Nicos Zographos is amongst the most important photographers of Greece during the Inter-War period. He is comparable to Geo Boucas (1879-1941) and Nelly's (1899-1998), who were his contemporaries. The fact of the loss of his archive, as well as the scanty biographical information - especially in earlier times - left Nicos Zographos in semi-obscurity.
Like others of his peers - such as Filippos Margaritis (1839–1892); Nelly's; the Megaloconomou Bros; e.a - Nicos Zographos derived from Asia Minor. He was born in Smyrna in 1881. According to a unconfirmed rumour, his father was also a photographer, and he apprenticed at his workshop. He later went to Paris, where he had the opportunity to study photography in depth, and then returned to Smyrna. By 1905 he set up his own studio in the city of Smyrna. It was on Hadjistamou Street, a by-way of European Street, in Frankomachalas (Frankish Quarter), where all reputable photographers had their studios. Though plenty of his photographs from that period survive, the information for his activities in Smyrna is relatively scarce.
On 2 May 1919 the Greek Army disembarked and occupied Smyrna. However, there were no photographers from Greece on the quay to capture this significant event. The gap was filled by the cameras of two artists from Smyrna: the photographer Nicos Zographos and the painter George Prokopiou. The photographs of Zographos recording the arrival of the Greek soldiers as well as of the ships from the fleet and the airmen, who were based at Paradisos (a suburb of Smyrna), alongside relevant scenes were printed by himself and featured in a hand-made album - a rare document - under the title "The Greek Occupation in Asia Minor - Smyrna."
In the ensuing years Nicos Zographos took photographs of Greek officers and soldiers in his studio. That is where he photographed Aspasia Papadopoulos, sister of Pavlos Melas, known in the Asia Minor front as the 'mother of the soldier', in a provocative pose, dressed as a nurse and holding with her other hand a smoking cigarette! (This previously unpublished photograph illustrated Alkis Xanthakis' essay entitled "The Photographers of Smyrna" in Opticon #39). The events change radically, and the end of August 1922 became witness to the long-anticipated 'Asia Minor Catastrophe'. Alongside two million Greeks, Nicos Zographos sought refuge in Athens, having no other asset but his photographic experience. Like Nelly's, he worked very hard and under the harsh circumstances of the period, in an attempt to survive.
Zographos' photographic workshop was at 6 Hermou Street (initially 10), where it remained until 1948. From then onwards till 1958 it operated at 39 Argentinis Street (as Voulis Street was called for a short period of time). His high standard as an artist established Zographos' reputation in his new country. He began to exhibit samples of his photographic work, initially portraits and - subsequently - landscapes. As the magazine 'Greece Illustrated' claimed in August 1925 "his works attracted the respect and admiration of the Athenian society". The same article records that - despite being a newcomer to Greece - Zographos went to Berlin for half a year to acquaint himself with the latest technical developments in photography. His decision to travel in such a dire period suggests the artist's intense desire for continuous improvement and a creative and alert character of an artist.
Despite being well-known as a portraitist, Zographos was not confined within the boundaries of his studio. From the beginning of his new career in Athens, he was taking photographs in the countryside. He did not limit himself exclusively to landscapes, but was moved by the people of the country, their life and their work's burden. The cover of 'New Art' magazine of 31 December 1933 reproduced a photograph of his that was described as follows: "This is a photograph by Mr. Nicos Zographos, taken on Skyros , one of the most beautiful islands of our nation. It's subject is the 'tratarisma' a charming and unaffected scene of Greek life. We have previously referred to the description of customs by Zographos, who - without considering the cost - has gathered such material that would not be managed by anyone investigating the habits of Greek people. This is said notwithstanding the true artistic value of his work".
During the Inter-War period some photographers used to publish post-cards having landscapes and archaeological sites from Greece as subject. Such post-cards were issued also by Zographos. His prints were produced according to the 'intaglio' technique. Of great interest is one such post-card that - unlike others - illustrates a female nude. His approach to a subject matter that was - by that period's standards - daring, reveals the photographer's great sensitivity and creativity. Inspite of extensive research, it has not yet been possible to establish whether he had issued more post-cards of a similar subject. However, it is known that he was concerned systematically with photographing the female nude. Many of such photographs featured in various magazines.
In the context of events relating to the Continuous Exhibition of Greek Products, an exhibition of Greek photographers was inaugurated at Zappion Megaron on 19 November 1933 by their association. This exhibition included professional and amateur photographers from all over Greece. Zographos took part with the following four photographs: Flock by the Cypresses; The Port of Hydra Island; Portrait of Mme F.; and Portrait of Old Lady. The latter being produced by the technique of 'bromoil', it is surprisingly the only known such instant in Zographos' oeuvre. Zographos (which in Greek translates as 'painter') was no painter merely by name. Often he would very meticuolously paint over his portraits. This was a challenging task, which demanded skills and experience, and which - in the case of a mediocre artist - would undermine the outcome.
In around 1935 Zographos collaborated with George Syrigos, who was travelling in Greece and took photographs of landscapes and antiquities on his behalf. This was an unofficial collaboration that had not gone public. However, it proves that from that period onwards the photographer no longer ascribed great importance to outdoor scenes, since he cared for mass-production and entrusted a collaborator to take the shots.
In November 1932 'New Art', the first illustrated photographic magazine, began to circulate. In its pages and covers featured works by all known Greek photographers. Therefore, the participation of Nicos Zographos was taken for granted. He took the opportunity to publish photographs after Greek customs, landscapes and nudes. It is, however, strange why he should not publish portraits, as this latter genre was his strength.
Towards the end of the 1930s and a little before the declaration of the Second World War the activity of Zographos was restrained. Nevertheless, it is established he was still at work on studio portraiture. His photographs from that period are still characterized by the technical integrity and the inventive lighting that distinguishes them. Though being commissions, the photographer's dynamic observation is much appreciated in them. They demonstrate a certain degree of affection and illustrate personality of the sitters' regardless of their fame or anonymity.
Following the Second World War the quality of his photographs ceased to be high. He kept his firm active and continued to work, but his studio gradually passed onto the hands of his collaborators. Even so, he retained his interest in photography, which he had served successfully for a great length of time. He died in Athens in 1967 at the age of eighty-six. The most objective criticism usually comes from people who are contemporary to the subject. It is worth quoting the following interesting critic in 'New Art' of December 1932: "I got to know him always focusing on his work. He adores his work like a genuine artist. He invests his profits in the best possible appearance of his studio and in his search for the ideal. His ideal is one! Art. His love is Light. His passion is Harmony. Whatever surrounds him is harmonious and beautiful. It could not be otherwise as he was bread by beautiful Ionia..."
[Alkis Xanthakis translated by Megakles 08/2006]
XANTHAKIS, ALKIS X. History of Greek Photography 1839-1960 1994 Kastaniotis Editions, Athens, p. 146, 174-175
XANTHAKIS, ALKIS X. Nicos Zographos: Passion for Harmony 1997 Opticon #40, p. 40-44