Durable views of an island in constant flux

John Donat, Crete 1960
February 8, 2002

This is a book of thoughtfully composed photographs of the land and people of Crete taken 40 years ago by John Donat. In his introduction, Michael Llewellyn Smith, the recently retired British ambassador to Greece, says that at that time, when he was also travelling in Crete, the island was in a "state of transition". Perhaps Crete displays its vigour by its ability to adapt to circumstances more quickly and more fundamentally than most parts of the world. Every recent holiday-maker witnesses the speed and power with which the place embraces modernity and builds ever more accommodation to house the floods of tourists who come to enjoy her magnificent weather and legendary hospitality. A snapshot album compiled today would make interesting viewing compared with Donat's images of a bygone era.

The value of his collection of photos taken in the early 1960s lies in the record it makes of the aspects of Crete that do not change.

Most of the manual tasks recorded - ploughing with oxen, distilling raki , transport by donkey and mule - are now done more easily by modern methods.

Donat has caught the fleeting expressions and habits of its people - the sergeant sitting on a chair at a small cafe table, his left foot raised comfortably on the rung of a second chair, his hands poised in a balletic position over the food on his plate. This is simply not the pose of a Frenchman or German attacking his lunch. In the picture of the man on page 47, the narrowing of the eyes, the thumb crossed over the palm of the hand must mean that price is being discussed - or perhaps doubt is being cast over something just said. Intelligence and concentration on the job in hand are in all these portraits made by a sympathetic photographer who does not disturb his subjects.

Thirteen of the photographs show frescoes to be found in often remote, small churches that are indissolubly linked to their landscape settings. The frescoes were then little known and barely recorded. It was a stroke of luck that early in his visit to Crete, Donat came across the painter John Craxton, who lived in Crete and who has done so much to draw attention to the value and beauty of these wall paintings. Craxton's discerning eye, his open-hearted appreciation of the landscape and its people, is evident throughout this volume. The publication of these few frescoes whets the appetite for many more. The depiction, in the church at Meskla, of deep emotion as the evangelists and Mary bury Christ, the magnificent picture of the fall of Jericho in the church of St Michael at Kouneni and the fragmentary portrait of a striking woman at Spina Selinou are examples from a treasure-trove waiting for the traveller willing to walk and search.

It is good that the Bouzouniera, a taverna in Chania, now long defunct - where the food was suspect and the atmosphere enjoyably disreputable - has been immortalised.

Donat's early architectural training, his Hasselblad camera and the spell that Crete weaves over willing participants have joined in making an historic volume. The book has been a long time in gestation. It is a delight that its skilful editor, Maria Vassilakis, and the University of Crete have brought it to fruition.

Rachel Hood is the author of Faces of Archaeology in Greece . She has lived and worked in Crete.

John Donat, Crete 1960

Author - John Donat
ISBN - 960 524 085 8
Publisher - Crete University Press
available from The Hellenic Bookservice, 91 Fortess Road, London NW5 1AG
Price - £20.00
Pages - 141

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