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Best of 2010 - George Panagakos


George Panagakos was a once-a-year churchgoer, until a conversion experience forced him to reevaluate his life. He swapped cameras, studio and a twelve-year photography career for seminary studies in the Orthodox Christian faith. Religious ties opened the door to a photographic commission on the Greek Orthodox Metropolis in New England. Returning to photography with a new camera and laptop purchased from the book advance, he traveled 5,000 miles over two and a half years to document 63 religious communities. This biggest project of his life was just published as The Metropolis of Boston and its Parishes.

George Panagakos, Winthrop, MA

Web site: www.GeorgesPictures.com

Project: Return to photography from seminary studies to shoot 320-page book The Metropolis of Boston and its Parishes.

© George Panagakos
All images in this article © George Panagakos.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
GP:
Seventeen years, with a four or five year hiatus between 2004 and 2009.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
GP:
I have been a General Member for less than one year, but was a member as an assistant in the past. I have been very much aware of the ASMP’s activities and have used ASMP resources for much longer than that.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
GP:
Hmm, tough question these days, especially since I am still re-establishing my footing in business. There are two primary goals I am working towards. My first, and shorter-term, goal is to establish a strong presence in wedding and event photography, both in the Greek community and at large. I see this as low-hanging fruit, which has been fairly successful thus far, and the ball is gathering speed nicely. I must say that I very much enjoy the social aspect of this work and the meaningful and lasting contributions I can offer my clients. These gifts are a great bonus.

The second, yet primary, goal is more difficult to pinpoint. This is to integrate what is meaningful to me into the work I produce. As vague and cliché as that sounds, it is where I am right now in establishing my direction. I am not focused on, say, environmental portraiture, or architecture, or any one thing at this point. I am working on a new body of work consisting of diptychs, which are conceptual “before-and-after” representations of significant transformations that subjects have been through.

It is a very egotistical project, motivated by my own transformational “conversion” experience, if you will. This project’s ultimate goal is to inspire people to challenge preconceptions and ideologies, as mine were when confronted with certain undeniable realities. When it’s ready I’d like to show this work as fine art, as well as to approach creatives and buyers and use it to re-enter the advertising/assignment photography market.

In the meantime, I have been shooting some catalog work, some events, and a fair amount of pro-bono work for local charities. In addition, I design and manage projects for a friend who produces Eastern Orthodox church art of the type seen in the churches of my book The Metropolis of Boston and it’s Parishes. This iconography, mosaic, stonework and stained glass projects can be large and complex contracts.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
GP:
Having never undertaken a project of this size before, there was quite a bit of trial and error. Shooting the properties involved careful planning and routing in order to make the most efficient use of limited time and budgets. Thank God for Google maps!

In Orthodox tradition, the Altar of a church always faces east, toward the rising sun. What an inconvenience to learn that many of the buildings in the Metropolis are existing churches — Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — that have been taken over from other groups and thus have no such building standard.

I started out by highlighting the location of each parish on a road map. I then looked at satellite views of each location to determine the position of the front facade, relative to the sun, at the time of day I expected to visit. As crazy as it sounds, my goal was to photograph two churches per day.

After determining the positions, times and relative distances between parishes, I determined the order in which I would visit each. I planned several Monday through Friday loops from Boston around to ten parishes and back to Boston. I ended up needing to go back to several of the parishes for additional or updated material, but the process worked quite well.

I shot everything available light only. I did do a fair amount of creative window and door opening and closing, light switching and redirecting mid-exposure. In some images the lights are on, in others they are off, various lights are at differing intensities and so on. This lack of consistency is one trade-off I had to make in this project due to the parameters we had to work with.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
GP:
I’m not sure how to answer this, much of it is essential to the process. I suppose I could say that being organizationally and memory challenged from time-to-time, my Time Machine is a good friend!

