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Notes Toward a History of Greek-American Studio Photographers

December 20, 2021

At first sight, as with so much else in Greek-American studies, nothing of substance seems documented on Greek studio photographers. Yet, since virtually the arrival of Greek adventurers to American shores there have been Greek-American photographers ready, willing, and able to record their arrival. If you take the time and go back and look closely at your grandparents’ or even your great-grandparents’ photographs you will most likely see the printed name and address of the studio photographer who took some of the earliest images of your ancestors in this country.

No single published account of which I am aware offers even an outline of the Greek-immigrant professional studio photographers working in North America from the 1880s onwards. Since all single points of Greek-American history must begin somewhere I offer here just a few notes and observations on but a handful of the professional Greek immigrant photographers of which I am now aware.

To begin with, from what I have been told such images were not taken strictly out of vanity. The early immigrants frequently sent these studio photographs home to their families and friends to document their safe arrival, and given the expense of such images, evidence of their good fortune. Professional photographers have always offered their clientele an array of photographic sizes and even mediums to choose from. I have seen photographic formats ranging from two-foot to three-foot hand-colored portrait photographs down to photographs printed on post card stock ready-to-mail. Given the time period and the relative novelty of new photographic possibilities, Greek immigrants could also elect to have their photographs reproduced on the backs of hand-held mirrors, on large oval metal plates, and/or blown-up to life-size portraits. All these possible photograph image-mediums were commonplace across the nation.

Photographs brought from Greece were often taken to professional studio photographers for a number of reasons. An early favorite of Greek immigrants was the composite photograph. This new single image cojoined several individual photographic images of various family members taken from different photographs to create a single group portrait. Thus, through photographic means, a divided Greek family was united. An additional aspect to this popular type of image was that given the expense involved, several additional photographs were included with such an expensive single picture.

Of the numerous Greek-American commercial studio photographers who worked throughout the United States between 1880 and 1920, to the best of my knowledge only the Nickolas Grammas Collection held at Hull-House, located on the University of Illinois Chicago campus serves to document the types of images typically produced by ethnic professionals for the community at large. But these images were not gathered to serve as examples of Grammas’ career but rather as early scenes and persons to be found in Chicago’s Greektown district.

I would imagine this is the exact same situation in the Helen Zeese Papanikolas Collection in Salt Lake City. Individual Greek-American photographers worked in Utah and the American West in general. I know of George P. Kyranakos, a commercial photographer in Salt Lake City, by seeing his studio-credit stamp on several photographs during an oral history interview that took place in Chicago.

Again, as one would suspect, occasionally professional Greek photographers placed advertisements in the Greek-American press. In the 1944, Karpathian Society Omonia’s annual yearbook we find advertisements for the Grecian  Photograph Studio as well as yet another, the Acropolis  Photo Studios operated by Mr. and Mrs. Georgakas, located then at 588-590 9th Avenue New York City. In the 1945 Karpathian Society Omonia’s annual yearbook we find an advertisement for the Greek-owned Granart Photo Studio. In both of these yearbooks numerous photographs are credited to Basil Hatziminas, who owned and operated Sun Studios out of Gary, Indiana. Upon his retirement Mr. Hatziminas moved to Florida with his wife. John Giolas purchased Sun Studios and when I spoke to him, now decades ago, he had relocated his photographic business to Merrillville, Indiana.

Years ago I recall reading, in the Greek-American press, that somewhere in California a business woman had purchased a piece of property. It the course of her cleaning out this building she discovered a large number of old glass-plate photographs. As it turned out, the building she had purchased was once the site of a photographer’s studio. And among the glass-plate negatives were images of some of the very first Greeks in California. And if I am not misremembering this long-go account, this business woman was soon selling prints taken from these old glass-plate photographs to not only the Greeks but numerous other descendants of the individuals still preserved on these glass-plates.

Again, sometime ago, through the introduction of the late Nick Topping in Milwaukee, Wisconsin I met John Kardis, a life-long commercial photographer in that city. Visiting him in his home I was surprised to see how much of his professional work he had kept. Mr. Kardis was beyond a studio photographer. A great deal of his work was nothing less than art. I still recall that I had the strong feeling that I was not just witnessing the history, but was in the midst of it. Yet when I wanted to write about Mr. Kardis and share his artistry with the world it was not to be. In particular one extended family member was especially vocal against my offer. So, while I enjoyed the visit I could not, until now, write about this yet to be recognized unique visual artist.

All in all, it has been my experience that you never know when or where you will see a photograph of a Greek-American. As an example I once stopped, with my brother, at ‘A1 Iowa’ on route 80 which claims to be ‘the largest truck stop in the world.’ And I can attest to it being a huge complex that is mix of full-service facilities for semi-trucks and one of the largest shopping malls I have ever visited. To give some sense of the size of this truck stop/mall, scattered throughout the grounds one can see cordoned-off refurbished full-size cars, trucks, jeeps, army transports, and other vehicles. As I walked about this facility it was obvious that the ‘A1 Iowa’ truck stop freely adorns itself with all manner of road vehicles and even an amazing array of old-time garage pumps, stop-lights ,and even a broad mix of road signs as signature decorative elements to their service-center mall.

My brother and I went to one of this truck-stop’s restaurants. As we were leaving I happened to look up. There above the entrance I saw a large photograph with two vehicles on each end of this image. In between these two vehicles I recognized the late George Notopoulos of Wilton Junction, Iowa sweeping the sidewalk in front of his candy store. A moment frozen in time. My guess is that the two vehicles on either side of this image qualified it as yet another example of this highly unique motor-mall’s automotive themes.

There is so much work left undone on the history of Greeks in the United States. Having a better grasp of the historic photographs available for research would go a long way in helping to ground what is written with what has been left to us as visual evidence. While individual Greek-American family collections would seem the first logical choice for seeking out such historic images, I suggest that we not forget the yet largely unexplored collection of Greek immigrant photographers.

 

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