Greek photojournalist Zoiss Louvaris talks about the Rock counterculture, photo-art, and socio-cultural implications

"Art is here, alright. It just works in more subtle ways than a pamphlet. But is here when is needed, sometimes leading, sometimes walking along, but always present."

Zoiss Louvaris: Athens City Blues

Greek photojournalist, translator, on and off DJ, Jack of all trades and master of some, Zoiss Louvaris talks about Peter Hammill, Dr. Feelgood, Alex Harvey, Grateful Dead, Blues Brothers, the Rock counterculture, photo-art, and socio-cultural implications.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Zoiss Louvaris & D.K. Stefanopoulos / All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the Art of Photography? What does "Image" mean to you?

Well, that’s’ quite peculiar. I believe that you don’t learn about yourself from the jump. At least that’s how it happened to me. You try to learn the angles and the ropes, you try to learn how to do it, be what it may, and that’s about it. After walking a lil’ bit more that 500 miles, well, you start feeling something tappin’ you on the shoulder. You are defined from what you do and you define it.

I think by doing something arty, and a blacksmith can be an artist, something grossly overlooked, you get in touch and you show to the other people, a part of you where access is veeery limited. A part of you that the people in your life don’t deal with, no matter how close they are. They know that it exists but they have no access to it.

So, you find things about yourself that not apply to your everyday dealings with the world. Not necessarily a better part of yourself. A different one that appears when it’s needed and then retreats, making you your ordinary lovable or obnoxious self or all the in between.

As of me, it was a revelation, a disillusionment to be more accurate, to learn and feel that the myth that great artists are better from everyday people it’s just that. A myth.

And maybe they are worse, because when you operate under the auspices of art you have, literally, the permission to be eccentric in vary many ways. As a matter of fact is expected from you.

And that brings us to the image. Everybody cultivates an image. The baker and the clerk, everybody, and history reveals that.

But sometimes the mask slips and once in a while you have the chance to see the real person. Gradually I subscribed to the notion of the Indians who didn’t want their picture taken. I understand it fully.   

And of course there is the reason a picture was taken. You’ve never see an “off” picture of the president of USA, par example.

For me image is just a moment in time, shot at the right time, under the right circumstances, depicting part of the truth of the moment and nothing more.

What were the reasons that you started the photo art experiments? How do you describe your work philosophy?

Curiosity is the ticket. When you learn what these numbers you see on your camera mean, and I started when manual was the only option, you experiment, if you can afford it.

       Then come some strange ideas you see in the movies, in books about painting and photography. I said, if I did this my way?

       Certainly, a good reason to make me take a sharp left turn were the things that I saw and I didn’t like. I didn’t like the pics of posing people with the obligatory smiles, for example. I hated the high school photos. I hated most of the photos I was seeing on the Press, in the music mags, all of the above of the homegrown variety. Thankfully, there was the International Press.

       And finally, boredom. I had an assignment shooting conferences. Well, a little more interesting that watching your faucet dripping. But I had seen what Erich Solomon did with the public relations pics he shot and I thought is a better past- time to try and imitate him than occasionally standing up, taking a few shots and then sitting back down again. My mantra is, “What would Erich Solomon do?” Boredom is a great motive sometimes.

       As of my work philosophy is simple, the one that my numero uno teacher, Spyros Tsakiris, a real dog of war, told me once. “On the job you are not thirsty, hungry, sleepy, hot or cold, tired, nothing. You are there”. I know it sounds like a D.I.’s order, but once you get in this mood you really dig the meaning.

"As for the inspiration part I think that only the people of the before MTV- era can relate to that. I imagine things, situations, whatever, I dream with my eyes wide open, or wide shut occasionally, my little, or big, dreams. Music brings this out of my head. And then, if an idea seems viable I try to make it real." (Zoiss Louvaris & Nikolas Tsilogiannis / Photo by D.K. Stefanopoulos)

What experiences and subjects have triggered your ideas most? What touched (emotionally) you from Athenian life?

Strange as it seems, the work of Pasquale de Santis with Antonioni, and especially in “The Night” made me say, I wanna do that.

       Then, as a member of an amateurish band I met a photographer, Giorgos Tourkovassilis, who at that period was exploring the rock scene of the times, fascinated by it. He came to the studio two or three times, saw how he worked and I thought that’s the right way to do things. Get involved. I learned about and from Jim Marshall a little bit later.

       As a matter of fact I don’t have ideas. I have a general idea about what I wanna do and the rest is feelings. If sparks are flying I’m drawn to them.

