09 June 2017

Georges Meis and his photographs
of summer colours on Greek islands

An image of Santorini by Georges Meis, bought in Rethymnon last year (click on image for full-screen resolution) …

… is based on one of his well-known original photographs

Patrick Comerford

You may not be familiar with the name of Georges Meis. But if you have been on holiday in Greece then I am sure you know his work as a photographer, even if you have not noticed his name.

His photographs appear on many of the most popular postcards throughout Greece, and his collections of photographs provide some of those popular, heavy colourful books that tourists bring home as presents or coffee table books.

His exceptional photos of stunning Greek Island scenery, especially Santorini, Mykonos and Crete, are easy to recognise and have been reproduced on thousands of postcards, posters, calendars, placemats, magnet calendars, and other souvenir items sold throughout Greece.

They capture the colours of Greece, particularly the blue domes, doors and windows and white walls that create images that are now almost every tourist’s stereotypical image of Greece in the mind’s eye.

But Georges Meis also captures wild primary colours, fading doors, mesmerising sunsets and gnarled and dignified faces of old people who know every joy and every hardship that modern Greece has endured.

Almost every year, without failure, I have had a calendar with his photographs hanging in one of my studies or offices, and each year I buy countless copies of his photographs on postcards – not to send to family and friends but just as keepsakes to enjoy as the sun fades and summer turns to autumn.

The 3,000 bare, rocky outcrops in the blue Aegean are his raw material as an artist. His eye, how he frames and catches old doors, narrow steps, inviting alleyways and the domes of churches, and the way he uses panoramic opportunities to provide vistas of harbours, bays and island shorelines have inspired my own efforts to take photographs in Crete.

His panoramic photographs, which are a result of a lifetime of research, were considered avant garde when they were first published. It was the first time that photographs taken from an angle of 360 degrees were presented in compositions like these. It is so easy to forget how revolutionary and influential he has been now that we all have apps that allow us to take panoramic photographs with our iPhones.

Although Georges Meis has been taking photographs since he was a 14-year-old, he only became seriously involved in photography while he was studying to be an electrician. By 1973, he could no longer restrain his passion for photography. He went to Paris to study photography and cinema, and there he widened his views and the range of his photographic experience.

When he returned to Greece, his first expectation was to establish his name in the glamourous world of fashion photography, and for five years he lived in the world of fashion photography, working in his own Meis Studios.

But, at the peak of his success, he realised he was still not fulfilled. He gave up the glamour and commercialism of fashion photography to concentrate solely on creating fine art photographic prints.

Ever since, he has walked the length and breadth of the Greek isles, seeking out hidden corners and the inconsequential details of everyday life. The warmth of the Greece and its people speak through a worn mat, a well-trodden stairway, an open door, colourful staircases, pots, walls and ripening fruit.

He became known for his series of postcards that became popular with tourists, and many of his photographs of Crete soon became famous as they were reproduced on postcards and posters and earned worldwide attention.

He attracted international attention for his unique presentations of the Greek islands – particularly Crete, Rhodes, the Cycladic and Aegean islands such as Santorini and Mykonos, and Dodecanese islands including Rhodes and Symi – and mainland Greece too. He has exhibited at international fairs in New York, Atlanta, Sydney and Birmingham.

He first saw Crete in the 1970s. Inspired by his early reading of writers such as Nikos Kanzatakis and Thanos Kondylakis and the music of Nikos Xylouris, who made him ‘feel Cretan since childhood,’ he approached Crete, ‘camera in hand – taking photographs wherever he went.’

His book – or is it an album? – Land of Crete, Land of the First European Civilisation (2000), took six years to produce, from 1994 to 2000.

