First Photographers of Holy Mount Athos

20 June 2013

When, on 19 August 1839, François Arago announced the invention of the daguerrotype to the Académie française in Paris,  he stressed the particular importance of photography to archeology  and, indeed, to the arts in general. It’s no coincidence that, three years later, the Canadian, Pierre-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, took the first shots of the Acropolis.


Greece, and especially the Holy Mountain, as an intermediate stage on the journey to the lands of the Rising Sun, was a destination that attracted the photographic lens. Until the end of the 19th c., journeys to the Holy Mountain and to Thessaloniki were often made by coastal voyages from Marseilles to Constantinople.

It should be noted here that the new technique of photography deeply affected the general view of the external world in the course of the 19th century. The formidable sense of realism and incontrovertible truth of the photographic record often substituted for the experience of the journey itself. Until the start of the 20th century, the photo album played an important part in the “virtual journey” of scholars, artists, travellers and tourists who visited the Holy Mountain and Thessaloniki.


At the same time, it’s worth noting that the spread of photography  to Greece made a huge contribution to the history of the Athonite peninsula. The first people to take photographs on the Holy Mountain were the French engineer Ernest Caranza, the Sultan’s official photographer, in 1854, and the Russian Count Pierre de Sebastianoff, in about 1857.

In about 1870, photography workshops were founded on the Holy Mountain, such as those of the Holy Monastery of Saint Panteleimon, of Veniamin Kontrakis and, later, of the Hieromonk Stefanos in Karyes. We would recall that, until that period, the long exposure time and heavy equipment made it difficult to take photographs of static subjects, such as monuments, next to which human figures were often placed to give an impression of scale. It was only after 1880, that the revolutionary technique of the photo-sensitive surfaces of dry gelatin emulsion resulted in vast improvements in the medium: reduction of exposure time (snap-shots); simplification of use; and the potential to record movement (which eventually led to cinematographic production, “cinema” being the Greek word for “movement”).


This “democratization” of the medium allowed the wider access of increasing numbers of amateur travellers, scholars and artists to the art of photography. One of the first who seems to have exploited the potential of the medium was the young English writer Athelston Riley, in 1883. At the same time, there was an opening up and increase in the commercialization of photographic workshops and professional photographers.