One of the most influential voices of European photography, Greek curator Manolis Moresopoulos has been the Director of the Athens Photo Festival since 2011, and since 2012, the Director of the Hellenic Centre for Photography. Founded in 1987, the festival is constantly reinventing itself, evolving to reflect photography’s latest mutations and support the image-makers at the frontline of these changes.
An advocate for experimentation, Moresopoulos’ expertise both embraces the new and upholds the fundamental questions he believes every artist should ask themselves—a valuable mixture when it comes to adding something original to the age-old genre of portraiture photography.
We are thrilled that Moresopoulos has joined us as a juror for the LensCulture Portrait Awards. In this interview, he talks with W. Scott Olsen about his views on the nature of excellence in portrait photography.
W. Scott Olsen: Portrait photography has a wide range. Everything from a studio session to street work; from highly elaborate post-production to the serendipitous. Are there qualities you think endure across the breadth of portraiture?
Manolis Moresopoulos: Connection, emotional honesty, vulnerability, and humanity—all characteristics innate to this genre. Portrait photography is a creative process that merges artistic expression and technique, regardless of the type and the purpose every portrait serves. Each one draws attention to the subject’s gaze and pose and tells a story about the person in it, reflecting human form and emotions and capturing the essence of the self and its representation. Finally, the viewer is the catalyst and becomes an integral component of this creative process, fulfilling its potential.
WSO: It seems to me there is a unique relationship between photographer and subject in portrait work. Do you agree? If so, how would you describe the potentials of that relationship?
MM: Photography is all about the subject. Portraits are special because of this shifting dynamic relationship and interaction between the subject and the artist. So the final portrait is a type of collaboration between the sitter and the artist in its making. The artist-subject relationship gives an opportunity to deal with new ways of interacting and connecting to other people. When looking at a portrait that we find compelling, we often discover something about both the photographer and the sitter, and feel a sense of an emotional connection and empathy.
WSO: There is a small but real border between the very good and the excellent. How would you describe work, especially portraits, that makes it into the excellent range?
MM: Making a good portrait can be a matter of a good plan and excellent skills in execution, but excellence is about defining and refining all of the little things with as much insight and passion as possible. It can be any style or technique. It can be uncomfortable, ambiguous or provocative, but a great portrait is always challenging and engaging for the viewer, in a truly original way. It forces the viewer to think, to react, to feel. A great portrait should raise more questions than it answers, and invite us to look again and again.
WSO: How has your work as Director of the Athens Photo Festival refined your taste? Looking at the images on the website, there seems to be a real celebration of technical mastery and imagination. Do you prefer a more refined approach when selecting images?
MM: In order to stay relevant, Athens Photo Festival has to constantly reinvent itself, to challenge the boundaries and experience of a traditional festival of photography and visual culture. The festival functions as a laboratory of ideas, practices, and initiatives operating within international frameworks, beyond the closed photographic community.
My position puts me in the shifting balance of technology, social sciences, critical thinking, and more. These are all very dynamic and change constantly, so I have to pay close attention to all the industry’s current developments and emerging trends in the way people want to experience photography. Using the knowledge and tools gained from my position, I have expanded perspectives in the field of curating, working closely with artists.
WSO: How would you describe the scope of the festival?
MM: Our focus is on photography, but our curatorial interest lies at the intersection of photography with artistic and conceptual practice. The Athens Photo Festival’s curatorial team embraces the new directions and adopts new forms for exhibiting photography, encouraging a meaningful interaction with the audience. Focusing on the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how’ and the ‘what’, our expanded program is a result of collective reflection of that experience, representing a shared vision for what a photography festival is and can be in ways that make sense right now.
WSO: You were also on the selection panel for the Young Greek Photographers section of the festival. As with the wider program, many of the shots are high-concept images versus something more like street photography. Is that because of your taste or simply a result of what you were sent?
MM: In the Athens Photo Festival’s exhibition program itself, there is a specific section dedicated that aims to support and showcase the work of Greece-based or Greek-born talented artists, between the ages of 18 and 35, to be exhibited and introduced to a wide audience and network of photography professionals.
This juried exhibition reflects a wide range of approaches—a sign that it is more than the checkbox of highly conceptual images. It reflects how photography facilitates us to understand and think about the questions of our contemporary society. Of particular importance among the selection criteria might be artistic quality, coherence of work, originality, conceptual approach and artist’s track potential.
WSO: Speaking about the New Greek Photographers show at Momus, you said: “They all have something in common however, they’re all very much of their time…” Is portrait photography time-bound, or at least time-sensitive? How so? I’m thinking here both of the timelessness of painted portraits in galleries around the world and then something like the well-known image of Malala Yousafzai with the poem in Nastalik script across her face.
MM: Whether classical or contemporary, whether they are seen as timeless of time-bound, I value and appreciate good quality work, in whatever form that takes. Work that makes time stand still for a moment and reminds us what it means to be alive.
It is important to respond to what the image-makers need; I don’t want to be limited. I attempt to approach photography through the dynamics of the different directions the photographic medium itself, embracing diverse practices. This is the philosophy that underpins our exhibition programming. One of the current challenges in photography and visual art is how to get young photographers to examine their own practice, pushing the boundaries of what photography can be.
WSO: There are clichés in portrait photography. The old guy with the wrinkled face. The nun smoking a cigar. How would you describe originality in portrait work?
MM: In photography, there are plenty of clichés—and most of them come from portrait photography. Embracing sincerity may help photographers to avoid cliché and create something original. And above all asking: Who am I as an artist? This is a fundamental question in order to develop or strengthen what makes them distinct and find a personal artistic voice. Through their explorations of current and traditional artistic responses to a theme, the artists have to offer something fresh to the viewer and individual interpretations about the world we live in. View the world with a curious and critical eye. Go beyond the obvious.
WSO: What advice do you have for someone new to portraiture?
MM: Immerse yourself in this creative process. It’s about getting out there, communicating, expressing or completely reinventing yourself. Deepen your practice, refine your skills and strengthen your voice through critical conversation, critique, and yes, competition. Persistence is the key.