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
GP:
There are so many excellent photographers out there. My experience has shown me that one difference lies in my ability to relate genuinely to people. There have certainly been some instances in which I have not meshed well, and that is a fact of life. But overwhelmingly, I have been able to establish and maintain relationships with those I work with. I love people with all my heart and I let myself be who I am. I do my best to hear what others have to say and I avoid cynicism and sarcasm to the best of my ability. This has served me very well in business and in life.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: After a twelve-year career as a photographer, you divested yourself of your studio and equipment and left photography to study in a seminary. Please describe your first photography career, your reasons for turning to religious study and why you returned to photography after making such a huge life and career change.
GP:
My first photography career started while at the University of Massachusetts, when I took an unpaid internship at a still-life studio. The internship was a requirement for my art minor. I ended up spending almost every day at the studio, skipping my classes and loving it. That summer, I brought a case of Fuji RDP to Greece, where I go every summer, and shot the whole thing. I thought I was so cool and decided, “hey, I can be a photographer.” I didn’t go back to school.

I assisted for too many years, but it was good. I got married, bought a house and established a life. Eventually, I shot my own advertising, corporate and editorial jobs, punctuated with assisting here and there. My own jobs were exclusively people on location. I did a fair amount of traveling and loved that. Then came 9/11 and, within weeks, almost every shooting contact I had lost their job. Fortunately, I had just completed two very lucrative ad campaigns, so I was ok. Six days after 9/11, I actually flew to Dallas for an advertising job and almost got arrested trying to get my film hand checked on the return. But that’s another story.

© George Panagakos

Then, in early 2003, I had a profoundly moving experience. I was struggling with some deep issues and had what I call a “conversion experience” in which I was gifted with the revelation of what faith in Christ is, according to the Orthodox way, which is quite different from what we know here in the West. I began going to church, digging deeper and deeper and discovering a mystical and experiential basis that is in many ways very different than the morality-based, legalistic approach that my assumptions had always led me to believe “religion” was about. In the beginning it was very awkward and I made some mistakes, but the experience just about blew my head off. Consider what a three-month-acid trip would be like.

I have been slowly maturing and gaining some footing, thankfully, but what remains are some deep convictions: Every thread of creation is precious; evil has no ontological existence; I fail, but forgiveness is the most powerful and transformative force in both an individual life, and on earth as a whole; we must challenge our own egos and constantly question our own assumptions and so on. Difficult stuff to swallow, let alone to live by.

A friend suggested that I go to seminary. I laughed — at first. The idea grew on me quickly. So, I made the decision to go. I let the studio go, dumped most of my photo kit, and started in January 2005. My motivation was one of wanting to understand — and help others to understand — how to live a life in which we can see the goodness around us, and to see every human heart as an equal, no matter how beautiful or disgusting our sensibilities want to make that person out to be, and to recognize the massive potential in each. It is so easy to establish a position in relation to certain ideologies and beliefs, and to use the content of our arguments to convince others of the rightness of our own. Yet, at the end of the day, I ask myself, “Is it more important to be right, or to love, as difficult as that is? Which has the greater potential for establishing peace within and among individuals, communities, and the world? How do we learn to agree to disagree, and yet still honor and respect one another?” These are monumentally important questions for me. And the crux of every issue comes down to the process by which we disagree, and not to the content of the disagreement. The Orthodox tradition addresses these issues with such a profound wisdom that I have not found anywhere else, and I wanted to learn about it.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Your 320-page book documents the Greek Orthodox Metropolis (Diocese) of Boston and its 63 individual communities, plus other properties. Tell us about both your business and personal relationships with this organization.
GP:
My personal relationship with the Metropolis of Boston has its basis in the fact that I am an Orthodox Christian under the See of the Metropolitan Bishop of Boston, Methodios. In simpler terms, I am a member of the Church. Granted, for most of my life, I’ve been a once-a-year churchgoer at Easter. During school, I served on the Altar of the Boston Cathedral and became more familiar with His Eminence, Metropolitan Methodios, who visited quite often. The business relationship was a natural outgrowth of my being in seminary and needing the blessing of Metropolitan Methodios in order to be there and, thus, his familiarity with me and knowledge of my background as a photographer.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: How did this project originate? Please talk about the initial vision and goals. Did these change or evolve over the course of your documentation?
GP:
This is an interesting and complex story. In the school bookstore one day, I came across a book entitled Ecclesia (Greek for “Church”) published by a man with an obvious passion, Panos Fiorentinos, an architectural model maker in Chicago. This book showed the churches of the Chicago Metropolis. I loved it and thought how I would love to do the same thing in Boston. I decided then and there that I would do it. Two weeks later, I got an amazing phone call from a good friend, architectural shooter Wayne Soverns. I had introduced Wayne to another friend, a most wonderful pastor, Father Nicholas Krommydas. They had developed a long-standing relationship and, one day, Father Nick told Wayne that the Metropolitan was looking for someone to photograph, “a book like the guy in Chicago did.” I was floored by this serendipity.

