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On Photography / Vrasidas Karalis: Tom Psomotragos again!

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I have been admiring Tom’s photo-images for many years now. They have some ineffable almost mystical qualities, certain unique paradoxical elements that you rarely see today in the era of the mechanical de-production of artistic images, in which materiality is skin-dip and excludes complexity as existential form.

The industry of producing copies of other copies, as if we are in Plato’s cave, now transposed into mechanical processes has become the norm and has become the only way of understanding what photography can do. The capitalist logic, from which many youthful interpreters suffer of, to find direct correspondence between the depiction and what is depicted, ignoring intentionality and interiority, dominates the utilitarian hermeneutics of naïve activists.

Tom is different because, strictly speaking, his photographs are meditative exercises on the act of photographing. I call this specific element in his work, energetic immobility: his photographs capture a moment of time and immobilize it yet they manage to maintain its internal energy and vital nature. These captured moments in the streets of the world are scratched over by their very ephemerality, which now has become memory and recollection.

Every photographer has to deal with the question of movement: both in time and in space. And all aspire to make out of this impossible material its fourth dimension, the experiential opening through which time lost becomes space regained and thus together they offer viewers a suggestive paradox: the agonistic symbiosis between being and non-being, the Parmenidian abstraction of experience through the materiality of the produced image.

Energetic immobility is the nature of all photographs: not its function not its perception, but its nature, indeed its essence.  In all his photographs, we see enormous masses of black interrupted by stripes of gray while all of them are blurred with a grainy grittiness on the photographic surface.

The specific shade of black becomes the existential coloring of what we see: the camera foregrounds the hidden tension and the invisible anxiety that permeates the frame, if I may call it in cinematic terms, the spontaneous mise-en-scene.

In the photographs from Sydney and his numinous urban landscapes we see that what keeps the image structured are the unseen emotional interactions between human beings, objects and temporality. It is as if we going back to the early years of photography, as the photographer wants to avoid embellishments and decorative additions, that we usually encounter in colour photos.

They look like the early photograms and most probably the eerie first photograph by Luis Daguerre in 1838 and his now famous View of the Boulevard du Temple or Robert Cornelius’ self-portait from 1839.

Tom imaginatively re-baptizes  visible reality through his effort to bring out the dramatic energy of the human psyche at the moment it is captured by the camera. In this manner, like the early Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits, he avoids sensationalism and especially pictorialism: he doesn’t make anything cute or beautiful because beauty is in the ability to sense and feel the mystery of some else’s existence, to which we are exposed when we see the photo of Father Nektarios or the perpetual riddle of his photography, the Harbor Bridge, or more the unreal objecthood of Sydney urban roads.

When you look at them, you feel uneasy: there is an ominous quality even in the photographs of demonstrations and rallies at Sydney University or in the streets of Sydney. We all feel a certain frisson, a warning from reality, that something else is also taking place within the frame of the picture. I remember here Eisenstein’s saying that art is not a mirror that reflects but a glass that magnifies. His photographs magnify the small details that make the mosaic of everyday existence.

What do these photographs depict? Tom’s approach to the medium reminds me of the frame of mind we encounter in a very strange episode of Freud’s life. When he visited the Acropolis in 1904 he had a strange feeling of derealization as he called it, saying to himself it is too good to be true. He has heard and studied so many things about the Acropolis that he couldn’t believe that it existed.

“Well, it is true what we have been taught about this,” he said to himself. At the moment, he was confronted by the materiality and the objecthood of the monument all his certainties collapsed. He never doubted the real existence of the Acropolis when he was studying in Germany. He lost its reality only when he was in it, in the monument itself.

This process of derealization I encounter in Tom’s dark and perplexing photographs. Somehow hybrid out of the labyrinthine mind of Piranesi or the mathematical insanity of M.C. Escher, they delineate the liminal space between nightmare and mystical ecstasy. They are not documents and are not documenting anything: they foreground what cannot be immediately grasped and appreciated, the inner life of people, the realm of their deepest dreams and desires. All these within the stark trivialities of the urban world, which engulfs us and amuses us to death.

Should I say that I constantly see the shadow of death in his photographs? That the black color is not really a color but an ominous presence, a nada, a nothingness, which disrupts our blissfully medicalized euphoria. The pace of life and the urgency of our reactions impede us form taking a step back and look, admire, or be scared by the fascinating unpredictabilities of existence. Tom’s photographs frame the continuity of the real and the imagined worlds through the unbreakable moral thread of empathy.

In the end what remains is the special angle in the gaze, the specific moral dimension of trust and hope that makes his photographs in their energetic immobility, a revealing testimony of the human psyche searching for visual cues that will lead viewers to the inner life of their subject.

We look at his photographs with premonition, as intimations of immortality, through the expressions of mortality. They are Heracletean fragments and as such full of ambiguities, obscurities and challenges. We should not look for answers in them, because they are the answer.

By looking at them we can safely state: something important is happening now, in front of our eyes which we can see only through his camera. Tom unearths the fearful asymmetry within the real. Henri Cartier Bresson suggested that photography is the decisive moment that captures the “interior silence” of its subject. The sound of silence something is truly eloquent and visually mesmerizing. This is exactly what I see in the energetic immobility of his photographs. A silence that bespeaks a soul, a psyche, individuals beyond the particulars of their life, alone and fearless, against the passage of time.

Vrasidas Karalis teaches Modern Greek Studies at the University of Sydney where he holds the Sir Nicholas Laurantos Chair in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. He has published extensively on Byzantine historiography, Greek political life, Greek Cinema, European cinema, literary criticism and contemporary political philosophy. He has translated two books by Patrick White into Greek, Voss(1996) and The Vivisector (2004) and one of his plays, A Cheery Soul (1197) after a grant by the Australian Council for the Arts. He has also translated modern Greek poetry into English.

He is the editor of the Modern Greek Studies Journal of Australia and New Zealand. He has also edited volumes on modern European political philosophy, especially on Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis. His books include Recollections of Mr. Manoly Lascaris (2007), The Demons of Athens (2014), A History of Greek Cinema (2012), Realism and Post-War Greek Cinema (2017) and Reflections on Presence (2017).

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