Against the Ruins.
Photographs by Nelly's
A collaboration between the Hellenic Museum and the Benaki Museum, Athens
Elli Sougioultzoglou, known as Nelly’s, arrived in Athens in late 1924, after completing her photography studies in Germany (1921-1923). Born a member of the Greek community in the city of Aydin in late Ottoman Asia Minor, she had never before traveled to Greece. Her first images of ancient Greece were formed in her imagination through the stories of her father who passed on to her his enthusiasm and admiration for ancient Greek civilization.
“On arriving in Greece, I went straight to the Acropolis” she writes in her autobiographical account. At the young age of 25, she wasted no time and visited the archaeological sites, photographing the monuments and exhibiting her works. The dedication with which she applied herself to document the antiquities seems to have fulfilled her need to become more deeply acquainted with her ancestral roots, to return to the past, while also presenting her with the challenge to come face-to-face with the greatest monuments of all times. It is this admiration and her romantic approach of the ancient world that led her to create a body of works presented in the exhibition AGAINST THE RUINS. PHOTOGRAPHS BY NELLY’S, from the Benaki Museum Photographic Archives. Divided into three exhibition spaces and corresponding themes (Dancing on the Acropolis, The Delphic Festivals and La Mode Grècque), the selected images explore the use of the ancient archaeological sites as a background setting but most importantly as a source of inspiration for her photographic oeuvre throughout the interwar period.
All images ©Benaki Museum/Photographic Archives
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari, known as Nelly’s, was born in 1899 in the city Aydin in Asia Minor. Upon completing her high school studies, she decided in 1920 to follow her brother to Dresden, Germany, in order to study music and painting. The precarious situation back home in Asia Minor, due to the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), impelled Nelly’s to turn to photography, hoping in this way to secure a reliable means to earn a living. Her German teachers – Hugo Erfurth, representative of the classical school of photography, and later Franz Fiedler, from whose school she graduated in 1923 – provided her with a classical education in photography that she followed throughout her career.
In 1925, Nelly’s opened her first photographic studio in Athens. The Athenian middle class streamed into the small atelier to be photographed and, before long, the young photographer was greatly sought after. Sensitive to the subject of displacement, she photographed in 1925 the refugees from Asia Minor. At the same time and under the guidance of the known “Athenograph’ Dimitris Kambouroglou, she photographed “Old Athens”, the then forgotten quarters at the foot of the Acropolis. Conscious of documenting national treasures, she documented the Greek antiquities risking new visual approaches. The monumental photographs of the dancers Mona Paiva and Elizabeta Nikolska, whom she depicted dancing naked (and half-naked) on the Acropolis also betray her glorification of the antique ideal. In 1930, Eva and Angelos Sikelianos entrusted her exclusively with photographing the second Delphic Festival.
As an official photographer of the newly-established Greek Press and Tourism Office, she created during the thirties the first “touristic” images of Greece. In 1939, she took over the decoration of the Greek pavilion at the New York World Fair. Nelly’s presented the timelessness of the Greek people by creating photographic collages in her attempt to draw parallels between the ancient statues with the people of the countryside.
The outbreak of the Second World War found Nelly’s and her husband Angelos Seraidaris in the USA where they stayed for the next 27 years. With diligence and persistence she worked at her new studio in New York. She grew close with the Greek communities of America and photographed their life in all its manifestations, creating a valuable archive. At the same time she experimented with advertising and colour photography in her attempt to follow the trends of contemporary American photography.
In 1985 she donated her complete photographic work, along with her rights, to the Benaki Museum. She was made Commander of the Order of the Phoenix of the Hellenic Republic (1995) and she was awarded with the Academy of Athens Prize for Letters and Arts (1996). Nelly's died in Athensin 1998, after a lifetime passionately dedicated to her art. She left a body of work which remains exemplary from both its artistic and technical viewpoints and which represents a valuable legacy to the photographers of today.