Wayne wanted me to be his assistant on the project and asked me to quote him a rate for one year of shooting, which turned out to be about $50,000. He planned to do it full-boat on 4x5 film, lighting, two to three days per church, and so on, and my name would run alongside his. His estimate turned out to be way more than I thought was feasible, even though the rate was steeply discounted from the norm. And it was not feasible, as it came in at around $300,000.

I asked Wayne if he objected to my asking the Metropolitan for the project myself, and he encouraged me to do so. At this point I was a seminary student, studying for the priesthood, and in terrible financial shape. But, I wanted to do this project so badly, I was willing to do what I would not have done before, nor now.

I made an appointment to see His Eminence, Metropolitan Methodios, and we discussed the project. His Eminence graciously awarded me the project and I was absolutely thrilled. He even included a little extra money so that I could purchase a camera body that I did not own.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Please describe the overall scope of this project and your working methods, in terms of preliminary research, time spent scouting and shooting, miles traveled, images made, pre- and post-production and so on.
GP:
In terms of the overall project scope, I made over 11,000 exposures, resulting in roughly 600 final images, 417 of which made it into the book. I drove close to 5,000 miles and slept in my car, in church basements or in priests’ homes. I ate what I could bring with me or what priest’s wives cooked for me — which was the best! On one occasion, at the Saint Demetrios parish in Saco, Maine, the parish council set up a whole banquet for my visit, including lobster rolls and clam chowder. Many of these communities made me feel very welcome. Greek culture generally holds hospitality in extremely high regard, stemming from the idea that a visitor could be Christ himself coming to visit. There is an often and pridefully-used term for this, “philoxenia” which means “love of the stranger”. In the book, you’ll see the fourteen-bedroom “Philoxenia House,” a ministry that Metropolitan Methodios has established to accommodate foreigners, primarily children and their families, who come to the Boston area hospitals for serious medical treatments. A wonderful, yet sometimes heartbreaking place that is worthy of support.

Post-production work took the lion’s share of my time in this project. For every hour of shooting, there was easily four hours of travel, post-production and meeting time. The work represents six months of sitting in front of the computer, doing there what I could not do on location in terms of editing, lighting, perspective control, color, retouching unwanted elements and so on.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: How did the commitment to publish a book come about, and at what point during the two and a half-year period was the book contract finalized?
GP:
The commitment to publish a book was in place from the beginning. When I went to discuss the project with the Metropolitan, he showed me Ecclesia and said he would like to produce a similar book.

