By Pygmalion Karatzas
Yiorgis Yerolymbos studied both photography and architecture, with his MA focused in Image and Communication and his Ph.D. in Art and Design. He has presented five solo exhibitions (‘Default Landscapes’, ‘Road Trip USA’, ‘Interim’, ‘Terza Natura’, ‘No Man’s Land’) and participated in numerous group shows in Greece and abroad.
Some of his most important projects include the construction of Egnatia motorway at its full length, the US coast to coast road trip as Fulbright scholar, and the on-going construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens designed by Renzo Piano.
Yerolymbos has been published in more than 20 books on art and architecture in Greece, Europe and the US. Between 2008 and 2011 taught photography in the School of Architecture at the University of Thessaly. His work was part of the Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013 and 2014, and has received 1st Prize for Cinema Still Photography in the BAFTA Awards, 3rd Prize in Landscape Photography by GAIORAMA, and 1st selection for the Biennale of Young Artists of Europe by the Ministry of Culture.
His longstanding dedication to the art of the photographic medium coupled with his prolific work, have established him as a leading figure in architectural photography in Greece. With his focus on the human-altered landscape he bridges landscape with architectural photography and immortalizes the ephemeral.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Yerolymbos, thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how did you start being involved with photography?
Yiorgis Yerolymbos: The pleasure is mine, thank you for your kind invitation and interest in my work. I was originally trained both as a photographer and an architect. I studied Photography in Athens and Paris, and Architecture in Thessaloniki, Greece. I then pursued my studies with an MA in Image and Communication in Goldsmiths College, University of London (1998) and a PhD thesis in Art and Design from University of Derby (2007). Since 1995, I have been working professionally as a photographer of architecture, corporate-industrial and landscape and have published more than 20 books in these fields of interest with various publishing houses in Greece, Europe and the US.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
YY: My work focuses on the interface of nature and culture as it can be exemplified in contemporary topography. I photograph landscapes under transition, places that have sustained changes in the face of modernisation and optimisation of land exploitation. I am merely interested in the dynamics of change. I choose to photograph the human-altered landscape not only because it illustrates the rapid socio-political changes that have been punctuating the landscape and habitat in the past years, but also because this type of representation as a genre coincides with a significant change in the photographic imagery itself.
Yet, I would argue that the prime aim is the demonstration of a critical distance from the aesthetisation and thematographic elitism of modernism, an insight into the ordinary, its potential of narrative and poetics. I try to revisit the human-altered landscape and document its transition in contemporary Greek landscape during these perilous and unstable times. In a numerous trips throughout the land, I attempt to understand the vast and diverse changes in the landscape of my country caused by the violent economic and political changes that take place as this text is written.
PK: Who are some of your favorite photographers and how has their work affected your own? Alvaro Siza once said “to copy one architect is not good, to copy many though is essential”. Do you think this also applies to photography?
YY: Absolutely. I am pretty certain that during our student years most of us copied the style of our favorite photographers, at least in the beginning, and luckily transformed this “loan” to a personal vocabulary in due time. How else can one find one’s own approach? During my early steps in photography my favorite photographer has been Josef Koudelka and later on Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joel Sternfeld and Gabriele Basilico and the New Topographics photographers in general. Nowdays, I am particularly interested in the work of Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky and latest Andreas Gefeller and Michael Wolf.
PK: From 2000 to ’04 you photographed the construction of Egnatia motorway at its full lenght across Northern Greece. A project that also became part of your Ph.D. thesis and your ‘Terza Natura’ series portraying the transitionary human-altered landscapes. Could you tell us about this project and some of the observations from your research?
YY: The project as well as the thesis focused on the representation of human-altered landscape in photography. The research presented a critical review of landscape photography from its first appearance as a genre and its initial use as a means of informing and educating the public up to the influential exhibition New Topographics: photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition in 1975. It then examined a number of significant photography books that have deeply affected the genre following its evolution during the last three decades. The last part analyzed the personal photographic practice in the construction sites of Egnatia motorway in Northern Greece where the personal work was contextualised and anchored within the genre of human-altered landscape photography.
The research proposed a visual journey in the human-altered landscape and attempted to articulate a personal poetic approach of a landscape in transition. The thesis further located a development of a personal language in photography that occurs when a potential creator tries to explore those issues which concern him or her profoundly. The research concluded that the ephemeral landscape created during the construction of the Egnatia Motorway would cease to exist when the project was finally opened for use. It would cease to be present or be noticed because the motorway’s function would overshadow all its other features. My research represented an account of the massive changes that affected the landscape that emerged in-between, before its altered face was taken completely for granted.
PK: As photographers we spend time noticing the interaction between architecture and people, which is also at the heart of architects’ designs albeit varied. Could you share with us some of your observations about this interaction?
