How do you memorialize someone like Nelly? On one hand, she was a pioneering woman photographer and her photos of Greek temples and columns set against sea and sky shaped – and it can be argued, still shape – our imagination of Greek culture and its visual image. On the other hand, she was a propagandist and she closely associated with Nazis and fascists.
Born Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari near Smyrna in Asia Minor, she studied photography in Germany. The expulsions of ethnic Greeks of Asia Minor by the Turks following the Greco-Turkish war was to shape her views for decades to come – she would adopt nationalist approach to her work, working for the Greek royal family and the Greek state, which was then trying to reproduce an idealized view of their country for both internal propaganda as well as external tourism. Her photos of the Parthenon, Athens, and Santorini, as well as the locals in ethnic dresses, are to shape the Western imaginations of Greek culture.
Under the pre-war dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, she worked for the regime’s youth organization EON, producing photos and photomontages of fascistic grandeur. Through Metaxas’ regime, she became acquainted with the Nazi establishment, photographing Hitcher and Mussolini at close quarters, and becoming close to the Goebbels. She requests that Goebbels recommend her to UFA, the German film academy, to be trained in shooting documentaries – due to her admiration of Leni Riefenstahl, that other female propagandist, with whom she was later compared.
When the war broke out, she was in the United States; with the Italian invasion of Greece looming, her nationalism turned anti-Axis and she spent the war years fundraising for the Allied cause by selling the photos of her idealized Greece. A photo of hers – of a soldier sounding his trumpet to call the Greeks to fight off Italy – was on the cover of Life magazine in December 1940. After Greece finally returned to democracy in 1974, her associations with the Metaxas regime was downplayed by a new Greek government which recast her as the ‘photographer of the nation’: a cultural ambassador of “the ‘Greece’ we all carry inwardly, the ‘Greece’ to which we all return to, the ‘Greece’ we cannot easily overcome’, as one pundit put it.
I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls. Currently there is a public poll running on whether you might want to see non-photo related posts, so go and vote!
Here is the link to Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos