature, opens up via an archway into a serene though mouldering green room, a telling visual parable of coming to terms with one’s past. A window within that room looks out onto the world and the future: We see some palm fronds and a verdant mountain sloping down to unburden itself in the sea. Ultimately, there is a message of hope and renewal to be viewed through the prism of the ruins. I have not ever seen a photograph that so poignantly marries the conflicting essences of past, present and future and re-interprets them in a quintessentially Greek-Australian context.
Another photo by Ari Hatzis is particularly compelling. It is a desolate beach scene. The white sand sprawled in the foreground is flawless. The sea, a deep, almost impossible blue, looks as if it has been painted by a master. The viewer cannot tear their eyes away from it. Tucked to one side, though paradoxically dominant, is a beach umbrella which provides an unsettling quality to the whole vision. The sea and sand are so perfect that they cannot possibly be real. This cannot be a cliché of paradise. The umbrella, undoubtedly left behind or purposely positioned by humans is the only indicator of our existence in a world that does not require it, and it is an ephemeral indicator at that. Yet for all the stark clarity that characterizes the photograph, the umbrella too has the unreal quality of a Byzantine icon. It seems ‘acheiropoiiti,’ not made by human hands. Again in juxtaposing the extreme majesty of nature with the precarious futility of our own being, Ari compels our ocular nerves to contextualize their own existence. This truly is one of those photographs in which it could be postulated, as Richard Avedon has, that: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” Or is it? We should all fear such photos, for they pierce the soul and our smug sense of self, but then again, to drive the motif further, fear is supposed to be the darkroom where negatives develop.
So are Ari and Martina attempting to record a world in transition, a world that is about to be lost to us simply because we do not care to notice or are now incapable of appreciating its finer details? Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts. Perhaps this peripatetic duo will show us how to capture and expose both.
Genius notwithstanding, and while exhorting all and sundry to get themselves down to Degani Bakery in Fairfield to view the masterpieces for themselves, I salute the accomplished artists who this Diatribe pays tribute to with a parting shot, enlisting the help of John Steinbeck: “I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.”


First published in NKEE on 29 January 2007