Portraits of Sifnos

sifnosIsland Review. (The Washington Post) VISUAL ARTS: On Film, Portraits Of Sifnos. By Mary McCoy.


Special to The Washington Post, Thursday, October 21, 1993


Photographer Chris Keeley has spent most of his time behind the viewfinder making portraits of people with problems,


capturing the life struggles etched in the faces of homeless people, youngsters with emotional problems and drug addicts and giving them a voice.


A trademark of is work, which has garnered numerous awards and exhibit forums in Washington, is his use of quotes from his subjects as captions.


Now comes a new show, this time on this 36-year-old photographer’s other favorite subject: the landscape of the Greek island of Sifnos, where he has vacationed for more than half his life.


The exhibit, at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, is a collection of photographs of whitewashed churches and villages; it is a very different venue and voice for Keeley. Still, it displays his talent for moving in on his subjects to achieve the same sort of intimacy with architecture that he captures with people.


The deeply set doors and windows of a domed church, for example, invite the viewer to look closely at the thick, chalky walls rising to the barrel-vaulted roof and to notice the shadows that fall at gentle angles below. In the clear Grecian sunshine the church seems to gleam with ethereal light.


Keeley was still in his teens when his parents bought a summer home on the island, which is in the Greek Cyclades south of Athens.


“I feel like I belong there,” he said. “There are certain isolated parts of the island where I feel at home, special parts where no one else goes.”


Five years ago, he began to photograph in brilliant Cibachrome and printing in gentle sepia.


It’s “more fun photography for me, “ Keeley said of the 25 photographs on view through mid-November. “My other work is like an obsession. This work is more relaxed.”


Keeley sees himself primarily as an artist, although he works full time as clinical director at the Washington Counseling Center for drunken-driving offenders, where many of his portraits line the walls. But compared with these worn, stormy faces, Keeley’s photographs from Sifnos are peaceful and radiant. There is a reverence for antiquity in his handling of rugged stone walls, a feeling echoed in his views of villages that wind up hilltops as if they are an extension of the rocky slopes themselves.


The charm of Keeley’s photographs is their hint that the stark white walls of his churches shelter hidden treasures. In a sprinkling of interior shots, he reveals the jewel-like colors of the painted icon of the Virgin and Child and an entire wall lined with saints resplendent in look-alike halos.


And in an aside, as if he can’t help himself, he includes two wonderful shots of Sifnos islanders.


The best is “Sifnos Gothic,” a portrait of an elderly island couple that won second prize in the 1988 Polaroid Professional Chrome Contest. Posed much like the familiar farmer and his wife in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” the twosome shows Keeley’s real affection and eye for people whose life story is clearly mirrored in their stance and expression.


This is a show worth seeing as much for Keeley’s deft use of lighting and nuance to bring out the character of architecture and people as for its invitation to explore a beautiful island through the lens of a talented artist.


The show continues through Nov. 19 at the Sumner School, 1201 17th St. N.W. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information call 202.727.3419

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