Niko J. Kallianiotis - Blog

In November of 1935 Walker Evans made a photograph about Bethlehem titled “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”. A large cement cross sits in the foreground overlooking a perfectly composed scene of American life and industry. A cemetery competes with brick homes and porches that are knitted together in a plateau, fluctuating between past and present. Just when your eye comprehends the few inches of greenery, you look up only to see a changing landscape of hard factory life. Like any brilliant photograph, it speaks in a dichotomy of quiet and busy; charging rapidly towards the future yet relentlessly becoming a prophecy of the uncertain. The Bethlehem Steel Company at times swelled to about 300,000 jobs nationally and about 30,000 at the Bethlehem location, about half the population of the city. The mill closed and parts of it have been turned into a casino and boutiques I have been thinking about this photograph for a very long time and visited the exact location and town several times. It’s always a unique and precious experience; understanding history, understanding America, or at least try to.

That particular theme and genre are considered old and conventional in today’s photographic standards. It is not considered innovative enough; it’s been done before. For whatever it’s worth, that theme, in one way or another, determined the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Several political commentators, and writers on photography, tried in various forms to explain the outcome, both in terms of the shocking election results and in terms of the photography. On occasion, it was suggested that photojournalism failed to accurately represent the communities, which influenced the outcome of the election, and it was suggested that in the future photographers should concentrate more on this particular theme with America at its core base. I disagree; photojournalism and photography have not failed. The overall media and photography community as we know it has. There is an abundance of community photographers who work in a documentary style and regularly make projects regarding the socioeconomic situations in areas of decline. But, with few exceptions, we rarely saw those projects. Instead, what we saw were photographs produced by “elite” visual storytellers of the mainstream media organizations and agencies, working under the pressure of deadlines and particular demands. Oftentimes the work lacked empathy and understanding which was the result of a disengaged approach and lack of understanding of a particular region. The intention of this essay is not to judge or devalue their work, but to raise questions about the photography world as a whole. I have utter respect for photojournalists and their service and I was honored to have started my photographic journey in the newsroom.

©Walker Evans, “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”, 1935.

One example that refers to the above statement is the photographic coverage of the 2016 NRA National Convention. If you lived outside the United States with no access to the Internet and were suddenly exposed to those particular images, you would never, ever visit this country out of fear from the people that you might have to confront. Regardless of your position about guns, your political affiliation and the like, the images represented the people in a grotesque way, making them mere caricatures.

As the great and humble Gary Winogrand once succinctly said, “I am a student of America”. A abide with that statement and it represents me completely, both as an America Citizen but as an immigrant. I was not born in this country I now call home, but I have come to love it with the same passion and dedication as my native country. I have experienced but most importantly learned about the culture, the people, as well as the topography of this great land and in particular of my state of Pennsylvania, otherwise known, as “Trump Country”, and that assessment was the first and last mistake. There is no such a thing as Trump Country or Hilary Country, it is all fiction. For my personal project, I’ve been traveling through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania; I have driven over ten thousand miles in the last two years and by no means am I done. The Keystone State, once a prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry, has now become an American Dream yet to be realized. The disconnect between metro and rural America as well as its issues, values and aspirations is beyond comprehension; but we all, for the most part, assume to be aware of the problem, but in reality we don’t. Some, are more familiar with what is happening in other parts of the world than what is happening in small town America.

©Niko J. Kallianiotis, America in a Trance, Pennsylvania, 2016.

As an immigrant and naturalized citizen I had always perceived the United States differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Through the last two decades, as I grew both as a person and also a photographer (at least I hope I did), that fiction remained just that, fiction. The Big Apple was my initial experience with the Unites States. Since then, I have lived and worked as a photojournalist on and off for about fifteen years, and as my understanding of those communities grew, so did my uncertainty as to what the future about these places might bring. I was honored to meet unique people and listen to their stories and their struggles to make ends meet. That was years ago in New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania but also for the last two years preceding the recent election the experience and feeling was enhanced. Many leaders came and went but nothing changed for those areas and most likely nothing will. But through listening and experiencing and above all, feeling, you can predict a little more accurately. The vibe was there, the people were hungry for “change” - the election results was just the cherry on the pie of what was cooking for years, and the unthinkable became a reality and a nightmare, depending on your political affiliation. I was personally not shocked, and I was really surprised that some were. Over and over again in conversations with friends and colleagues I raised the concern that if the tone of the coverage towards “Trump Country” doesn’t change, there will be….oh well.

Photography and society are one and the same and Walker Evans with the “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”, photograph commented on that era but also predicted the future, but above all, he experienced, listened, and understood. Unfortunately for the photographic community the particular genre of photography was considered, before the election campaign trails were on their way, conventional and cliché, but in an instant the theme became mainstream. Now photographers and students with the “After” and “isms” in hand, will frantically travel in scores to rural America, to create the new “contemporary” document, and “investigate” in digital pixels or silver halides the forgotten America; some will understand, some won’t.