YY: The most interesting observation I came across is that architecture defines human behaviour. Space can dictate how we perceive ourselves and act accordingly as a result. Especially in cities where the old urban parts and buildings co-exist with new well designed architecture, the change in behaviour is more than obvious. In Athens, for example, when one finds oneself in an organized, designed environment like an important signature building or a contemporary well designed public space like the underground or the airport, one reacts in a completely different manner than when one finds oneself in the rest of the city.
PK: What is your experience about the relationship between architects and the photographer?
YY: Well, there is no easy answer to this question; it depends on both of them. I think the best way to describe the relation between architect and photographer would be to use the example of the architect and his or her client. The outcome of such a collaboration reaches its peek when the client respects and trusts the designer after the latter has passed considerable time to hearing the needs and expectations of the former. If the client starts interfering with the process of designing then it is up to the architect to accept or deny such behavior. In the case at hand, the client is the architect and the designer is the photographer. It, really, depends on both of them.
PK: In 2008 you spend two months traveling and photographing in the USA from coast to coast, a self-initiated project supported by the Fullbright scholarship. Tell us about your approach to this project and what did you obtain from it?
YY: Why does one travel? What drives a person to leave his home, get in a car, and travel to the States, from coast to coast and back? The only plausible explanation can be traced back to the student years, when I spend time reading about the work of so many influential photographers who travelled in that vast country so much earlier than I. They produced photographs that shaped, significantly, the way I perceive the world. Now, would I remain a spectator, or would I, finally, find the courage to go the distance?
While driving, I begun to understand that one grasps the notion of distance through time and space. When driving alone, time expands; you become the speaker and its echo. Or, just the silence. You know exactly where you are, how long it will take you to reach your destination, and how long you drove from your starting point: you are there because you took yourself, you will arrive at your destination as long as you stand to drive, you distance yourself from home as much as you, yourself move towards the opposite direction.
I have travelled longer and further than I could have dreamed. Although I am the same person, my eyes are now different, permitting me to see further down the road in the horizon than my everyday life demands.
|And enterprise of great pitch and moment|
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
|/ ‘Hamlet’, William Shakespeare|
Some actions do not frighten me anymore. I landed in New York on February 1 2008, armed with two cameras and a notebook. Supported by the Fulbright Foundation I managed to drive 16,994 km (10,560 miles) in 61 days, crossing 27 states, 35 major cities, 9 national parks, 4 desserts and 3 seas. With this epic voyage, I had the rare opportunity to meet with myself again after a long period of time.
PK: Could you describe some key moments that made you feel you honed your craft and were milestones in your learning curve?
YY: Well, there are many. Ideally, you improve your work as well as yourself in every project, one step at a time. Permit me to refer only to the latest one, which is the photographic interpretation of the construction of Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens in Renzo Piano’s design.
It is now a seven-year project and one, which is very close to my heart for a number of reasons, professional as well as sentimental. I had a substantial amount of time to learn my tools, do my research and gradually prepare myself in order to tackle such an important project in terms of preciseness, size and level of sophistication. The new approach that the project demanded of me were the shots from the cranes, which after a while became a vital part of the photographic narrative. In order to work and bring back this kind of aerial photography, I had to rethink a number of things that I took for granted and force myself to reapproach certain parts of my process which I considered untouchables. Looking back, I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to re-invent my photography and explore new approaches without any preconceived ideas.
PK: As many photographers have pointed out, the photographic act, beyond its utilitarian aspect, is also a transformative experience in the sense that our awareness of the environment – both natural and man made – becomes more astute. How has this awareness changed/develop for you over the years?
YY: It changed me profoundly by forming the way I perceive this world. I am constantly reminded of the words of Frank Gohlke “where we live is more important from where we visit”. In as few words, he tried to explain that beauty should be sought after at the place were we spend most of our daily lives and not at a park or a beach were we visit as tourists. In this way, we will appreciate our habitat more, and by appreciating it we will eventually start looking after it, thus making it better.
Photography, I think, offers a way to make this world better by looking at it very carefully and considering it worthy of our attention. Photography often states that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and personally I am not interested in any other kind.
PK: From your ‘Mare Liberum’ series and in relation to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s reference, I am reminded of the quote by John Daido Loori from his book ‘The Zen of creativity’: “In a society that assures us that more is better, it’s not always easy to trust that we have enough, that we are enough. We have to cut through the illusion that abundance is security, and trust that we don’t have to buffer ourselves against reality. If we have learned to trust abundance, we can learn to trust simplicity.” What are your thoughts about such aspects of minimalist art?
