When I asked my dad if he had any 35mm film cameras that I could borrow for an upcoming trip to Athens, he laughed at me. “Get black and white film,” was the only tidbit of knowledge I got from him. “It’ll be less visible when you mess it up.”
But I had already been thinking about going the monotone route. I’ve snapped my way around Greece plenty: as a tourist, a resident, and a reporter. And even though I love Greece’s brilliant colors and sun-drenched coastlines, the most striking images I’ve seen of the country are in black and white. When I worked at the city’s Benaki Museum, I used to spend hours scrolling through our social media accounts where we’d post archival photos of old Greece. There was something so familiar about those photos from the 30s and 40s. Perhaps it’s the fact that Greece’s history is present no matter where you go. And that in a place steeped in so much tradition, today’s Athens and yesterday’s don’t have much to divide them.
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Sure enough these photos, shot while ambling around the Acropolis, wandering through the Zappeio, and listening to the Evzones clacking their heels against cobblestones slicked smooth by the years, could trick you into thinking they’re decades old—once you get past the modern cars anyway. An Instagram filter is one thing, but there’s nothing like hoisting a weighty film camera through a timeless city to send you back 80 years.
This narrow graffiti-covered street in Monastiraki is grittier than your average Greece photo, and that’s what I love about it. Katherine Whittaker
So here are scenes from the graffiti-plastered backstreets of Monastiraki, past some of my favorite bars and cafes and murals, and around the Acropolis and Syntagma Square. I shot my way around one of my favorite spots behind the Panathenaic Stadium in Pagrati, and even toted the camera to the fairly new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center. At all of these places, I was moving more slowly than I would have if I had my digital camera. Everything was more deliberate because I had to be more selective in what I photographed, but it also let me take in more of what was going on around me.
If you walk through the Zappeio or around the parliament building at night, you’ll find these guards still standing at their posts, watching out over an empty street. Katherine Whittaker
When I got the photos back, I discovered, to my relief, that I hadn’t messed it up completely. I also found that I had managed to capture something that I had seen in the Benaki photos. It’s not just the aged look and feel. It’s the rough edges and ancient urban grit so rarely captured in modern photographs of the city, yet so essential to what it’s really like to be in Athens.
Monastiraki’s Pittaki Street is decked out in gas lamps that light up at night. Katherine Whittaker Athens has no shortage of amazing murals, and some of them are done by world-famous street artists. Katherine Whittaker If you spend a day walking around Monastiraki, it’s easy to stumble on these kinds of small, empty streets. Katherine Whittaker Pedestrians walk in the middle of the road from Monastiraki to the Arch of Hadrian. These areas are usually filled with tourists, and here you can see them taking in the area’s beautiful buildings. Katherine Whittaker Ermou Street can take you from Syntagma Square to the Acropolis. It’s some of the best people watching; I would recommend getting a beer on one of the side streets and watching the crowds go by. Katherine Whittaker This square sits between several large markets and just under the Acropolis. It’s another perfect spot to watch people come and go. You could spend an entire day just perusing the produce in Athens’ Central Market. Katherine Whittaker This photo of the Temple of Olympian Zeus looks, to me, exactly like photos of Greek ruins from the 30s and 40s. Katherine Whittaker If you line this up just right, you can get the full Acropolis in the background through the middle arch. The street is usually lined with tour buses taking groups from one site to the next. Katherine Whittaker The Arch of Hadrian, and the highway you have to cross to get there. To me, this juxtaposition of modern and ancient is part of what makes Athens so fascinating. Katherine Whittaker I had never been to the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center before, and I know I’ll be back. There are just way too many things to photograph. This is the view from the center’s gardens; you can almost forget you’re in the middle of the city. Katherine Whittaker This was my first time climbing up the path behind the Panathenaic Stadium, and I couldn’t get enough of the Mount Lycabettus view. Locals jog on a small track on the hill above the stadium, above tourists listening to their guides wax poetic about past athletic feats. Katherine Whittaker This is another Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center view. If I had brought my digital camera, I could have filled an entire memory card with this place. Katherine Whittaker The day I went to the Cultural Center, it rained briefly over the harbor, but the clouds broke just long enough for me to capture light streaming through. Katherine Whittaker