Tom Psomotragos is an archetypal figure walking along Glebe Point Road either alone or with his dog; yet in all occasions holding his camera and taking snapshots of a busy and fast-moving world of humans. As fellow Greeks, we immediately recognised each other’s ‘spookiness’: we talked, with different degrees of enthusiasm, about the Greek landscape, but mostly about his deep love for his ancestral island of Lemnos and the world of imaginary beings that inhabit it. ‘Shadows and reflections, lost destinies, omens of those otherbeings,’ as he told me once. In his series ‘A Greek Village’ he tried exactly that: to photograph absence and invisibility, the lack of human presence, in a world all made by humans.
I remember when I first met him some twenty-five years ago. He started talking about his mysticism and his spiritual world in a way that I couldn’t reconcile it with the pronounced materiality of his pictures, the significant forms that live in his frames and the sculptural quality of their compositional structure. It took me years to understand the strong and deep fusion of the material and the spiritual found in his work, the profound sense of continuity between the world of our senses and the world of our imaginings: the visible universe of our experiences and the invisible cosmos of our memories. Tom’s camera merges the dimensions of being: he exteriorises what is inside and interiorises what is visible. His camera knows how to capture the elusive and the ephemeral in a suggestive and, if I may call it, in a morphoplastic way: his photographs monumentalise what is fluid, transitory and vulnerable.
For years I have heard him talking about the exhibition with what he called The Bunker Series because of their underground proximity with the underworld the Hades and the extremely haunting atmosphere of premonition and immanence lurking in them. Tom is the master of ocular nuance and at the same time of material volume. He gives a three-dimensional structure to his images; the viewer falls into the picture as if in maelstrom because Tom’s eyes work with deep focus and a depthless depth of field.
There is a specific visual mapping of reality that we find in his works. In his Homeless series for example the face of the destitute becomes a symbol of the existential homelessness of a generation, of their hopes and frustrated ideals. Yet the individuals are extremely specific: their history is written on them, like geological sediments; even when the black and white contrast is sharp and crisp, deep shadows and indeterminate lines show that they are something more dwelling in them. There is an inverted aura, shining inwards and yet its radiance is felt by the viewers. His photographs are like negatives of Kirlian photography: the vital energy of the individuals photographer glows from within. Their whole face and body, clothes and shoes all shine with an otherworldly invitation.
Elsewhere, as in his photos of a Greek village, his camera stares at doors, windows, ruined walls, empty roads, abandoned shoes, abandoned photographs tokens of things past, now delivered to memory and to the effort of his camera to memorialise them.
Tom mostly prefers black and white photographs full of contrast and yet strong degrees of luminosity. He knows how to complete the visual frame with imperceptible objects somewhere in the background recreating the ontology of phantoms and ghosts which exist as imperceptible entities yet with full and active presence in our everyday existence. His photographs of photographs create a strange juxtaposition of frames as they establish a psychological triangulation: through his photographs we see the past photograph, the people looking at the camera and through the camera looking straight at us.
Every photographer has a main theme and I think that Tom’s photos have one central quest: to locate the spiritual, (should I call it the pneumatic?), within the material and the mundane. His work is about the ‘radical ordinary’ the ordinary being and objects that foreground hidden dimensions of existence.
Mayakovsky I think said that art is not a mirror that reflects but a glass that magnifies. This is what I find in his art. If we look at his series on Glebe, we see images of people living in front of you but who at the same time lost in backgrounds without horizons. Their faces become recordings of an implied reality; they present a microcosm of individuals as they seek the redemption that their innocent childhood had promised them.
Tom’s camera becomes the bridge to the reality that experience has denied them. By actually meeting some of these remarkable individuals, you feel the intense identity that Tom has extracted from their daily existence. He uses light, movement and appearance to explore deep structures, the existential testimony of being here and of not being here anymore, the great of paradox of photography.
His photographs give the opportunity to appreciate his skilled portrayal of human fragility, his immense empathy with the spiritual self within and around us, an empathy of formal correspondences and at the same time of invisible omens.
Tom’s photography is above everything else an exploration of the dynamic qualities of human form and the emotional space framed by the projection of feelings on the strange world of inanimate objects. What we see here in the photographs of the island is not death and abandonment but icons of lost realities, hovering in –between this world and another, the world of dis-membering and re-membering. Yet at the moment they become arrested traces of light on the materiality of the film; hence, they are changed, become transubstantiated, indeed take on a new significance, coloured by the specificity of their position and the intentionality of the photographer.
What do we see through these photographs? The invisible Orphic world of geometric analogies, without the enchanting allure of vivid and strong colours. We see the essential lines of converging beings, ephemeral and transitory but at the same time continuously present, diachronically energetic.
For me, the work of Tom is a testimony of both beauty and truth, which does not emotionally or intellectually manipulate its viewers but uses the photographic space as a window to portray the co-dependent presence of beings and objects in a cosmos of absolute purity.
Tom’s photography is permeated by a Platonic vision of permanence and immutability; and in a world of fleeting forms and fragile bodies, his camera celebrates the trace that remains after their reality disappears. Only Anselm Adams, Dorothea Lange, Andre Kertesz and Brassai have attempted something similar and imagined a world of spectral supra-realities coexisting with the earthy and the perishable.
Tom’ eye never abandons the ruins of time; indeed, they are not ruins to him. They are visual rituals of reconciliation, between absence and presence, between the trace and the body, between embodiment and de-realisation. Tom’s inner vision is an invitation to the world of luminosity and plenitude, so aptly celebrated by the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis in his verse:
Worthy it is the Light / and the first human wish curved in stone.
His photographs capture visually the first human wish for redemption and serenity: they are visual magnificats to the fleeting beauty of mortals and their psychical chronicles in an era of existential amnesia.
The University of Sydney
This brief essay was presented at Tom Psomotragos’ photographing exhibition organised by the Greek festival of Sydney in 2012.
(Photo: “Tom Psomotragos”, 2019)