Niko J. Kallianiotis is a photographer and educator based in Pennsylvania. Originally from Greece, he started his career as a newspaper photographer, first as a freelancer at The Times Leader, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and then as a staff photographer at The Coshocton Tribune in Coshocton, Ohio, and The Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, New York. He is currently teaching at Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing photographer for The New York Times and a member of OramaPhotos in Greece.
America in a Trance
About two decades ago my father moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, which was my second experience with the United States. In the late 70’s he took the journey from Greece to the Big Apple to pursue a PhD, which led him to the Keystone State. Living in Pennsylvania and traveling through the cities, towns and landscapes helped shape my perception of what America is, or isn’t, away from the lights, glamour, fantasy and illusion of the Metropolis. I always considered myself, and still do, an outsider with an insider’s perspective, both in regards to my state but also the country. I experienced the land through a cold but intimate perspective without any preconceived ideas and I was fortunate to do that without a camera. I feel very fortunate about this because it has shaped my vision and response to this place without a lens filtering my view. This circumstance was integral in developing my understanding for this land and its people, a vital ingredient that ultimately shapes my current vision. Though the years my love and understanding for this country grew but, unavoidably, also a confusion as to the direction and future on a local and national scale. For me, a photograph that was take eighty-five-years ago, became a prophecy and a curse.
In November of 1935 Walker Evans made a photograph about Bethlehem titled “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”. A large cement cross sits in the foreground overlooking a perfectly composed scene of American life and industry. A cemetery competes with brick homes and porches that are knitted together in a plateau, fluctuating between past and present. Just when your eye comprehends the few inches of greenery, you look up only to see a changing landscape of hard factory life. Like any brilliant photograph, it speaks in a dichotomy of quiet and busy, charging rapidly towards the future yet relentlessly becoming a prophecy of the uncertain. About 35,000 people from the city of Bethlehem worked at the mill, almost half the population of Bethlehem. The mill closed and parts of it have been turned into a casino with imported steel for its construction.
In 2015 I started working on my America in a Trance project, exploring and responding as I travel through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania, a once prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry. A mode to promote American values, industrialism provided a place where immigrants from tattered European countries crossed the Atlantic for a better future. An immigrant and naturalized citizen myself, I had always perceived the U.S. differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”.
The past few years, my project has been unintentionally influenced by current events. In Pennsylvania, and throughout the Rust Belt, these former industrial areas transformed into political stages with visual caricatures and photographs that lacked the emphathy and understanding of the place. Coming from another country this visual representation of the Rust Belt and small town was a vulgar spectacle, which in a way enhanced and influenced my response. This particular theme and genre of photography was considered banal and cliché within contemporary photography; it was not pushing the limits and, with a few exceptions, would rarely see work that provided a visual record omitting political agendas. It could be argued that this theme determined the election and if the intergalactic gap between metro and rural America does not close, it may determine it again. Obviously my work falls under the documentary style, which places an emphasis to strive and understand the land and the people though an extended timeline. I have no interest whatsoever in making a political commentary with my work but considering the visual representation it might be healthy to have a more meaningful and deeper conversation about our medium. Photography is subjective, we all now that, but the aegis of subjectivity can easily lead in opening Pandora’s box.
This project is an ongoing observation of the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape but widespread across the United States. My subject choices derive from intuition and the desire to explore the unknown and rediscover the familiar. Through form, light, and color, I let the work develop organically, and become a commentary of place but also of self. I am not interesting in how things look, but mostly on how things feel, with the hues and light playing the role of a constituent of hope. The work is a product of love, for both the state and country I have called home for the last two decades; it is not political statement but its about the experience of being there, showing you what I see but mostly what I feel. While my interest is not in the depiction of desolation, at times it becomes necessary to the narrative. I search for images that reflect, question, and interpret life in the towns and cities across the Keystone State, and the yearning for survival. My interest is in the vernacular and the inconsequential, that which becomes metaphorical and a connotation to a personal visual anthology for the photographer but also for the viewer.
To view more of Niko’s work please visit his website.