This book is a fulfilment of promises first made almost three decades earlier to a Sfakiot shepherd, Manolis Nikoloudakis, and to Yiorgis Anyfantakis, a well-known photographer from Kastelli Kissamos. Both had encouraged the young Georges Meis when he was journeying throughout Crete after he had returned to Greece from Paris. Some of Meis’s black and white photographs taken at that time were included in the book – atmospheric images of elderly villagers and their day-by-day life: baking bread, tending animals, gossiping on the village bench.

After an introductory tour through Cretan mythology and Minoan civilisation, Georges Meis plunges into the wonderful colours and textures of the modern world. Many of the photographs are in a fold-out form, presented in angles as wide as 360 degrees, offering truly panoramic views from many different points. The colours are glorious, the shots superb, the locations varied and interesting – ranging from a detail of a stone step or a blazing geranium in a pot, through to a majestic vista of the Lefka Ori or White Mountains covered in snow.

Georges Meis freely confesses, however, that he has tinkered with some of his photographs to remove the more modern and less photogenic things he did not want in his pictures.

Two other coffee table books of his spectacular photographs – Thera or Santorini, Born from Tephra (2006) and The Diamonds of the Aegean (2007) – are also popular treasures for travellers to take home from their Greek holidays.

Then, 14 years after his first book on Crete, Meis produced his second album on the island, Crete – Mother of the European Civilisation. He says: ‘In essence, I would say this is something new. Something, perhaps more modern. However, the old exists side by side with the new.’

I often find copies of his work are hanging in rooms in hotel rooms and apartments I rent on holidays in Greece.

Last year, while I was browsing through the shop at the Fortezza in Rethymnon during my few weeks in Crete, I added to my collection of photographs and postcards by Georges Meis when I bought too ‘canvas-effect’ images based on his photographs taken in Santorini.

They evoke sweet memories of a relaxed, sunn,y summer afternoon about 30 years ago in Santorini, sitting on a balcony listening to Mozart, looking out across the caldera and watching the sun set beyond the neighbouring islands of Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni and Therasia. Now they are framed and hanging in the front room of Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton. They have joined the other posters, photographs and paintings on these walls. And I am looking forward to the promise of another return journey to Crete this summer.

A second image of Santorini by Georges Meis, bought in Rethymnon last year (click on image for full-screen resolution) …

… is based on another of his well-known original photographs

Going to the movies with
Harry Potter and Noah

The Revd Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe in the Church of Ireland and a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. He is Canon Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert

Two of the movies nominated for Oscars this year offer interesting opportunities to explore and debate spiritual values. Loving was nominated for ‘Best Actress’ (Ruth Negga), and Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, was nominated for ‘Best Cinematography.’ Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 US Supreme Court decision Loving v Virginia, which invalidated Virginia’s so-called anti-miscegenation laws.

Many of the people who defended laws against marriages like this in the US, South Africa, and many other places, invoked arguments that found Biblical justification. So Loving is a movie that talks about the values of love and marriage, but also asks who should be married, and asks deep questions about when it is right to disobey the law and how we should disobey unjust laws.

Silence, starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds, is an historical drama based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. It is set in Nagasaki, and tells the story of two 17th century Jesuit missionaries who travel from Portugal to Japan in search of their missing mentor.

Scorsese’s movie examines the conflict between adhering to one’s sacred vows and traditional beliefs and doing the right thing, the prudent thing, the moral thing, on a very pragmatic level, in order to save lives and restore personal dignity. It asks questions about mission and whether we made Christianity captive to European culture, it asks questions about interfaith relations and the values of other faiths, and it invites us to reflect on what risks we would take and what lengths we would go to for our faith.

There are asides too that I find engaging, such as one priest’s fascination with the face of Christ, which he visualises in the form seen in El Greco’s painting, La Verónica, in turn based on a traditional Greek icon now in the Ajuda National Palace, Lisbon, and the only El Greco painting in Portugal.

Writing in Rolling Stone, Peter Travers says Silence offers ‘frustratingly few answers but all the right questions,’ and that it is among Scorsese’s ‘most spiritually moving films to date.’

