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Lay of the Land

Between Gritty Streets and Abandoned Alleys, Dimitra Lazaridou Finds a Mysterious Middle Ground

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 6/4/2003

Just like in diplomacy these days, in contemporary landscape photography there are only two camps, and everyone has to fall into one or the other. There are the Americans--hard-bitten, aggressive, agenda-driven--and there are the Europeans--accommodating, contemplative, pragmatic. It's a division that's been around for decades in photographic circles, way before Americans started pouring Beaujolais down the drain by the gallon, long before Germans began boycotting Budweiser.

And, much as in foreign affairs, the Yanks and the Europeans have not found much middle ground in this aesthetic debate. American landscape photographers, by and large, like to style themselves as "environmental photographers," or sometimes "New Topographers," their pictures focusing on the indelible, if sometimes picturesque, damage that humanity has wrought on the earth. Across the pond, though, they tend to take a more sheer approach, one that doesn't so much lecture us about the modern landscape as simply document it, in tones that range from indifference to dry wit. Typical. The Americans bully people around with their vision of the world, while the Europeans observe from the fringes. We never see things the same way. You're either with us or against us.

This choosing up of sides may explain why Dimitra Lazaridou, the accomplished thirtysomething Continental photographer, has never had her own show in the United States until now. Born in Greece and schooled in Berlin, where photography has been on a steady diet of rationalism for some time now, Lazaridou comes from an environment where landscape shots typically lean toward the stolid, the self-presenting, and sometimes the slightly ironic. She comes along about a half-generation after such heavy hitters as Germany's Bernd and Hilla Becher--famous for their straight-ahead photos of industrial buildings--and their protégé Candida Höfer, who formulates astringent images of public spaces. Their work is masterfully impassive, and it doesn't take the faintest interest in plucking at your heart.

But while Lazaridou may have made her bones among this set, it's easy to see that she has by no means been cowed by it. As her solo show Sacred Shadows, now on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, clearly attests, hers is an alternative vision. Straddling the camps that have stood at odds for years, Lazaridou offers up large-scale color photos of the urban landscape that are at once busy and restrained, articulate and silent, plain-faced and deeply felt. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Her scenes look at first like odes to lost grandeur. All shot in her native Athens, they are uniformly grim--overgrown back alleys, hardpan side streets, dilapidated buildings pockmarked with crumbling stucco. And they are nighttime prints taken with daytime slide film, a translation that imbues everything with a deep-green haze that is at once eerie and somewhat opulent. What's most strange about these richly detailed photos of ugliness, though, is that they're neither mournful nor stoic. Instead, the ultimate effect is one of lapsed heroism, or maybe symbolic drama, a sense that is compounded by the epic titles Lazaridou has given them.

This feeling is all but handed to you in a picture like "Tangible Golden Past." It looks out along the thoroughfare of a modern Greek coliseum, near what a hand-painted sign on the left tells us is section 25. In front, countless rows of flat marble benches rise mathematically through the center of the frame, where the rim of the stadium meets the asphalt-dark sky. To the right, ungainly electric lamps cover the grandiose scene in light the color of urine. But the view is neither bitter nor sentimental. Like most of Lazaridou's best images, it just trucks in mystery.

She really invites our best guesswork, though, with scenes so banal that we're not sure what we're supposed to be looking at. This forces us to look closer, and before long a cursory glance turns into a hunt for salient details. In one photo, of a windowless and utterly drab foyer, the sparkling black marble floor catches our eye, a glint of hope in an otherwise blighted shot. In another, of an empty and neglected alleyway, it's a stripe of spray paint running sensuously down a lamppost, glowing under the electric light with a nearly heavenly iridescence. And at times, like in "Escape From the Prison of Pain," the litany of particulars can read like a hymn. Some 20 feet ahead of you in an abandoned back street, iron bars cover the small square window of a cinder-block shack. To the right, a block wall runs behind the big, ignorant shoulder of a corrugated steel shed. To the left, a hefty stuccoed building crouches, its rectangular industrial window missing a single pane, like a grin missing a tooth. A street lamp nearby struggles to push out light. And running under it all is a rutted, dun-colored ground that's made from some farrago of dirt and concrete, not organic and yet not entirely synthetic. The strange decay is chronicled with such affection that it's practically sublime.

There are times when Lazaridou appears to be feeling her way toward this vision, and at some moments in Sacred Shadows you can almost see her reverting to the old debate, wavering between one camp and the other. A few pictures, like her workmanlike portrait of a corrugated steel tank, reveal the hard logic of her stark, Teutonic schooling; others, like her bilious shot of an oil refinery at night, which she calls "Cyberpunk Aesthetic of a Credible Dystopia," suggest a distinctly American distaste for what's become of the modern cityscape. But when her conception of the land is realized to its fullest, it stands as being almost entirely unique.

With her subtlety and circumspection, Lazaridou is one among the very few photographers who are breaching the old ambits of how we see today's landscape. Willie Doherty--Irish chronicler of urban decay from its empty streets to its muddy greenbelts, who was featured briefly in this winter's Imperfect Innocence show at the Contemporary Museum--is another. By declining to sermonize about what they find, while still bringing a healthy sense of emotion to the lens, they keep the world at a human scale. At this, even though her images are entirely unpopulated, Lazaridou especially excels. In her lyrical search for the story lines that hide in the everyday environment, she might finally advance the discussion about the state of our surroundings beyond what side of the Atlantic you belong on. If only all disputes could be negotiated with such grace.

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