One con­ti­nent, one man in ex­is­ten­tial mode

Long-buried pho­to­graphs by Con­stanti­nos Pit­tas at the Be­naki’s Pireos Street an­nex in Athens doc­u­ment the fi­nal years of di­vided Europe

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

There is a thinly dis­guised self-por­trait of Con­stanti­nos Pit­tas em­bed­ded in one of his pho­to­graphs cur­rently on dis­play at the Be­naki Mu­seum’s Pireos Street an­nex in Athens. The 29-year-old’s skinny sil­hou­ette and dark curly hair are re­flected in the left-hand cor­ner of a shop win­dow as he presses the shut­ter re­lease on his pocket-size cam­era. It’s Prague, 1986.

There is a road-not-taken ex­is­ten­tial qual­ity to the selfie (be­fore it was a word). Pit­tas would soon put down his cam­era and box up this and thou­sands of other neg­a­tives shot dur­ing that time. For a good 25 years. “It’s strange, I feel sad and happy at the same time about this. Sad be­cause you re­al­ize that ‘this was my ta­lent’ which I had to give up so I could do other things for a liv­ing. If I had kept go­ing I would prob­a­bly have amassed a se­ri­ous body of work by now,” says Pit­tas, now 59, be­fore guid­ing a group tour through the ex­hi­bi­tion “Con­stanti­nos Pit­tas: Im­ages of An­other Europe 1985-1989.”

Be­tween 1985 and 1989, he drove a now-iconic blue Pony (which he also slept in) across 17 coun­tries, cap­tur­ing street scenes on both sides of the for­mer Iron Cur­tain. He would spend the au­tumns in Athens do­ing odd jobs to save money and set off again in spring. Over those five years, Pit­tas, a self-taught pho­tog­ra­pher, went through about 650 blackand-white film rolls, pro­duc­ing some 25,000 neg­a­tives.

“I al­ways thought that this was a very per­sonal pro­ject and that no one would take any in­ter­est in it. I was nei­ther do­ing pho­to­jour­nal­ism, like record­ing the end of the Cold War, nor was I do­ing art pho­tog­ra­phy,” he says.

“It was some­thing per­sonal, a mo­men­tary madness that I just needed to pur­sue and I saw no point in tout­ing it af­ter­ward or try­ing to build a ca­reer on it,” he says.

As the Ber­lin Wall crum­bled into sou­venirs and his­tory on the Con­ti­nent ac­cel­er­ated, Pit­tas set­tled down, got mar­ried and had chil­dren. He had a go at sev­eral jobs, in­clud­ing teach­ing as a math­e­mati- cian and found­ing a small ad­ver­tis­ing busi­ness, to make a liv­ing.

One day in 2014, he came across his old cam­era. It prompted him to look for the neg­a­tives from his Europe pro­ject be­fore post­ing some scanned im­ages on his Face­book wall. And so it be­gan. “In the next cou­ple of years I up­loaded more than 600 pho­tos. I re­al­ized there was a whole bunch of peo­ple out there who were keenly in­ter­ested in this,” he says.

Be­sides out­side in­ter­est, a more pro­found mo­tive was at work.

“There was some­thing that made me feel a bit bad about my­self. It was as if I had locked up all those peo­ple I had pho­tographed in the base­ment for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to my­self. It was a mis­take,” he says. The pro­ject was put back in mo­tion. Pit­tas care­fully picked out nearly 100 of the im­ages and re­leased a photo book us­ing a self-publishing plat­form. One of the 1,000 copies ended up in the hands of Costis An­to­niadis, a pro­fes­sor of pho­tog­ra­phy at the Depart­ment of Pho­tog­ra­phy and Au­dio­vi­sual Arts at the Tech­no­log­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tional In­sti­tute of Athens. An­to­niadis was a cat­a­lyst in in­tro­duc­ing the work to a broader au­di­ence. He first helped Pit­tas or­ga­nize an ex­hi­bi­tion on the is­land of Kythera, and then cu­rated the cur­rent show, a se­lec­tion of 155 im­ages.