There was no official contract involved, only a statement of the work to be performed in the invoice I sent in the beginning of the project. Towards the end it did turn out that there were some mutual misunderstandings, but these were worked out and we moved forward. Even with the purest of intentions, things do need to be spelled out in detail because, as simple as a photographer might think certain issues are, a person unfamiliar with them simply does not understand them, and there is really no reason they should.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Describe the types of permissions needed to photograph within the Greek Orthodox churches and how you gained those approvals.
GP:
This was a non-issue, really, because I had the blessing of the Metropolitan and what he says, goes. It felt very awkward at times because there are certain areas in a church, particularly around the Altar, where non-ordained people are to avoid. Even so, if there is a reason for someone to be there, be it to clean, make repairs and so on, this guideline is not so rigid as to make it impossible to enter. It is a guideline, not the law. Having been given this privilege felt like a great honor and infused even more of a sense of mystery or holiness to what I was doing.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: You returned to photography with a minimal investment in equipment — one digital body, two lenses, a laptop, and the student version of Abobe Creative Suite. What tools would have been helpful during this project, and what hardware or software have you acquired since this initial investment?
GP:
It would have been very helpful to have had a 24-inch monitor from the beginning of the project. The iBook I initially bought really slowed me down and I re-processed almost everything once I was able to buy a 24-inch iMac. Storage was also an issue and I have since acquired several 1TB drives and a Time Machine. Printing out large contact sheets became necessary and I bought a large format Canon ProGraf printer. I have also purchased Canon 5D bodies and upgraded my lenses to the typical compliment of fast zooms. Throw in a couple of on-camera flashes and some Alien Bees monolights and accessories (for now), a few C-stands and that rounds out my studio. The major piece of equipment I have acquired is a small studio space a mile from my home, facing out onto Boston Harbor, after making fairly extensive renovations to what once served as a dog grooming salon.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Please talk about your compensation for the book and how this project was financed? Was there any funding or grants involved? If so, how was this handled?
GP:
My compensation covered a large portion of the expenses involved to produce the job, but the money was never an issue because I saw this book as an opportunity to produce a body of work involving something I love deeply. The funds came directly from the Metropolis and there were no grants or outside funding for that. The funds for printing the book came from George D. and Margo Behrakis, great patrons of the Church, of Hellenism, and of the arts — having also donated significant funding for the current expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I am particularly grateful to both Metropolitan Methodios and to the Behrakises for the opportunity to have produced a body of work such as this.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Were there other team members involved in this project? If so, who were they and please describe your collaboration. Did this project involve a written contract or collaboration agreement? If so, please talk about any key points of negotiation.
GP:
There were other team members, who include Anastasia Tanis-Smith, Art Director/compiler www.anastasiadesign.com; Zack Allott, associate designer; Fr. Ted Barbas, Chancellor of the Metropolis and project liaison; Sophia Nibi and Julie Tziolas, project editors; Daphne Barbas, Stephanie Wilson, Shannon Sakellariou and Hope Tsakoyeanes, copy editors. Content contributors include His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios of Boston, Introduction; Fr. George D. Dragas, a history of the Metropolis.

The agreement was loose to begin with. Towards the end, we did end up needing to discuss copyright and credit issues, as mentioned previously, and we were able to get clear on them in a way that made me very happy.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: This project required extensive architectural photography. Please describe your past experience and skill set in this area. Were there any resources you relied on in this project?
GP:
In my assisting career, I did extensive work with several architectural shooters, which gave me a great appreciation for this type of photography and confidence in my ability to manage this project’s technical aspects.

The resources I consulted include Church dogma on art and architecture, which is truly amazing and beautiful — and esoteric. There is symbolism directly related to the Gospel in the tiniest details — a brush stroke, a shape, a color, the way perspective is used, even intentional imperfections. The interior space of an Eastern Orthodox church is intended to be a heaven on earth, placement of the iconography, scale, perspective, relationships between Christ, his mother, the Prophets, the Saints, all have their designated place. The dome, the walls, the way the light enters and so on also have significance. The church experience in the Eastern tradition consciously involves all the five senses and then some. I was familiar with some of this beforehand, but I thought it best to see how much of it I could use to make the images show this love, attention to detail and the healing power these dogmas spring from.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Who published the book and where was it printed? Did you have any involvement in the book design or the printing process? Please talk about these things from your perspective, noting the elements that were of greatest importance or concern to you.
GP:
The Metropolis of Boston, itself, is the publisher and it was printed in Terre Haute, Indiana at Moore-Langen Printing, which is a subsidiary of Courier Printing in Chelmsford, MA. George Behrakis and Courier have an established relationship and that is how the decision was made to use them.