YY: I still believe in Mies Van der Rohe’s famous quote “less is more”, artistically, aesthetically as well as philosophically. I also think that abstraction and minimalism is our final destination and by that I mean that with time and experience one manages to master one’ s craft gradually by editing out the unnecessary parts layer by layer. The level of sophistication that can be found in a simple minimal design often takes a lifetime to reach. Photography, unlike sports where time makes you slower or less powerful, brings one at the top of one’ s game later in life, and I strongly believe what comes later in life is deeply appreciated.
PK: From 2008 to 2001 you taught photography in the School of Architecture at the University of Thessaly. Could you tell us about that experience for you and the feedback you got from your students?
YY: Although the profession of a University lecturer is seriously underpaid, seldom have I been so handsomely rewarded in my entire life. The experience working with students is unsurpassed and no match for any other professional activity or project as it utterly eliminates any existential fear on whether there is meaning in this life. It is deeply moving to see young people advancing day by day, deepening their education and enriching their culture. It is simply incredible to witness how a person hears for the first time in his/her life a name of a photographer or art movement today, knows everything there is to know about it tomorrow and embarks on a personal research on the subject the day after tomorrow. During this brief period of time, just over three years, I was privileged to be close to younger future colleagues and share with them everything I know. At the same time, I am pretty sure that I picked up more from them than they picked up from me, I cannot thank them enough for their generosity.
While on the subject, I strongly believe that photography should be taught in every School of Architecture in this world as it is one of the three most powerful and important tools an architect will ever have and therefore should master from the very beginning: drawing, model, photography.
PK: Although fine art and commercial photography are defined and practiced differently, do you think there’s also a common ground and a trend to fuse their boundaries? How would you define fine art photography?
YY: Starting from the latter, how would one define poetry? If the definition of poetry by Yeats was “the right words in the right order”, may I paraphrase by saying that, as far as I am concerned, art photography should be the right pictures in the right order, thus delivering the personal narrative of their author.
Very often art photography and commercial assignments do not coincide. This is quite normal and anticipated as “poetry” cannot be commissioned, rather it needs to “come bursting out of you” to use Charles Bukowsky’s own words. I honestly think that when visual poetry and commercial use are approached separately, it usually works against both of them. For a long time now I argue that art and professional work should ideally function as two connected environments, two interlinked spheres that inform one another to secure mutual benefits. Numerous times my professional photography was deeply routed in my research on art projects, mine or other’ s and at the same time, my personal art photography was based and strengthened by my continuous professional practice and the constant updates that the latter demands.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal vision/style in relation to the broader movement(s) in architectural photography?
YY: As mentioned earlier, I follow the New Topographics style, as expressed by the 1975 exhibition in Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Although there is room for thought as to how and if this style ever really existed, I tend to perceive it as a huge leap in how we see the build environment in terms of helping most of us who come from a different generation of photographers understand and come to terms with the world around us.
In strict terms, I am not certain whether there is a current style in architectural photography. I follow as a viewer, from time to time, what emerges as a style in architectural photography but I am quite sceptical when faced with trends that dominate the market as a fashionable choice for a period of time, only to disappear some months later down the road. Oscar Wilde reminded to us all that “fashion is something so unimportant, that we tend to change it every six months”. Classic approach ages slower than any fashionable one. As in every human process, this also applies in photography: what matures slower stays with us longer.
PK: You are currently documenting the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens designed by Renzo Piano. How did this commission came to you and how has the experience been for you till now?
YY: Before the designs where completed and the construction began, Stavros Niarchos Foundation decided that a photographer specialized in architecture and landscape with a professional as well as artistic background should be involved in the process from the very beginning. The Foundation researched the field extensively and came across Terza Natura, my work during the construction of the Egnatia Highway which was considered an adequate sample of work providing theoretical, artistic and visual qualities that the Foundation was searching for. I was then asked to provide a detailed report of how the process would advance over the years and review literature that dealt with similar themes thus creating a distinct photographic genre.
My work is to record and interpret the transformation of the landscape, in its ephemeral and most marginal form: between the environment before the human intervention, and the culture that follows one. In contrast to the permanence of the final result, the construction photographs of this major project ought to provide a personal glimpse into an ever-changing landscape, where every moment is unique: the space will never look this way again, shifting, every time, the beginning of the narrative into the past, its continuation into the present, and the projection of its outcome into the future. It is a personal hope that both photographs already taken, and those awaiting their creation in the future, will preserve the minimum necessary trace of the major changes taking place in this landscape, before the force of their important final result deems them permanent and unsurprising.
After all, as Robert Adams elegantly put it:
|Landscape photography can offer us three verities: geography, autobiography and metaphor. What a landscape photographer traditionally tries to do is to show what is past, present, and future at once.|
|/ ‘California: Views’ by Robert Adams of the Los Angeles basin, 1978-1983, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco, Mathew Marks Gallery, New York, 2000|
For further information:
Visit Yiorgis Yerolybmos’ website
A pointed glance: Yiorgis Yerolymbos at TEDxTalks: