Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Wedding Photo: Lidoriki Object 116

In Summer 2016, a team of students photographed 136 objects from the Lidoriki Folklore Museum. Lizzy Wood, among the students, is currently working up this collection into a digital exhibition and catalog. Our process of writing up an academic catalog entry for each object involves an open-ended on-line conversation about what makes these objects interesting. Lizzy has given me the challenge of writing down some first thoughts. Here it goes.

A wedding photograph signifies the penetration of technological mediation in the lives of rural Greece. Portrait photography became a fundamental medium in late-19th-century socializing, through visitation cards, wedding or funeral images. Photographic studios opened in Athens but their story in provincial towns (like Amfisa) is less known. Photography played an additional pre-wedding role in Greek life through the phenomenon of “picture brides” during the
 great emigration of the 1890s-1920s. Single male immigrants in the U.S. had no access to eligible females. Co-patriots would send photographs of eligible brides from back home. These arranged long-distance marriages were the subject of a 2004 film Brides. This, of course, is not unique to Greeks and continues to play a courting role in migrant laborers across the globe (digitally).

But this is not a photo-bride, but a commemoration of the wedding day. It was most likely not taken on the actual wedding day, so it repeats the dress-up of that momentous event. The long exposure required in early photography necessitated the special lights that only a photo studio could make possible. Most of the early portraits are staged at the photo studio. Without electricity in homes, you could not have domestic interior photography until much later. Photo studios became both the place and the artistic agent for photography. In this process, the photo became an advertisement of the studio, which is why the studio is so prominently marked on the photo. Isn’t it interesting that the names of the wedding couple are not commemorated (and hence forgotten) but the name of the studio that photographed them is?

A few words about the studio. The studio of Euthymios Macheras was a prominent (perhaps the only) photographic studio in Amfissa, the closest city to Lidoriki. The Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive contains a number of the studio’s photographs of couples, children, urban scenes (available digitally here). We have no date for the wedding photo, but it fits in the 1910-1930 range. If we did a thorough stylistic analysis of the wedding fashions, we might be able to narrow the range. 

The “Euth. Machairas. Photographic Studio, Amfisa” label at the lower right corner is interesting as a work of graphic design (my sketch left). It uses cursive, ornate letters for the name of the proprietor, but technocratic capital letters for the declaration of function. Graphically, it is a hybrid of artistic flair (top) and bureaucratic regularity (bottom).

Rather than looking at the most obvious – the objects, clothes, insignia of ceremonial dress – I look at clues on the architectural setting. My sketch (left) is a projected ground plan of the photographed space. Looking at the lower part of the portrait, one sees two courses of stone and a carpet. This is clearly not an indoor studio setup up but a photo in front of an actual house, and, even more, a house with a side-walk, so an urban house. What is puzzling is that there is no vertical house wall on the background, which is white. It seems to me that the photographer draped a cloth over the front of the house to create a blank slate. Now this is interesting in that it turns the street into a studio. The photo looks like a professional studio installation, but it was taken outdoors. A close look at the ground information also shows a textile draped over the sidewalk and placed right in front of the couple’s steps. During the ceremonial walk of wedding couple from their homes to the church, villagers used to drape the streets with carpets so that they never stepped on anything but a domesticated soft surface (think red-carpet at the Oscars). The striped fabric in front of the couple is such a carpet. Its striped design is visible, showing the parallel mechanism of the loom production. Although the carpet is traditional, the form of commemoration (photography) is modern as are the shoes that will step on the traditional carpet, most fashionable white high heels for the bride and shiny dressy black shoes for the groom. How does this help us reconstruct studio practices in Greece. First, it suggests that urban photo studios travelled outside of the studio and took wedding photographs in-situ. If the photo was indeed taking in Lidorki, then it would have been taken along its main street that would have included a side-walk. Second, the itinerant photographer brought along a fabric that they hang over the front of the house to disguise its architectural specificity, focus attention on the figures, and make it look as if they stepped into a studio.

Paradoxically, this is exactly how we took photos of our Lidoriki objects. We hang a plastic sheet that was backed with a photographic white fabric. Here, you see, our impromptu photo studio from the Lidoriki Folklore Museum.

Finally, I am intrigued by the frame. It is divided in two complementary zones, a smooth lacquered wood inside that transitions smoothly into the glass, and a carved wood outside that comes from the world of painting. The outer frame is not machine made but carved. It includes patterns of roses, florets, and leaves (detail sketch above).

1 comment:

Nauplion said...

My grandparents' wedding photo in a small town in 1912 Alabama was not taken on the wedding day. It, too, was taken outside before a sheet hung up on the porch.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States