The Be­naki col­lec­tion is street pho­tog­ra­phy at its best – nat­u­ral, op­por­tunis­tic and art­fully com­posed. Clean and pure, as if they were pre­served in a time cap­sule, the im­ages doc­u­ment a by­gone era. Al­though Pit­tas did not in­tend to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment with his work, the im­pact of the Eastern Bloc’s jail­house habits is ev­i­dent in the pic­tures, par­tic­u­larly the op­pres­sion and poverty of Ceaus­escu-era Ro­ma­nia.

It was not quite what he had an­tic­i­pated. Like many Greek uni­ver­sity grad­u­ates in the years fol­low­ing the coun­try’s 1967-74 mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, Pit­tas, who has a de­gree in civil en­gi­neer­ing, had set off to the East un­der the delu­sion that things were much bet­ter there than they ac­tu­ally were – a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion in Greece at the time.

“It was an ab­so­lute shock. You could see the im­print of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism on peo­ple’s faces. You could see the dif­fer­ences Ger­many 1987. ‘There was some­thing that made me feel a bit bad about my­self. It was as if I had locked up all those peo­ple I had pho­tographed in the base­ment for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to my­self. It was a mis­take,’ Con­stanti­nos Pit­tas said in an in­ter­view. be­tween East and West Ger­mans, one peo­ple di­vided by two po­lit­i­cal sys­tems for over 40 years,” he says.

Pit­tas ex­pe­ri­enced strong-handed tac­tics first­hand. Twice he was de­tained by po­lice and had his films con­fis­cated. How­ever, his small-sized cam­era – a Ger­man-made Mi­nox 35 GT, one of the small­est full-frame 35mm cam­eras ever pro­duced – made him in­vis­i­ble most of the time, al­low­ing him to cap­ture a few risky shots, in­clud­ing a black leather jack­etwear­ing se­nior Polit­buro mem­ber that can be viewed at the ex­hi­bi­tion.

De­spite the dis­turb­ing asym­me­try be­tween the Soviet bloc and Western Europe, in the eyes of the young pho­tog­ra­pher there were re­sem­blances that pointed to a Euro­pean fam­ily of sorts.

“I al­ways thought there was some­thing un­der­neath. That the Por­tuguese uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor and the Pol­ish farmer have some­thing in com­mon. It was some­thing that I did not see when I trav­eled out­side Europe. Maybe this feel­ing was fed by my ide­al­ism and my fas­ci­na­tion with Mit­teleu­ropa,” Pit­tas says.

In the late 1980s Europe was ap­proach­ing its wa­ter­shed mo­ment, but, Pit­tas ad­mits, this was cer­tainly not some­thing you could feel in the air.

“Any­one can be a prophet in hind­sight. With the ex­cep­tion of Poland and the Sol­i­dar­ity move­ment, the rest of Europe at the time was in a state of to­tal in­er­tia. If some­one were to say in 1986 that the world would turn up­side-down in three years’ time, they would be re­garded ei­ther as a mad­man or a great vi­sion­ary. There was no way you could sense the change that was to come,” he says.

As the com­mu­nist sys­tem started to im­plode, Pit­tas felt it was time to wrap up his pro­ject.

“I had this naive dream of bring­ing Europe to­gether in one book. How­ever, Europe was now re­unit­ing on its own, it did not have to wait for me. My plan was dead,” he says. “I was also very tired,” he says. Lis­ten­ing to Pit­tas ex­plain­ing his work to a small group of vis­i­tors at the ex­hi­bi­tion, you see a man with a re­newed sense of pur­pose.

“I was never in­ter­ested in mak­ing a name for my­self. I never felt I had some­thing to prove. But it is still a joy – and this cer­tainly does not clas­sify as van­ity – even at this age, to feel that there was a mean­ing to it all. It has given me a great deal of sat­is­fac­tion,” he says.

Pit­tas has re­sumed his old hobby. He again re­lies on a hum­ble (though now dig­i­tal) pocket cam­era and al­ways shoots from waist level. “You don’t change your style,” he says.

Go­ing down into that base­ment, Pit­tas seems to have found much more than he was search­ing for, in­clud­ing a part of him­self.

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