       About the Athenian life, I grew up in a time of transition. I wanted to capture some of the vanishing past. Sadly I didn’t make it.

       What touches me now is that from what I see is like living in two different cities. There is the bright lights, big city at one end of the spectrum and the misery on the other.

       Although I was attracted by the misery at first, misery, children, war and music give great pictures, I try to turn it around.

       I’m not going for the life-style heaven but I try to picture the city life in a different kind of light. These well lit pockets without people in the full glory of their emptiness, so to speak. And you won’t catch me dead to shoot misery like working for some propaganda pamphlet.

To tell you the truth it’s quite tiresome to work in the city you were born and you know it quite well. The hard part is to see her like it’s the first time. And that doesn’t happen all the time.

How does music affect your mood and inspiration? Are there any memories from lives which you’d like to share with us?

Actually it’s a two way street. Most of the times my mood dictates what I will listen to and if I make a wrong choice I run to correct it.

As for the inspiration part I think that only the people of the before MTV- era can relate to that. I imagine things, situations, whatever, I dream with my eyes wide open, or wide shut occasionally, my little, or big, dreams. Music brings this out of my head. And then, if an idea seems viable I try to make it real.

Ha, the lives. Let me start from the two that almost destroyed my hearing. Motorhead, November 17th, 1982, at Milan and AC/DC, December 4th, same year, Paris. Oh man, plaster was fallin’ of the walls. I managed though.

The best gig I’ve been was back in 88, at a beach nearby Athens. A two-day gig. The first day was all reaggae, Yelloman, Linton Kwesi Johnson, you name it, and the second day all Afro. Man, that was heaven on earth. Pure joy. And as the saying goes, “If you say you were there and claim you remember everything, you just weren’t there”.

The most professionally apt was Peter Gabriel’s gig, in 87, the one that’s included in the So’s special box- set edition. I never thought I could ever experience something like that. Never. Perfect pitch perfect.

A Robin Hitchcock gig stands out for it’s lysergic qualities and sheer beauty and musicianship of the band. You didn’t have to use a thing to fly up in friendly skies. What a dude.

Although I don’t rate is as a Very Important Gig, I remember fondly the latest incarnation of the Blues Brothers. Standing in the shadows of Steve Cropper, Blue Lou Marini, John Tropea, a guy I never expected to see in my life, and lo and behold, Leon Pendarvis, my main man along with Philip Upchurch, well, that was something to talk home about.

I feel blessed for having seen Alex Harvey. Madness and Joy. No way to describe it. During the gig, as I recall, I was unable to believe my eyes and ears. This can’t be. This is Alex Harvey, The Last of the Teenage Idols, Framed, mob stolen guitars and all. Still I can’t believe it completely. Same goes for the Gong also.

And last but not the least, two gigs I learned something there. I went to the Steel Pulse, in Paris. Think of a white head among thousands of black people. And not being welcomed at all. I was trespassing. And I learned the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land where your skin puts you so much apart and no good will credentials are enough. All white dudes should have this experience. It would make them more compassionate, more understanding, more humble. Sometimes humility IS a virtue.

And second, a Dr. Feelgood gig, the after Wilco Johnson line- up. I was trying to shoot some flicks with my old, my dad’s really 6 X 6 format camera and I realized I was missing the gig while tryin’ to shoot the gig. It took considerable time and effort to fix it so I can enjoy both.

"I would be travelling light. Just one book. “Quell beau dimanche” (What A Nice Sunday) by Jorge Semprun. It makes me think, reexamine, learn more, and finally DO. It’s an all time inspiration this book and the man who wrote it. In earlier times the book would be “Dispatches” by the late Michael Herr, and I really carried it with me everywhere I went but I outgrew it finally." (Spyropoulos, Giotis, Politimos & Androutsos / Photo © by Zoiss Louvaris)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well, most I miss the undercurrents of hope, the “sunshine” feeling and the different set of values, especially about time. Different sets of values about time affect everything. Literally. And they didn’t count time in b.p.m.’s back then.  

Hopes, which I got plenty of them, seem like a pipe dream right now. So I stick with the palpable fears. The main one is that we gradually succumb to the paranoia served from above, through fear. As Nina Simone said, to be free in not to be afraid, or something like that, to that effect. I’m afraid of fear. I think FDR said something like that but I don’t hold grudges for such trivial matters.
If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Not much. Just part of some thinking processes. I’d really like them to be more of doubters, way more curious, “what this guy is all about? Lets’ see”, waaay les rigid, more ready to try new things, from food to whatever fancy and waaay less respecters of the ranks. I think it would work wanders. It’s my imagination after all, right? But I’m definitely sure and overdose of these controlled substances would work wanders on me.

