Moments of the Great "Family of Man"
The history of 20th century photojournalism was mainly written by people who focused on their deep desire to observe and capture life in all its facets, from extreme situations such as war to the continuous flow of everyday life, rather than obtaining an artistic education. Dimitri Soulas is one of them with his own specific features.
Soulas was born in Thessaloniki in 1938 and exhibited a deep interest in music, literature and poetry from an early age. At 16, he started writing and reading texts for radio spots. One of his scripts won first place in a photographic novel contest hosted by the Thessaloniki-based paper Drasis1. This photographic novel entitled “Goodbye Happiness” was indirectly his first contact with photography. In 1959, he began studying economics in Frankfurt where he also attended lectures at the famous “Frankfurt School” and was introduced to contemporary political and philosophical ideas. In the following year, he went to Hamburg to visit Edward Steichen’s world exhibition “The Family of Man”. The conditio humana expressed in the exhibited photographs deeply impressed him and shortly after, he took his first photograph based on instructions from one of Andreas Feininger’s textbooks. In 1964, he was hired by the marketing department of the Munich-based multi-national corporation United Fruit Company which imported fruit and vegetables globally, including Greece. After the military coup in 1967, he and other Greeks living in Munich founded the “Pan-Hellenic Anti-Dictatorial Union”. Just a few months later, the Greek commercial attaché to Munich pressured the company into firing Soulas for his political persuasion by threatening a trade embargo on products from Greece. Soulas lost his job, but instead of taking the easy way out and getting a job in his field, he decided to take the plunge: he resolved to become a free press photographer, equipped only with a basic knowledge in photography. He knew well what he wanted from the outstart: to lay bare man’s existence by capturing his everyday life.
He had a difficult start in his newly chosen profession, often missing newspaper deadlines for his photographs. A colleague from the Associated Press disclosed a few tips on how to develop film faster allowing him to adhere to the tight deadlines. Soulas’ determination and perseverance would soon bear fruit. By the end of 1967, he was already a freelance photographer for the Associated Press, the Munich papers commissioned works from him and photo magazines published his pictures. In 1970, he received very special recognition, when Fritz Gruber, founder of the Photokina and managing director of the German Society for Photography, called him the “photographer of the deciding moment” as defined by Henri Cartier-Bresson during a forum in Cologne. It had been Henri Cartier-Bresson who had advised Soulas to work with Agentur Magnum, which published his works abroad. Cooperation with major magazines like Stern, Quick and Neue Revue soon followed. Dimitri Soulas’ star had risen.
Soulas did not rest on his laurels and instead put his experience and education in economics and marketing to good use. In 1972, he organized a photo dispatch of his own unpublished photographs which had ended up in the archives of newspapers and magazines only to be used to illustrate articles if the need arose. Those obsolete publications soon became an important source of income for the young press photographer, who systematically promoted commercial utilization of his archive. Those days were also the beginning of the golden age of the illustrated press. The economic miracle in post-war Germany had greatly increased the advertising revenue for magazines and newspapers as air time for TV-spots was limited and had to be booked in advance. As a result, print media increased the number of pages to optimize the advertising revenue, which in turn increased the demand for articles and photos.
The technical parameters of Soulas’ works were influenced by specifications for photo reports as much as his own style–in the 1960s, black-and-white photos were the norm. Tri-X films increased the speed with which photos could be made, the smaller format allowed flexibility, autonomy and fast photo series. Panorama lenses increased the photographer’s field of vision without a negative effect on definition. Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, were used for portrait and sports photos. Whenever possible, Soulas preferred to use only the available ambient light and avoided special techniques and experiments predominant in the subjective photography of Otto Steinert in Germany in the 1950s. Instead, he saw photography as the “window to the world”. Many times, he created a long series of shots on the same subject to capture the perfect moment.
Soulas’ works can be divided into two basic categories, but their boundaries are fluid: commissioned works and personal works. In his job, he was the energetic photographer who successfully covered everything from crime, art, sports and fashion to politics. He was flexible when it came to capturing both conventional and unusual moments in a variety of sports disciplines as evidenced in the large number of photos he took during the eventful Olympic Games in Munich. In almost all of his commission works, the masterful and expressive illustration of the event is evident. Soulas also took “commercial nude photos”, pictures of nude models for the title page of the newspaper Bild with the intent to portray sexual liberalism for the common people.
