Elli (Greek: Έλλη Σουγιουλτζόγλου-Σεραϊδάρη) b.1899 - d.1998 (better known as Nelly’s) was a Greek woman photographer whose pictures of ancient Greek temples set against sea and sky backgrounds helped shape the visual image of Greece in the Western mind (or, in a critical reading, the West’s visual image of Greece in the Greek mind)
She was born in Aidini, near Smyrna (now İzmir), Asia Minor. She went to study photography in Germany under Hugo Erfurth and Franz Fiedler, in 1920-1921, before the 1922 expulsion of the ethnic Greeks of Asia Minor by the Turks following the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922). In 1924, she came to Greece, where she adopted a naive nationalistic and conservative approach to her work. Her style coincided with the Greek state’s need to produce an ideal view of the country and its people, for internal as well as external(tourism) purposes. In this respect Souyioultzoglou-Seraidari can be seen as the first Greek “national” advertiser, especially after her appointment as official photographer of the newly established Greek Ministry of Tourism.
At some point she was referred to as “the Greek Leni Riefenstahl” because of her collaboration with the 4th of August Regime (1936-1941), of which she was one of its most prolific photographers. In 1936, she photographed the Berlin Olympic Games, where she met Leni Riefenstahl, and accompanied her to Olympia and assisted her during the filming of “Triumph of the Will” (Triumph des Willens), ordered and funded by the Nazi party. In 1939, she was commissioned with the decoration of the interior of the Greek pavilion at the New York’s World Fair, which she did with gigantic collages expressing in an extremely selective manner the physical similarities between ancient and modern Greeks.
As a Greek of the Diaspora, Nelly’s view of Greece was nothing less than “idyllic”, which matched the propaganda aims of the proto-fascist regime, led by General Ioannis Metaxas. In fact, her work helped illustrate the ideologeme of the racial continuity of the Greeks since Antiquity, which was at the core of Metaxas’ agenda (the so-called “Third Hellenic Civilization” mostly, if not entirely fashioned after Nazi’s Germany Third Reich).
While at New York for the World Fair in 1939, she decided not to return to Greece. In the United States she continued her commercial photographic portraiture and developed further in advertising photography as well as photo-reportages. She also maintained links with powerful Greeks including shipowners Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis and developed contacts with the White House. From this period little is known of her work, except from her project “New York Easter Parade”] which in retrospective views of her work goes largely unmentioned, as it fails to align with either any previous Greek stereotype or with the continuous developments in the photographic language of her contemporaries. She returned to Greece permanently in 1966 and gave up photography.
In 1985, Nelly’s donated her photo archives and cameras to the Benaki Museum in Athens, while in 1987 she was presented with an honorary diploma and medal by the Hellenic Centre of Photography and the government. In 1993, she was awarded the Order of the Phoenix by the president of the Greek Republic. In 1996, the Athens Academy presented her with its Arts and Letters Award.
Nelly’s died in Athens, Greece, on August 18, 1998.
Nelly’s photography played a pivotal role in the perception of greek antiquity both here and abroad, so we are going to be seeing more of it in relation with certain sites and events in the history of these sites. I thought it prudent to make a small, simple introduction to her, before we see her photography in relation with greek museums and archaeological sites.