Elli Souyioultzoglou-Seraidari - later known by her professional name of Nelly's - was born on 23 November 1899 in Aidin of the Ottoman Empire, a town with a majority Greek community, in which her family was prominent. Things changed radically in 1919, when the Turkish government forces sacked Aidin, after parts of Asia Minor had been awarded to Greece by the victorious powers. Nelly's family managed to survive the destruction of Aidin and escaped to Smyrna. The following year, Nelly's went to study music and painting in Dresden, Germany. She was there during the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922, and her family were among those who managed to escape and set up home in Greece. She first went to mainland Greece in 1924 following her studies in Germany.
In photography Nelly's was first influenced by German trends at the time she studied in Dresden from 1921 to 1923. The two main characteristics of her work, as indeed her life, were freedom and movement.
Nelly's pictorial technique and her classical sense of aesthetics stemmed from the influence of her teachers, Hugo Erfurth (Germany 1874-1948) and Franz Fiedler (Czechoslovakia 1885-1956). However, after her establishment in Athens in 1924 when she opened a photographic studio at Ermou Street, she adopted a more Hellenocentric and conservative approach to her work. An early interest in portraiture, maintained throughout her professional career in Greece and the USA , provides us with a rare representation of interwar Athenian society as well as an important source of information on Greek immigrants in America. From 1927 to 1939 Nelly's travelled throughout Greece, documenting the entire panorama of Greek life and countryside. She photographed the Delphi Festival in 1927 and 1930, and districts of old Athens. She is now best known for her portraits and nudes, many of the latter against the background of the Athenian Acropolis.
As a Greek of Diaspora Nelly's view of Greece tends to be somewhat 'idyllic'. Her photographs appeared in official tourist publications, which were circulated abroad and contributed to the formation of the earliest visual symbolism of the Greek 'philosophy of tourism'. The ancient monuments and archaeological sites of Greece were systematically depicted by Nelly's. Her experiments with natural light and her photographs of ancient temples in their inter-monumental relation are true masterpieces bringing to mind those of Erfurth's German student, Walter Hege. Nelly's photographs of dancers in Germany and above all on the Acropolis, dating from 1923-1929, present an exceptional thematic cohesion and identify her as one of the leading photographer of dance during the interwar period.
Having gone into self-imposed exile in the USA between 1939 and 1966, owing to the outbreak of the Second World War, Nelly's added advertising photography, colored photography and photo-reportage (see the photographs of the Easter Parade and the streets of New York) to her range of talents, without being unduly influenced by the trends of contemporary American photography.
Nelly's: From Athens to New York: A Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of Elli Seraidari, supported by the the Benaki Museum and the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation, at the International Center of Photography in New York, was one of several exhibitions of her work in 1997.
Nelly's died peacefully in her sleep at her home in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni on 17 August 1998, aged 99, having long been recognised internationally as a major figure in photography and an important woman in Greek cultural history. At the time of her public funeral, the Greek Minister of Culture, Evangelos Venizelos, described her as "a mythical figure, with a prominent position in the cultural panorama of our century". After a lifetime passionately dedicated to her art, Nelly's left a body of work, which remains exemplary from both an artistic and a technical viewpoint and represents a valuable legacy to photography.
[Megakles Rogakos 08/2006]
NELLY'S Self-Portrait 1989 Anagramma Inc., Athens
VALTINOS; CONSTANTINOU; KOSKINA; PETRONOTI Nelly's Glance on Civil Professions during the Interwar Period 1994 Gabrielides Editions, Athens [Greek]
IOANNOU, IOANNIS The Maroussi Pottery Workshop of the 1930s Through 46 Photographs of Nelly's 1994 Municipal Historic & Folk Art Museum, Maroussi [Greek & English]
XANTHAKIS, ALKIS X. History of Greek Photography 1839-1970 2008 Papyros Publishing Company, Athens, p.295-303 [Greek]