Documenting what can’t be seen
I’ve been looking at Stratos Kalafatis’ pictures of Mount Athos for three years now. From the first body of work, many years earlier, of what would turn out to be a long-term project, plus every additional installment. I’ve seen them many times, I’ve picked out my favourites, I’ve read them, I’ve run through them, I’ve seen them on screen and in print, blown up and in miniature, published as a monograph. They’re lodged in my memory. However many times I see them, I get the same feeling, the same emotions: a gaze like a caress, tenderness, a gaze that embraces and penetrates, which engages, an inclusive gaze which will filter nothing out, a gaze that doesn’t critique or interpret, a gaze that hymns beauty, a gaze that encircles the unseen, the absent. Stratos’ gaze.
I remember that gaze from previous works, but never as intense, penetrating, all-embracing and yet so gentle, accommodating and light as it is here. Or as loving. And these virtues, rendered visible in a tremulous form, achieve the following paradox: they convey the weight of the Holy Mountain’s thousand-year tradition, its history and spirituality, its inner riches and outward poverty, in entirely contemporary forms, with the sensibility of our own era, blending the glossy and the imposing into an entirely idiosyncratic Pop style. It’s probably the most internally coherent and moving photographic work I’ve ever seen.
The formal building blocks of Stratos’ idiolect are easily picked out: saturated electric hues, full face portraits, wide-angle shots and—above all—impressively skilful nocturnal landscapes. These elements combine into a unitary whole and serve a single goal: avoiding the pictorial, shunning a documentaristic verisimilitude. He doesn’t document; his interest lies in the pith, the feel, in what’s hidden inside the shell of the obvious, in traces of the absent, the latent essence. In the unseen.
He can do what he does not because of his undoubted technical skill and professionalism, but because he is an insider. Because he understands. Because he can sense the Mountain’s latent essence, its aura, because he’s a participant. It’s not the depiction he respects, it’s what’s depicted: the place, the people, the genius loci. Literally: he knows the people whose portraits he takes, he has spoken to them, he has been a guest in their cells, received their blessings and their hospitality. He’s no tourist passing through to see the sights. And his modus operandi isn’t that of a photographer; he’s more like an anonymous artist, an icon painter who paints tales of sinners and saints on ancient templates. “Wrought by Stratos’ hand, XXI century”: his signature.
Which is how he captures a smudgy cross on a rock with Schillerian naivety, a plastic tablecloth, the tortoise shell in the corner of the hut, a well-worn décalcomanie, remnants of devotion and material decay, traces of gestures, profound details which substantiate and bestow meaning on the magnificence of the landscapes, the monumental buildings, the monumental portraits. If I had to pick out three key images, they would be: the portrait of the two tailor-monks—a tangible image of coexistence and acceptance; the nocturnal landscape of the fortified cell at Mylopotanos, in which sky meets earth; and the Easter eggs, cut in half, salt and peppered, elegantly dressed with toothpicks–an aesthetically-pleasing installation which captures the Athonite ethos perfectly.
Pictures like these convey the essence of the Mountain, experientially and spiritually more than aesthetically. Looking at them, I was transported there, I relived my own experiences; Stratos’ images awakened in me collages of experience and otherworldliness. This dual experience, lived and aesthetic, would draw me out of the Athonite forest and up into the never-still star-studded sky captured in his night shots from January 2013. Thus:
“I stood in the chill with my gaze tilted back overhead, feeling like a dark grain in one of Stratos’ night photographs: everything was blue and silvery-gold, the stars traced their arcs through the firmament, and off to one side, a tiny orange light. I had the stars and the sky in my eyes and the nocturnal shot of Mylopotanos in my head, an image the eye cannot register, which only fixed itself on Stratos’ film after half an hour’s exposure. I found myself fixed like a grain in the dark zones of this amalgam of memory and present, of eye and mind, of this beyond-an-image. I found it relaxing. My new-found smallness brought with it balance–and release.
“I found being diffused, just one of a multitude of grains in the forest, just as liberating, beneath the ancient oaks, plane and beech trees. A dense forest with only chinks of sky, damp, full of whispering and silence. In the footprints, leaves, fruit, traces of wild things and of people, a wooden sign overgrown by bushes. In a clearing, a shut-up silent hut; there’s life somewhere in there, now or tomorrow, so says the rag blowing on the wire, a petrol can, three carefully lined-up blue beehives. A half-erased road, packed earth and gravel in the heart of the wood, all bring Heidegger’s clearing deep in here.
“Swept down the slippery slope, picking out stones that offer a secure footing, stones slicked by water and feet, I encircle the figure of the invisible hermit who dwells in the clearing. A middle-aged nut? An old man who’s taken a vow of silence but still talks to the blackbirds? An soul so embittered he renounced everything? Or simply a man who loved so deeply, who found themselves alone in the clearing with every human shade for company, fulfilled?
“The forest track, the holzweg, leads me from the clearing of enigmas to some equally enigmatic silent ruins, and then to some age-old walls. I eavesdrop from behind the stones: life, lives. People. As various as the stars. Let’s remain here a while.
“They’re black-clad and forever on the move, the majority, the young. They’re black-clad and slow-moving, sometimes motionless, like ancient oaks, the elders. The oldest of them all, who I met behind walls like these, not far off a hundred with a half-smile glued to his face, as though watching angels; he ruffled a youngster’s dark brown hair and whispered something in his ear.
“So, the people. Beneath this sky, beneath stars like these, in forests and fastnesses: giants with the hearts of children, sixty and eighty year-old children, vintners, fishermen, choristers, cooks, people who found refuge here far from the madding crowd, far from vain torments and suffering, most for a while, a few for life, all gathered round a fire and a table, a not-for-profit community, one with his nose in a book, another admiring a pocket knife, a few remembering their childhoods, comparing poverty old and new, all tending and serving, setting the table for dinner. And welcoming the evening by chanting together the age-old blessing from far to the East: O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ, having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening...
“The light is fading through the window on the Aegean, the sea wind blows up wet, cool and reviving, glimmering candle light, whisping incense.
“The light goes out. The people scatter into the new night to regroup further on, from one assembly to the next, from matins to vespers. I wander away to the brink of the cliffs beneath the ever-multiplying stars. A January night, a night strewn with wonders, and me a grain in the black, in the darkness.”