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Nobody is looking at Niko J. Kallianiotis. Even when people are pictured in his book of color photographs, America in a Trance (Damiani, 2018), they are not the kinds of staged portraits that indicate a relationship between artist and model. Kallianiotis captures Americans going about their lives: walking through the streets of desolate towns, sitting on porches, pausing between the car and home, or outside storefronts.
Kallianiotis, who was born in Greece but has spent much of his adult life in the US, began traveling across his home state of Pennsylvania in 2015, taking candid images along the way. In so doing, he follows a great photographic tradition of capturing small-town America and its inhabitants, established in black and white by the likes of Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Dorothea Lange, and revolutionized in color by William Eggleston, Steven Shore, and many others. Kallianiotis is wise to keep his project narrow, focusing on images from the Keystone State, which he characterizes in the book as “a once prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry.” The vision of entropic decay in Pennsylvania’s small towns and cities is particularly affecting as it captures the reality of such regions within the geographic, cultural, and economic expanses of the United States — a nation so often reduced to romanticized or reductionist visions of its capital cities and rural areas.
Formally, Kallianiotis’s images are extraordinary, combining qualities from some of the titans of the genre — in particular, he shows an Eggleston-esque sense of timing in his candid images. These are best appreciated in his wide shots of people crossing streets; the lens snaps at the exact moment a pedestrian crosses beneath an evocative bit of signage, or breaks the median of a doorway. While these photos of unaware subjects indicate Kallianiotis’s strong intuition as a photographer, images without people dynamically bring together light, color, and shape, evoking the same aura of magical realism that graces works by Gregory Crewdson — but without the benefit of the latter’s meticulous staging and lighting. The title, America in a Trance, complements the dreamy quality of the imagery.
As any traveler can tell you, the world gets bigger and bigger the more you explore it. Kallianiotis provides both a detached and deeply curious view of a part of the United States that is often glossed over by the popular imagination. Every artist must grapple, at times, with the inadequacy of a single image to capture a larger truth, but the discipline, focus, and spontaneity apparent in Kallianiotis’s portraits of Pennsylvania’s small towns and cities capture something monumental in life’s minutia.