America in a Trance : Photography of Niko J. Kallianiotis

I was born in Greece and in 1998 I moved permanently to the United States where I   received a BFA/MA from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started my career as a newspaper and worked as a staff photographer for Gannett Newspapers for about a year in 2004 and then moved to a position at the Watertown Daily Times in New York. Currently I teach photography at Drexel and Marywood and I am freelance photographer for The New York Times since 2007. I am also a member of OramaPhotos, in Greece.

The duality of my life’s trajectory makes my visual identity a fluid one. My formative years were spent in Greece, but for all of my adulthood I’ve lived in the United States. Because of my hybrid background I view the world and my surrounding environs from two different perspectives, both culturally and socially. I use photography not as art, but as the vessel to understand my community, the landscape, traditions and customs. Although photography’s nature is in the descriptive, my relationship to the medium is more internal than external, but above all, I want my work to be open-ended and developed organically but above all, I want the work to be an experience for the viewer. I am not really interesting solely on how things look, but more on how things feel. I believe the blending of description and emotion is an invaluable ingredient for success. This is imperative for my most recent and ongoing project ‘America in a Trance’, which circulates around a theme that has been photographed extensively. I strive to make something different through my work; something that does not rely so much on the subject matter and the surface.

Through my work in ‘America in a Trance’ I am trying to understand the land, it’s a lyrical process and not one that assumes, or suggests, at least not directly because naturally all of photography in some form or another is a connotation. Not making it obvious and forced is what makes things more interesting and simultaneously equivocal. Considering the current sociopolitical climate in the United States, work produced in my region and promoted though the mainstream media lacked that depth, frequently depicting the land and the people as mere caricatures. I am not interested in that, it is superficial and does not engage into a productive conversation other than pretending that gore photography of high contrast and flash is the new discovery. Maybe I sound bitter but I don’t believe there is serious criticism in photography and that simply hurts our medium. We are living in a visual pollution of acceptance in an era with embellished prose and symposiums for the elites of the medium. The once “democratic” declaration of our medium is simply an illusion.

In November of 1935 Walker Evans made a photograph about Bethlehem titled “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”.   A large cement cross sits in the foreground overlooking a perfectly composed scene of American life and industry.  A cemetery competes with brick homes and porches that are knitted together in a plateau that fluctuates between past and present, becoming a prophecy of an uncertainty that circulates around hard factory life. The Bethlehem Steel Company at times swelled to about 300,000 jobs nationally and about 30,000 at the Bethlehem location, about half the population of the city. The mill is no longer in operation and parts of it have been turned into a casino, boutiques and restaurants. I have been thinking about this photograph for a very long time and I am intrigued by its relevancy both in regards to the direction of the photographic medium and the socioeconomic condition. I have visited the exact location several times and It’s always a unique and precious experience; understanding history, understanding America, or at least try to.

For ‘America in a Trance’, I’m investigating and respond as I travel through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania, a once prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry. A mode to promote American values, industrialism provided a place where immigrants from tattered European countries crossed the Atlantic for a better future. An immigrant and naturalized citizen myself, I had always perceived the U.S. differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Traveling across Pennsylvania, he imagines these towns as vibrant communities looking towards the hot stacks and brick factories; a past where prosperity was possible on the local scale, and the streets and storefronts were bustling. The bitter irony of towns once so self-sufficient, which contributed to the bottom line of American industrial empire lay in rust, turned into casinos, or simply left to go forgotten with the exception of the hearty locals that soldier on. They became prey to colossal franchise companies, which are accepted as the norm, providing them “quality” goods and allowing no opportunities beyond minimal pay. Services for the residents are offered ubiquitously, but local employment, scant.  This project is an ongoing observation of the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape but widespread across the United States.

My subject choices derive from intuition and the desire to explore the unknown and rediscover the familiar. Through form, light, and color, I let the work develop organically, and become a commentary of place but also of self. The hues work as the constituent of hope, not doom. The work is a product of love, for both the state and country he’s called home for the last two decades. While my interest is not in the depiction of desolation, at times it becomes necessary to the narrative. I search for images that reflect, question, and interpret life in the towns and cities across the Keystone State, and the yearning for survival and cultural perseverance. My interest is in the vernacular and the inconsequential, that which becomes metaphorical and a connotation to a personal visual anthology for the photographer as well as the viewer.

I am not really interested in equipment; I use one camera, Sony A7 and one Lens, 35mm for this project. I find the hype on equipment to say the least, futile.

It would be futile to deny the influence and inspiration of these two poignant photographers in my work. American Photographs and The Americans are two bodies of work so relevant to current times. They are ingrained and solidified in our conscious, and they are part of a permanent visual history one cannot alter or ignore. And despite the current trend of creating something new, (the new documentary, the new “ism”), beyond Evans and Frank will eventually dissolve and be forgotten. The work of these two photographers has a double effect in my work because I believe these two distinct bodies of work blend the descriptive with the emotional, two ingredients that I strive to incorporate in my work. I am interested in how things look, but most importantly how things feel. Photography, of course, by its nature is descriptive but also an intuitive connection and response of the maker; his connection to the land and the moment is essential. Additionally, the socioeconomic and personal connotations of their work are unavoidably in ‘America in a Trance’, considering the current state of our country.

I am simultaneously an optimistic and pessimistic person (some would say I am more of the latter) and I strongly believe this mixture of feelings makes one more aware, reflective and connected.  This combination is represented in my work; the use of color, light, and shadow interprets emotions- at times hopeful, at times bleak. Although it is unavoidable and an integral part of telling the story, I am not interested in aestheticizing the abandonment; I want the formal qualities of the photographs to go beyond that, to transcend the ordinary and the mundane and become a narrative that is open-ended and reflective to one’s memories and experiences. You can say that the feed of these influential photographers was their vision and response to the country, one being an American and one Swiss. I blend the two by replacing the latter with Greek.

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