How has the Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Ahh, the rock counterculture. Strange thing. It was the obvious way out of the things I despised. And of course I bought the whole package. It was like signed, sealed, delivered personally for me. It took some time to realize that the package had many levels and if you stuck with the first one, in great supply around here, you were hell- bend for a lot of grief.

       But I learned a bit. Counterculture wasn’t about being different just for being different. You could do things differently, in a more personal way, or an absolutely personal way, completely out of the shoebox, and have fun doin’ it. And, living in a capitalistic economy, make some money out of it too. Not a bad thing at all. As the late Lemmy put it, a great career move.

You can do all the wrong things, what everybody, the whole society structure, tells you it’s wrong and make something right and beautiful and true out of it. It was more about taking the scales from your eyes than living in shitty rabbit- holes to prove how different you are, if you get my drift. Thank god for small favors, I avoided that part quite early.

As for the journey’s, since this culture was entirely different to the local ethics and customs, I tried to go to the source at hand, ie, Western Europe. USA was out of the question, she still is, I’m afraid. And, proudly admit, didn’t spend much time in the venerated museums. I just tried to sink in the life, to learn from it, to feel all these things that sipped through our Electronic Bibles, as David Dalton called the LP’s. And, yeah, I found a great deal of them. Although reality isn’t as comforting as imagination, mind you. 

"Well, most I miss the undercurrents of hope, the “sunshine” feeling and the different set of values, especially about time. Different sets of values about time affect everything. Literally. And they didn’t count time in b.p.m.’s back then." (Dimitris Poulikakos / Photo © by Zoiss Louvaris)

What is the impact of photo art and music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

The impact is tremendous. Consider this. After the Vietnam war photographers and cameramen at the frontline are a no- no. There is the pool system, where a bunch of journos are flyin’ in, shoot what they are permitted to see and are flown back. The British initiated this in the Falklands war, and keeps on keeping on. In places where the pool system doesn’t exist the mortality rate of the journalists skyrockets. I don’t think further explanations are needed. By the way, these places rarely show in 6:00 o’ clock news. No three letters coverage for them.  

And, to balance things a bit, look how smartly and to a point effectively the Black Lives Matter movement use the digital technology to capture the realities of life.

       On the other hand culture, and what goes on behind the scenes, many a time reflects the reality surrounding it. When black people started to appear in the movies not as Uncle Toms or servants but as persons? Real persons, not just part of a scenery?

When the times were a changing, at long last. Simple, everyday people made the change happen but all remember Dot singing for them down at Mississippi.

       You don’t have to look up at the heights, the crest of the wave. If you take a good look at the names of the people toiling in the movie vineyards, call me Hollywooood, you’ll see how integrated we become. Gradually, slowly, oftentimes reluctantly, but we get there.

       Look at the liner notes on any CD or LP, years back. Same story there.

Or, look at the pictures coming from Middle East, par example, via the wire services. Most of the photographers come from the area, have been borne there, have been raised there, and there they learned their trade, first as gofers, helping hands, admittedly, for the wire services, but as fully grown professionals on their own right these days.

Old barriers crumble, the castles of old crumble. Something happening here and it is pretty clear to me. Times are changing for the better. Albeit veery slowly. And in many occasions worldwide too much blood is demanded even for minor changes. But something is moving’ and Art and culture has a lot to do with it, even if not in the obvious ways always. 

Oh, don’t leave the science out. Just one work will be enough to describe the changes. Bangalore.

Art is here, alright. It just works in more subtle ways than a pamphlet. But is here when is needed, sometimes leading, sometimes walking along, but always present.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

It is a matter of place, not time. In a tour with either/or System 7, New Cool Collective, Tony Allen, the Other Ones, or whatever name the remaining Grateful Dead use these days. Anyone of them will do. But a tour, not a just a gig. Or I would like to spend a day talking with Peter Hammill.

"Ahh, the rock counterculture. Strange thing. It was the obvious way out of the things I despised. And of course I bought the whole package. It was like signed, sealed, delivered personally for me. It took some time to realize that the package had many levels and if you stuck with the first one, in great supply around here, you were hell- bend for a lot of grief." Photo © by Zoiss Louvaris)

What memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I would be travelling light. Just one book. “Quell beau dimanche” (What A Nice Sunday) by Jorge Semprun. It makes me think, reexamine, learn more, and finally DO. It’s an all time inspiration this book and the man who wrote it. In earlier times the book would be “Dispatches” by the late Michael Herr, and I really carried it with me everywhere I went but I outgrew it finally. 

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