Scholars' Association News
Issue 24
November 2012


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The 1896 Olympic Games and Photography: A journey through time
By Io Paschou

19th century Greek photographic production seesaws between the historical dimension and the artistic expression. Given the singular ability of photography to faithfully depict reality, early examples usually serve as a historical record based on the information they provide.

Yet for the 19th century traveller and the present-day tourist, Greece remains a historically-charged destination, where the monuments’ past clashes with the present.

The photographic medium, as a tool for documentation and scientific analysis, came to assist travellers’ drawings and archaeologists’ scientific sketches in any type of intervention, maintenance or protection of a monument. Aided by photographic records, monitoring and controlling the evolution of a monument in space and time combines not only the quantitative but also the qualitative relations between the details of a holistic restoration of monuments.

The first Olympic Games, held in 1896 in Athens, and the exceptional photographic portrayals of the time contribute both to the relationship between man and antiquity as well as to preserving the continuation of an idea. As founder Pierre de Coubertin wrote in 1894:

"It is usually quite difficult to put one’s finger on why and how an idea is born, how it emerges from the multitude of other ideas awaiting realization, how it is incorporated and becomes a fait accompli. This does not apply to the Olympic Games. The idea to re-establish them was not a fancy, but the logical result of a great amount of activity. The 19th century saw the trend towards physical exercise reborn everywhere. […] World fairs brought together in one place products from distant countries. Literary or scientific conferences helped the most diverse mental powers make contact. So how could athletes not seek to meet, as competition is the basic foundation of sport and almost its reason for existence? Internationalism gradually penetrated the various sports, kindling interest and expanding the boundaries."[1]

Pierre de Coubertin’s idea was put into effect two years later in a city balancing, then as now, between the past and the future. Photography for the Greek and foreign delegates participating in the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens was proof of their visit. "Photographs provide proof", writes Susan Sontag, "something we hear about and doubt seems to be proven when we are shown a photograph".[2]

The photographers, famous or unknown, amateurs or professionals, who arrived in 1896 at the Panathenaic Stadium, who watched the sports events and the ceremonies, who marvelled at the winners (and of course immortalized them), created an invaluable record of the state, the rebirth and the history of the Olympic Games. Moreover, by the late 19th century, photography, which until then had been available only to a privileged few, became accessible to a wider range of social classes. This was helped by the technical evolution of the medium: more specifically, the manufacture of the first portable Kodak camera (1888) and the introduction of flexible film. In this vein, Athens, its monuments and the most important cultural and sporting event of 1896 were transformed by the camera lens into the essential elements for composing a frame.

Time travel with the help of photographs of the era bears great resemblance to today’s approach by Olympic Games spectators. We come across just as we did then: general views of the stadium, details from the opening ceremony, snapshots of sporting events, group photographs of international delegations, exclusive portraits of Olympic champions.

Even the journalists’ descriptions of the age fully reflect the spirit and magnificence of the Games, in no way falling short of present-day reporting: "The decoration in the Stadium is outstanding. At the front towering masts with banners and coats of arms have been erected and on each side two copies of ancient tripods, all around the stone wall poles bearing coats of arms, while in the sphendone stand two stone herms, found during the excavation of the ancient stadium. Cushions have been placed on the pedestals in the stands where spectators can sit. Members of various committees, stewards and other officials come and go in the field and the arena. A short while later the bands strike up and enter in line to take their places" (Ch. Anninos, 1896).[3]

(Io Paschou is a photographer with a PhD in the History of Art from the Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University).

The photographs come from the book by Charis Giakoumis and Lucie Bonato From Olympia to Athens: A photographic journey to the homeland of the Olympic Games, Athens: M. Toumbis, 2004.

[1] Ch. Giakoumis and Lucie Bonato, From Olympia to Athens: A photographic journey to the homeland of the Olympic Games, Athens: Μ. Toumbis, 2004, page76. 76.
[2] S. Sontag, On Photography, translated by I. Papaioannou, Athens: Photographer, 1993, page 25. 25.
[3] Giakoumis and Bonato, op.cit., page 123. 123.
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