Anastasia, Metropolitan Methodios, Father Ted and I had many meetings during the process of putting the book together. I did have input into the design to a certain degree. There did come a point where I expressed concern over some things, primarily about how my own work was being treated, and we were able to come to mutually agreeable solutions, for which I am grateful. I still would have liked to see more negative space in the layout less severe cropping of some of the images, but the limitations inherent in putting a book together by committee requires some give and take. Overall, I think the result is something that the Greek community can be very proud of and it will serve its purposes outstandingly.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: What are the distribution channels for the book? Is there an associated marketing campaign? Are you planning any separate marketing efforts to maximize the visibility for your photography business?
GP:
The book will be distributed through the parishes of the Metropolis of Boston, Orthodox bookstores, and through the Orthodox Marketplace Web site, www.OrthodoxMarketplace.com.

In fall 2010 there will be a book-release event/exhibition at the Maliotis Cultural Center in Brookline, MA and an exhibition at the Greek Institute in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. There is some radio interview/publicity activity planned and I am hoping to get some coverage in the Boston newspapers, which I think is doable, but there is no major marketing agenda for the book, since the subject matter does not have mass appeal.

My plan is to show prints of this work in as many places as I can find to host them. There are certain areas of the U.S. with large Greek communities such as Chicago, New York, St. Augustine and Tarpon Springs, Florida, where I will try to find venues. But the main thrust will be in the Greek community for shows close to home, which may lead to wedding and event work, and to architectural firms for this type of work.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Has this assignment and the book resulted in new clients or markets for your work?
GP:
Several architects who design churches have expressed interest in working together, though nothing concrete has come of this yet. Exhibition and fine art is definitely a direction in which I want to continue moving, and showing this work will give me the opportunity to gain some more experience in that arena.

ASMP: How did this project impact your vision and compare with the focus and/or quality of your past work? Do you feel that you are more competent as a photographer as a result of this experience?
GP:
This project taught me how to shoot digitally. When I started, I had little concept of, let alone experience in, processing digitally. It was definitely a learn-by-doing experience. If I had to do it over again, it would be a far more efficient process, though I don’t think any less time-consuming, because there were some steps I would take now that I did not the first time.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Has your return to photography prompted you to rethink your approach to the business aspects of the profession? If so, please talk about any changes you’ve made.
GP:
Yes, most definitely. In my previous career, I really scoffed at the idea of doing weddings and events. I think many of us did. During school, I photographed a few weddings, including for fellow students, and actually enjoyed doing them quite a lot. Also, a friend and mentor, Ian Summers www.Heartstorming.com, once related a story about a wedding photographer he’d had in a workshop. She was alone in a group of commercial shooters and she felt ostracized, until she spoke up about what her photography meant to her. She said her work gave people something to cherish for generations. Unlike much commercial work, which is here today and gone tomorrow, her photographs are enjoyed again and again by the people to which it means the most. I take that story to heart and am not ashamed of it. I keep in touch with every couple I have photographed and the relationships developed have been wonderful. Not a single horror story.

I am, by all means, very interested in producing work that pushes my creativity and abilities. I love big productions and get very excited doing them. It is not an either-or for me, but a both-and in terms of public versus assignment work. At this point, I am working on a couple of projects designed to express my values and vision, and perhaps creative buyers will respond to them. I would like to work on various, bigger budget projects again. It is not all up to me, but I will do what is my part in the effort to make that happen.

© George Panagakos

ASMP: Did you finish your seminary studies? If so, what does this mean? Do you plan to continue pursuing your photography career? Please talk about how you expect to balance these two aspects of your life moving forward.
GP:
No, I have not finished seminary, which is study for the priesthood. I was trying to balance a home and family with full time school and full time work and it was just not feasible. I became overwhelmed to the point that it was unhealthy and I literally went a little nuts for a time. It is a disappointment because I loved school and was excelling academically. The faculty nominated me to Who’s Who in America’s Colleges and Universities and I was really in my element. I am going to try to complete the required Master of Divinity degree, but I expect this to take ten years or so, plugging away one class per semester. Perhaps in my later years I can serve people in that capacity on a part-time basis.

On the other hand, I love photography deeply, and it is no disappointment to be doing it. This is what I am, and will be doing for quite some time to come, God willing.