Affinity and Apartness

Hercules Papaioannou

At a time when the notion of privateness is questioned and challenged by a rich stream of surveillance imagery, Mikael Levin's intention seems to drive him the opposite way: his camera is pointed at the very heart of open, everyday, public space. More precisely, he explores the squares, facades, crossroads of four European cities and towns: Erfurt, Cambrai, Katrineholm and Thessaloniki. Common Places, bringing to mind the work of such important artists as Walker Evans and Eugene Atget, attests to the fact that whatever radical might exist in the concepts of common and place, can be read anew through reduction, comparative reading, allusion.

Levin's photographic rhetoric is austere but meaningful: medium contrast and format, careful camera placement. Everything points towards moderateness: no 'decisiveness', nor any sort of overt formalism or formula of picturesqueness. The art historian Svetlana Alpers distinguishes between perspectives that establish 'I see the world' and perspectives that establish that 'the world is being seen'.1 Common Places belongs, as a project, in the second category. It demands from the viewer, discreetly though clearly, to take action in deciphering. It also testifies to the following paradox: the more informative a photographic work is, the more elliptical and allusive it often gets. The more seemingly neutral the context, the more penetrating it can prove to be.

The time, though, in which Common Places is created and presented is critical in another sense too. It is the time when, especially in Europe, the idea of union has become a center stage issue. Reversely but not strangely, at that same historical moment the idea of cultural identity, in the more narrow sense, comes forward strongly again, becomes vital and leads towards the opposite direction: that of fragmenting the wholeness, of emphasizing the seams, of territorial segregation.

Mikael Levin's Common Places suggest that a whole town can literally 'wear' an identity, one that is gradually shaped through multiple and intricate historical conditions, political choices, aesthetic values, as well as chance. The photographs seem to speak about the architecture and urban planning of Katrineholm, Cambrai, Thessaloniki and Erfurt as a conscious or subconscious strategy for the obtaining, validation or denial of such a collective cultural identity. They can perfectly be thought of as four distinct, not necessarily distinguished, itineraries of urbanism through time. Also, as a very fine reflection on the thin line between affinity and apartness.

The aspects of Thessaloniki chosen by Levin are wisely detected, mostly because they are widely experienced by the average citizen as commonplace. For that reason these aspects are both strongly present and at the same time habitually overlooked, as if not 'official', not really representative. It should be noted here that a number of people, including photography students, who visited the exhibition complained of an undervalued or oversimplified view of the city. That can be said to be true only in one respect: that these urban features manifest themselves identically in many Greek cities and towns, revealing a much broader and homogeneous attitude towards public space, so that Thessaloniki appears as not sufficiently differentiated from other Greek cities and towns.

Hercules Papaioannou, Thessaloniki, May 1999


Hercules Papaioannou lives in Thessaloniki, Greece. He writes on photography and exhibits photographic work. He is also involved in organizing and curating photographic shows.


1. Sennett, Richard, The Conscience of the Eye, London, 1990, Faber and Faber, pg.156.