George Tatakis’s passion for photographer grew to such a degree over the years, that he even gave up his job to be able to take pictures around the clock. He spoke with us about his current project, his path from engineer to photographer, and the limitations he sets himself within his work.
Mr. Tatakis, at what point in your life did you start taking photographs?
I developed an interest in photography during my early teenage years, and I used my pocket money to buy my first camera when I was around 14. For me, the camera itself was a fascinating object, and, from that time on, I was very interested in camera models and equipment. When I picked up my first pictures from the shop, the photographer who had developed my film told me that I had an eye for photography. I really didn’t even understand what he meant at the time, but it sure made me take more and more pictures. I studied Electrical Engineering in Edinburgh and followed that path. However, I bought a semi-professional camera with my first salary. During my last professional experience as an engineer, I had to travel around the world all the time, which sparked my interest in photography even more, so I bought a DSLR camera. I was also fascinated by the history of photography and studied the master photographers of the past. That was my introduction to the actual world of photography. I would even listen to photography podcasts while commuting to work, and I had turned my bedroom into a dark room. I think this was the turning point that made me go into work one morning, announcing that I had decided to become a photographer and I was going to quit my job. Of course, I had absolutely no idea what I would be doing to earn a living from it.
Please tell us something about your project. What is it about?
Caryatis is a study of Greek women’s traditional costumes. Greece is home to a wealth of traditional costumes from different periods of time, inspired by its own as well as many other cultures. I started this project a couple of years ago, following my project on the Greek tradition of ethos; but lately, I managed to get some help from a private patron, so the idea now is to sweep through every corner of Greece and discover all the costumes available. I’m also working with academic advisors from the Kapodistrian University of Athens, who help me evaluate the authenticity or the genuine replication of the costumes. The idea is to create work to be presented as a book and/or exhibition.
What was the initial idea behind this project? What do you hope to evoke in the viewer?
The idea evolved from my previous work. That project, Ethos, took a look at Greek traditions. The work was mainly done while visiting local, traditional events, where I took spontaneous images of the scenes in front of me. After a few years into this project, I did a show at the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, one of the most extensive and innovative museum organizations in Europe. From there, the Fragonard Museum in Grasse, Cannes, asked me to do a related show; only this time more focused on women’s costumes, since Fragongard is one of the most celebrated perfume manufacturers in France. This gave me the idea to create such images. Also, during a trip to London to the opening of the EU Commission’s presentation Another Europe, where one of my images represented Greece, I visited an exhibition by the photographer Alex Prager. Seeing those images that were actually staged, eliminated my bias towards spontaneity in photography. I realized that photographs are always staged one way or another, since they represent the subjective view of the photographer. So, what if I were to stop hunting for a spontaneous scene, and was able to control every aspect of the picture instead? In this way, my work evolved to actually staging every scene in the way my imagination dictates. This results in a communication between myself and the viewer. The intention behind my work is not to be ethnographic or to create a mere record of traditional Greek costumes – although it might serve this purpose as well –, but rather to express my inner self and obsessions prompted by Greek traditions. Regarding the technical aspect, I pay attention to the surroundings as much as the subject itself; because I believe that they are of equal importance, and that the subject cannot be defined without them. It goes without saying that I pay the greatest attention to the light, as this is the single element that creates a photograph.
How did you find your protagonists?
The way I find my protagonists nowadays is mainly through word of mouth. I made many connections with local cultural clubs and municipalities throughout Greece, while working on Ethos. I would meet many people during the events where I was shooting; those people usually introduced me to others, who have access to these costumes, and to the models who can wear them. It’s important for me to use local models who have experience wearing these clothes. Traditional clothes require a “traditional attitude”. There are certain postures, hand placements, even ways of sitting, related to the locality of the costume. In some pictures you may see a model who is moving, maybe doing a turn before posing. Even these movements must be made in a certain manner dictated by local tradition.
How did you choose the locations?