I admit, I have not been very active with my Blog and although the other members at OramaPhotos have not directly or otherwise brought my blog inactivity to attention, I thought it would be appropriate to start the New Year with regular posts; or at least try to. There are many things relating to photography, personal and otherwise, that I would like to express. I love to write but I am not a writer; I love to make pictures but I do not consider myself an artist, nor do I care for the title or the subterranean meanings that go in accord with the title. I did not pick up a camera when I was eight-years-old. In fact, I think I was twenty-two and my first experience with a camera was when I moved to the United States and enrolled in college. Until that point, I was not really exposed to photography or the arts.

Photography is the most powerful mode of communication, and on a daily basis we are bombarded with visuals through social media platforms: news organizations, Instagram, blogs… the list goes on. Reviewing and translating a photograph is a highly subjective encounter but sometimes, and in my opinion not in the desired frequency, the response is automatic; one that peers through the heart, a moment that puts you inside the skin, heart and soul of the photographer. Without even knowing them personally you feel them, understand them, and through that process you might understand yourself. We all have our favorite list of photographers, but we also all have, or should have, the one photographer that speaks to us in a way that when looking at their work, time stops and everything that we have ever seen up until that moment dissolves into an fading memory. For me that photographer is Josef Kudelka and his book Exiles. With every turning page you experience a visual, but also inner, confession.

From one photograph to the next, the subjects and landscape become an autobiographical testament of feelings, emotions, concerns, and fears. You are there in the moment, and you can feel, hear and smell the culture, the breath of the photographer, while attempting to decipher the nuances of the moments. I appreciate the raw, straightforward and unembellished qualities of the work; not for the sake of being raw, but for their aptness to confess. Most importantly the work deviates from the mere representation of facts. The “exotic” element, in my personal opinion, is absent from the work. Unfortunately, this “exoticism” is so prevalent (both in terms of location and subject matter) that it would be impossible for any photographer with a creative twist to come back with anything but decent work. There are certainly a few greats with exceptional work from those locations but many fall into the trap of the exotic, the visually interesting. But as many trips you will take to Cuba or India it would be most likely impossible to surpass the quality of the greats. By no means am I trying to prevent anyone from making that kind of work - trust me I wish I had all the visual opportunities where I photograph. I am more prone to slam on my brakes and hop out of the car so I can capture the blending of the human element with the landscape; due to the locale, it could be two weeks until someone else walks by.

Being there and simply recording and describing a moment for me does not work, both in relation to the work of others and of course mine. I have failed a myriad of times, but I strive to use the medium as a form to express my feelings, raise questions, and attempt to make the viewer understand the photographs while simultaneously getting a glimpse into my inner self.

I make work from the heart and I tend to photograph only in places and subject matters I care about. I see my work as a confession, a visual biography and a journal of my life’s experiences; the good, the bad, it’s all there. The constant struggle to contend with having two countries you love and confuse and hurt you. Through the photographic process you forget, but simultaneously suffer as well, because someone looked like your grandfather, your uncle, or your childhood friend. But for a moment you forget where you are, who you are, because the viewfinder is your shield; the pill that erases all thoughts prior to the moment of making of an everlasting personal testimony, to the point you don’t existing for a 500th/sec; but reality hits you hard when the 35mm prime lens is lowered, your grandfather’s figure fading in the distance; and you are somewhere in Pennsylvania hoping you made something worthy, and captured an instance that will make someone feel that moment, and understand you as you aim to touch their heart, just like Kudelka's work touched mine.

* All Photographs copyright Jofef Kudelka.

Considering Photographic "art", under the genre of photojournalism, documentary, street photography and the like, it is the ability to make a powerful image the moment light hits your sensor or silver halides, depending on your aesthetic preferences. It's a result of your intuition, your astute attention to your environs, your dedication and ethics, that is if you have any. That’s Photographic Art. And if you are wandering the streets of that visually affluent and exotic place, with the need of removing elements to create an inspirational image, maybe you should consider your work process. Your focal length, your position and framing, although a choice, are not an accurate representation of what your eyes witnessed, we know that, but it's not necessarily manipulation. Yes, we also know that photography is not the "truth". But that moment it's something you witnessed and experienced, it intrigued you for social or cultural reasons, and that moment is accurate, it's yours, but simultaneously theirs too. Without them you are nothing, eliminating them is disrespectful, he was happy you took his picture. Additionally, you are also missing out on the fun of picture hunting. The strive in searching and capturing that powerful moment when everything is harmonious. Some times that moment comes, other times it doesn't, and it's fine, just move on.

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In a world beyond the frenetic tempo of the metropolis, where technology has succumbed us by gluing our gaze on a retina display or smartphone, swapping franticly beyond human comprehension though social media, blog and news sites, we have become detached. The omission of not using our commodities on a regular basis (including doing 70mph on the interstate) and the idea of leaving our front door without our favorite gadget terrifies us; talking from experience. In the celebratory and socially diverse rhythm of the fair, technology becomes passive, diffused, and at times non-existent. Outside the gates of this festivious enclave, technology advances rapidly in order to improve our lives and our consumer habits. What I am witnessing this summer while working on my ongoing project about fairs in Pennsylvania is a trend and fashion of another dimension, of an innocent past, and a popular tool among the elderly nationaly and abroad. It's the fly swatter, it’s back.