On the other hand, his commissioned works increased his awareness. He often went beyond the already irregular hours of a press photographer to make evident the effort and distinctiveness of the human existence in the continuous flow of life and capture it in a grimace, a gesture. The fleeting interrelationships between people and urban life were the catalyst for the commentary. Driven by his motivation, he created a deliberately anthropocentric work. A closer look at his archive reveals that he avoided capturing rooms or landscapes as a motif in their own right. Instead, a room was a necessary stage for the limitless variations of human tragedy that took place daily. Soulas developed an intuitive anticipation; whereas the camera captures the moment immediately after activation of the release, the reaction must occur prior to the right moment. It also means that one has to remain unnoticed, in the shadow of the event–something that most probably was easier in the days when cameras did not induce a defensive mechanism and when people still acted freely and normally in the presence of a photographer. Man is always the center of his photos.
His ability to capture expressive moments was quickly noticed. The Fotomagazin called him the “photographer of the deciding moment”2. In his introduction to an article about Soulas published by the German magazine Photo, Fritz Gruber said that “[. . .] not many were able to follow the humanistic example set by Henri Cartier-Bresson with the same devoted consistency and intuitive talent of Dimitri Soulas. He has an unmistakable sense for detecting those small daily events in which man faces fate naked and helpless.” Many publications lauded his attempt to penetrate the invisible aspect of events, the aspect that lay beyond superficial perception, to comment on current social conditions.
Soulas’ photographic eye for the right motif was not just determined by the interpretation of the history of photography, but by freely observing life in the streets and the humanistic spirit of the medium in post-war Germany. It was also shaped by the spirit of Steichen’s exhibition, which had a lasting impact then by demonstrating how photography could “explain mankind to man”5. At a time when family and social boundaries were showing the first signs of dissolution (something that he also experienced in his personal life), Soulas’ works seem to subconsciously share the idea of mankind as a large family beyond contradictions and differences. At the same time, photography as a means to observe society was compatible with the marketing principles he had specialized in, even though the purpose for the analysis of human behaviour was completely different in marketing. The thought processes triggered by his arrival in Germany created an ideology that affected his attitude as a photographer. He was also influenced by works of the American photographers Jacob A. Riis and Leweis Hine, both of whom were, historically speaking, founding fathers of photo documentation as a tool for social change. Within this framework, he targeted foreign workers (to whom he felt a certain connection because he, too, was a foreigner), the angry generation of the 1960s in the streets of Munich, the affluent society and the elderly, while always being open to the social outsiders and minorities. He managed to capture the escalating urban intricacy by sketching the small and large, individual and collective stories of the people. At the same time, he experienced the contrast inherent in the profession when he moved from the fighting in the streets to a high-society fashion show or a reception. A fine example of two different worlds colliding is the photo that shows a newspaper with images from the famine in Biafra. In reality, one world controls the other and allows its affluent society to “consume” the others’ misfortune at a safe distance. Even more shocking in the face of the famine depicted in the photo are the half-empty bottles and plates with leftovers next to the open newspaper.
In one of his photo series, Soulas took pictures of the railway station and foreign workers with their bags and improvised luggage that still carried a scent of home. The invisible tension in the air from emotional good-byes and happy greetings is tangible. Another series allows us a close look at the activities at a market, where the women are drawn to the sales offers like flies to honey. One of the photos shows a woman laden with shopping bags in front of a window with a sticker of a large gun. The barrel points directly at her head–an apt comment on the power of consumption over man.
Intense observations of this kind also include the hard-working people who fall asleep in the street. The prostitute gesturing while leaning against a lamppost. The beggar who seems to be imprisoned with fashionable suits on one side and the headless bodies of passers-by on the other. The shocked look on the face of the woman taken by surprise by an exhibitionist in the subway. The man who grooms himself before entering the photo booth. The anonymous crowd that gathers in the city, drawn by a public speech. The self-satisfied hippies making fun of a well-dressed man. The old woman leaning on a cane while looking into a shop window displaying modern fashion. The men in the street who try to coax a shy smile from the ladies. The secretive looks of pedestrians on their way through the public space. The drunk who had been thrown out of a pub and now draws the attention of the crowd passing him by. In many cases, it seems that the real motif of the photos is the fine line between conformity and unbridled social behaviour. Soulas even captures tender moments between man and pet that seem to have replaced philanthropy to a certain degree. The lonely figure with the sullen look in the middle of a traffic jam is depicted in the same vein–a figure that not only recognizes day-to-day issues but also welcomes the irrevocable progress of automobile technology. During fashion shows, Soulas carefully establishes a connection between the fairy-like bodies of the models and the expressions of the audience or the activities behind the scenes.