The locations are very important to me and I usually do the scouting myself. It’s difficult to communicate my idea of an ideal location to the locals who help me with my work; so I have to find them myself. I’m interested in places that reflect local traditional architecture, without any items that would reveal the modern era. I prefer my images to look timeless. I also like to promote a sense of abandonment and melancholy; so, most of the time these places have no one living in them. Many times we had to break into places, cutting our way through tall grass, getting scratched by thorns, cutting through chains, and climbing through windows or unhinging doors to enter.
The people in your images fit into the beautiful scenarios perfectly. Did you have a special photographic approach for this project?
A good photograph needs two elements: a strong subject and a strong composition. These two must be present throughout the image, edge to edge. Regarding the subject, I usually have a local, traditional architectural element for the background, and one or more models wearing the costumes. After finding these, I consider that the composition is the next problem to solve. I explore what props are available around the place, move things around and also create a light scheme to fall beautifully on the subject. Most of the time I go for a side lighting source that provides a more dramatic effect; but I have to block or allow the light to enter in such a way as to reach the point that I have in my mind. As I always use one focal length in my photography, I’m accustomed to exact framing, so I can work much faster without having to look through the viewfinder to see my actual frame. I can see the frame by just using my eyes.
What words would you use to describe your photography?
My photographs are just myself, my thoughts, dreams, opinion and obsessions. Every photograph is a portrait of the photographer. All your experiences take part in creating an image. What the photographer has to do is to be honest in communicating him/herself through the images he/she produces. The art of photography, as with every other art form, has seen everything. There is no subject that can be considered a break through, because everything has been done in the past, and, if not, will be done in the future. The only thing that each one of us can offer in art is our unique position as a spectator in our world. The only unique aspect that each one of us possesses is actually ourselves.
How did you get into the world of Leica cameras?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I’ll take you back to the point when I quit my job for photography. As mentioned, I already had a DSLR camera, so, when I started, I expected to follow a commercial approach, as I had to be able to earn some income. Consequently, I decided I had to get myself a second system as a backup, in case I was working and something were to go wrong with my main camera. I had already been inspired by the world of Leica, having studied the history of photography and the masters, but the price tags were too much for my pocket. Therefore, the idea was to purchase a second DSLR body with a wider angle lens, such as the 24mm. I knew at the time that I wanted single focal length lenses, because putting restrictions on myself really helps me focus on my work rather than the equipment. It so happened that the Leica Q was introduced at that same time. It was a full frame camera with a 28mm lens, so it was pretty much what I had planned to get. I figured that I would be getting myself a Leica at a similar price tag to the other system and, at the same time, would have a more compact and lightweight piece of equipment, which would make it much easier if I were carrying both cameras. The thing is that, as soon as I got the Leica and tried it, I never touched my other camera again. I’m far from being a gear maniac, however, as I believe that a photographer makes the image rather than the camera. Leica is perfect for me because of its ergonomic design. The results are of course beautiful, but the most important aspect for me is that it is an item that feels really nice to operate. This actually made me want to take more photographs more frequently, which really took my work to the next level.
What equipment do you use and in what way does it help to accomplish your goals?
I just use the Leica Q, single 28mm lens, and I never crop. I always shoot in black and white and horizontal images. So, apart from the Q, my other equipment is my restrictions. When you have restrictions in your work, you give yourself a barrier to break, rather than getting lost in a sea of options. I always use natural and available light; there are only 1-2% of cases where I may use a small, direct flash as a filler. Although I have experience and I understand studio lighting, this is a conscious decision, because I believe that there is no way to avoid studio lighting looking artificial, at least to the trained eye. I’m really interested in the notion of verisimilitude that the art of photography possesses: I like my images to present their surrealism through a mirage of realism.
George Tatakis makes use of the world around us to make images. He is published internationally, including National Geographic, and has partnered with brands such as Leica, Huawei, and UNESCO, among others. Tatakis studied and worked as an engineer, but his true passion always lay in art, especially image making. The main medium he uses to create images is photography. The purpose of his pictures is to express his view of the world by directing moments taking place in front of him: engineering dreams out of real-life moments. In 2013 he decided to follow his passion and slowly make the transition into a full-time, image-making career. He now documents social events, exhibits his work in institutions such as the Benaki Museum in down-town Athens, and provides mentoring to amateur and professional photographers. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram.