Photographer Jeff Vanderpool
The fact is if you see something often enough, eventually you stop seeing it all. When our surroundings become overly familiar, it’s easy to forget to appreciate them. Born in Athens, photographer Jeff Vanderpool has dedicated a huge part of his professional career to capturing the city, but for his project “Sea of City”, Jeff’s turned his lens away from the all too familiar monuments and towards the often overlooked mountains that surround them.
We chatted to Jeff about discovering a new side to his city.
What was the goal when you started this project?
Athens is in a basin surrounded by mountains and sea. In Greece it is often referred to as the “lekanopedio,” or basin area. In many places, there is a very definitive limit where the city abruptly stops because there is a mountain in the way, preventing its expansion. Living in the city you have a distinct image of these mountains as backdrops at the city’s limits but not much idea about their content and character.
Also, as is unfortunate in our times, the natural environment is often overlooked and while these mountains offer a great respite from the city, fires, development and trash pose a real threat to them. I guess my goal was to call attention to their existence and the fact that they are as precious a part of the city as any of its cultural monuments.
You were born in Athens, what made you decide to start this project now?
I spent my childhood in Athens but only began living here on a more permanent basis about 5 years ago. This has given me the ability to view the Greek landscape - something I have always been fascinated by - more intensely.
You’ve selected just a handful of images for this series, what made these images stand out to you?
There are four mountains surrounding the city and I have selected two to three images from each of those mountains. In these images you can often make out opposing vantage points on the mountains from one side of the city to the other. I tried to make selections that were as indicative as possible of the series as a whole.
Is there one image that really captures what the project is about?
It’s difficult to say, but perhaps I would suggest image no. 3 from the Central Hymettus series. The stones in the foreground are part of a rough dirt track near the summit of Mount Hymerttus in the east of Athens. This type of jagged stone is very characteristic of dirt tracks in the region around Athens.
To me, this photograph contains the intimate connection between the city and its surroundings. It’s both natural and man-altered all at once. And since most of the city of Athens was built from rocks quarried in these mountains I found there to be a nice material connection as well.
Some of the images paint quite a desolate view of Athens, which contrast with the parts of the city many people are familiar with. Why was it important for you to showcase this alternative view of the city?
The landscape and monuments of the city of Athens have been depicted by artists and photographers for centuries. (In fact, a large part of my professional work is dedicated to this!) Through these historic images we get an idea of the transformations of the landscape and city over time. It’s difficult considering how to approach a subject that has been depicted so extensively, so I decided to try and bring to light some of the more unfamiliar elements of the Athenian landscape. I consider every one of the spots I have photographed to have its own serene beauty. The desolation or solitude of these spots is, in a way, what the many monks and nuns that inhabit the monasteries found throughout these mountains seek!
What do you want people to take away from these images?
We often feel we know a place even when we’ve experienced a very small part of it. I would like people to get the sense that there are vast dimensions to this city - and perhaps to all cities - that can add great value to the way we experience them.
Has the project changed the way you view the city you grew up in? If so, how?
Absolutely. Any time you observe something intensely it changes the way you perceive it. I never fully appreciated the vastness and variety in the natural landscape immediately surrounding Athens. Also, from a distance the city appears still. You lose the perception of the busy street life. The city therefore appears like another topographical feature, just the way the mountains had once appeared to me when viewed from the city.
I’m continuing to produce work about Athens, now focusing on the city itself. The modern city is built in a very organic way. Although there was originally a plan when the city was being redeveloped in the 19th century, local interests prevailed and most of the plan was not implemented. The result is the city we have today, which on the surface appears very chaotic, anarchic and, to many people, unattractive. I would like to offer a new aesthetic evaluation of the city, one that sees potential in its current state rather than despair.
What tips do you have for telling visual stories?
The best stories are the ones we connect with personally in some way. It’s depicting that connection visually, which makes work interesting for me.
What kit do you use?
I use an EOS 5DS R body. I have a variety of lenses two of which are Canon’s EF 24-105mm f/4L zoom, and the older 24mm TSE. I also use a variety of old manual medium format lenses with a tilt-shift adapter.
The Sea of City series will be exhibited at the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava from October 2017.
Jeff’s Kit Bag
Interview credit: Written by Daniel O’Hara