In another of his signature photos, he creates bipolarity by contrasting the yearning of children looking at toys and Christmas decorations and the stoic, mature demeanour of the adults. In one picture, it almost seems as if two worlds overlap temporarily, when two elderly persons argue on the roadside while a group of protesters marches past –a visual comment on the youthful desire for change versus the social seclusion of the elderly.
Soulas captured the deep intensity and solidarity of pacifist demonstration (in which he often participated himself) as well as the driving force behind the protests … the spontaneous sensuality of youth. During concerts, he captured the intensity with which the artist addressed the almost hypnotized audience, his facial expression, and his gestures. In yet another photo, a rather comic mood is apparent when a policeman seems to be performing a dance routine while directing the traffic. The picture taken during a movie shooting shows a Hitler in underwear and so demystifies this infamous figure of the 20th century. A group of men sleeping in the grounds of a railway station creates an unexpectedly rhythmic scene in its relaxed idleness. Many of those seemingly simple snapshots are comments on loneliness, age, love, the unknown, technology and consumerism. The statements retain an underlying connection to the left-wing (but not line-toeing leftist) principles that had become quite common in the humanism-oriented post-WWII photography, when everyone was still striving to deal with the aftermath horrors of the war. For man to start believing in humankind again, he would have to look up. Soulas’ works often function as a charming intermediary and tried to show people without social or other barriers. At the same time, his photos have a distinct political and social context without making a direct political statement. A major part of those works presents an open and positive view on the manifestations of being different in a complex and contradictory society while at the same time maintaining the many facets of a photographic image in which historical, social and aesthetic components amalgamate into an independent interpretation of photographic practice.
It might be difficult to comprehend the challenges this change of profession from business economist to professional press photographer–who became a valued contractor for the Associated Press within six months despite the strong competition–entailed. Seeing the ease with which Soulas gave up this career after many successful years as a photographer and returned to his former occupation is also surprising. In his time as a photographer, things happened fast–adjustment, success, retirement. His life and his work were determined by dynamic actions, and it seems only logical that he was interested in motion rather than staged or arranged photos. Snap shots and photo reports were the expression of those actions and had the power to reveal the underlying motivation for human behaviour.
The epilogue of Soulas the photographer began in 1974 after the overthrow of the military junta. After all those years in which he had been denied entry into the country (which had even prevented him from attending his father’s funeral), he felt the urge to return. After some research in Thessaloniki and Athens, he realized that the working conditions for a photographer in Greece were less than ideal and most certainly not on the level he was used to from his work in Germany. The one film he took in his homeland portrays Greece as impoverished and working-class whist still retaining charm, simplicity and natural spontaneity. Soulas continued to work as a photographer in Munich until 1976, but had already begun to re-establish his connections in the world of economics where he would have a successful career in Germany and Greece for the following decades. His time as a photographer had been an important chapter in his life, because it had made him aware of the different social conditions and situations. In order to keep this part of his life from falling into oblivion, the almost forgotten press photographer, who had once created his own, very special portrait of Munich society, donated his archive to the Fotomuseum in the Munich Stadtmuseum. In cooperation with the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, Soulas’ birthplace, it was possible to plan a retrospective of his works; this time, however, they would be presented to the world without the restrictions of the print medium and journalistic texts. Instead, focus would be on the photographs and thus allow an evaluation of his contribution to German press journalism over the past decades.
1.This series of photo stories was published in the 1950s in Greece by several magazines. Soulas’ photo novel was published between 4.4.1956 and 11.6.1956 in editions 20-34.
2.Fotomagazin. Edition November 1970. Cover.
3. Photo. Edition 19. 1974.
4. c.f. Sperling, Fritz. “Menschen vor der Kamera Heute”. Photographie Anuelle 1974. Braun, Norbert. Der Photograph. Edition June 1970. Fotomagazin. February 1971 and December 1971. Der Photograph. Edition 3/1973.
5. Steichen, Edward (publ.). “The Family of Man”. The Museum of Modern Art. New York: 1986 (1955), page 3