When I was a student on a fellowship in Japan in 1979, I knew a journalist from Thailand who was a fellow student and who displayed a great familiarity with the Bible. When I asked him about his Biblical awareness, he told me everything he knew he had learned from movies. He then proceeded to list off The Ten Commandments, The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told … and Ben Hur and Spartacus.

The former Regal Cinema in Lichfield … are our ideas of cinema and movies outdates or related to today’s expectations of spirituality? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Exodus, the epic movie launched about three years ago has yet to take the place of Cecil B De Mille’s Ten Commandments in our collective, cultural consciousness.

The epic Noah (2014) was supposedly based on the story of Noah and the Ark. One reviewer called the flood scenes ‘a bit too Cecil B Demented for me’ and wondered at the sophistication of antediluvian orthodontists given there are so many white-toothed characters. I found it interesting to note that production was put on hold in 2012 while Hurricane Sandy hit New York with heavy rain and flooding.

Archbishop Justin Welby called Noah ‘interesting and thought-provoking’ and ‘impressive’ after Russell Crowe visited him at Lambeth Palace to discuss ‘faith and spirituality.’ Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a leading Orthodox rabbi, described Noah as ‘a valuable film, especially for our times.’ Indeed, Darren Aronofsky said he worked in ‘the tradition of Jewish Midrash’ to create ‘a story that tries to explicate Noah’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world as it has become.’ The name of Noah’s wife, Naamah, does not appear in the Bible, and Aronofsky derives it from the traditions of the Midrash.

This movie makes no specific mention of God. But then, of course, neither does the Book of Esther. Tom Price of the Oxford Centre for Apologetics, says Noah asks perceptive questions: ‘Is there a God? Has God spoken? What is it with human nature – are we good deep down, or is there something broken about us?’

Tom Price made a very valid observation about movies in a comment in the Church Times: ‘Ten years ago, most Christians’ reaction to cinema was generally much more negative and cynical. They were either asking for censorship, or judging the film project for having too much sex. Now I’m seeing audiences all over the UK wanting to engage with the stories, the characters, and the question.’

The movie Calvary (2014) is an Irish-made black comedy in which Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle. He is a good priest intent on making the world a better place, but he is continually shocked and saddened by the spiteful and confrontational inhabitants of his small town. One day, his life is threatened during confession, and the forces of darkness begin to close in around him.

Gravity (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is a story about two astronauts involved in the mid-orbit destruction of a space shuttle and their attempt to return to Earth. Some commentators have noted religious themes in this movie, suggesting there is ‘a dimension of reality that lies beyond what technology can master or access, the reality of God.’

The Passion of the Christ (2004) was a box-office success, grossing more than $370 million in the US, and it became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever. As we left the cinema, my then-teenage sons were not so much shocked as stunned. They noticed too how everyone left the cinema in silence.

The success and attention of the movie raises many questions:

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?
● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

The Mission (1986), starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, was as the No 1 movie on the Church Times list of the Top 50 Religious Films. This movie provides us with:

● Challenging images of the Church,
● Questions about the role of the Church in political issues,
● different models of the Church,
● a variety of models of ministry,
● different models of mission,
● a way of discussing the Church’s engagement with social justice issues,
● an introduction to the relevance of liberation theology today.

But the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies also convey spiritual truths to many never reached by the Churches because they tell us:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.
● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.
● That religious power and authority can be misused.
● That beauty and goodness are not always to be equated.
● That the ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.
● That simple people can be wise.
● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.
● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

Indeed, they tell us that movies need not have an obviously religious theme to reach and challenge the spiritual core of cinemagoers.

This paper is published in ‘Ruach’ (Trinity 2017 Edition 3, pp 28-31). ‘Ruach’ is an online journal promoting spiritual growth and healing, and is edited by the Revd Dr Jason Phillips the parish priest of Whittington, Weeford and Hints, in the Diocese of Lichfield, and Lynne Mills