Back to Leonard Cohen's Greek Hydra Island: 5 Years After His Death

I explored the island where Leonard Cohen lived for years. A diary of a personal journey inspired by music

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Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik
Daniel Tchetchik

Beyond the darkness

Autumn in Hydra, November 2021

Music, and especially folk music, has always been a source of inspiration for my art. My photographs, in the broadest sense, document landscapes and open spaces. But more than simply showing them, my ambition has been to convey a sense of the fragility of life and of the transformations taking place at any given moment in both the outside world and our interior world.

In my view, Leonard Cohen’s music and lyrics accurately express the complex combination of beauty and sorrow that it is at the root of my work. Via photography, I aspire to create visual poems that will reflect the fragility of the moment, its excitement and intensity, alongside the suffering and meaninglessness inherent in our existence.

A few months ago, after a long day of work, I was lying on the sofa and searching for the remote like a lifeline when I came across the film “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” a documentary about Cohen’s life and work. The film drew me in, touched my heart and inspired me to launch this project.

I was especially attracted to the moments at the beginning of the film that described Cohen’s life on the Greek island of Hydra. Under the burning sun and the influence of drugs, Cohen wrote incessantly, drawing inspiration from the landscape and the simplicity of this locale, which seems as if it had been frozen in time, with no cars and no electricity.

In November 2021, the fifth anniversary of Cohen’s death, I decided to go explore Hydra.

On the winding road to the nearby town of Metochi, I already felt that I was traveling into a world that no longer exists. Through the car windshield, I could see the tumultuous life of the city dissolve into passageways between small towns. The cars slowed down, and at the side of the road, shepherds roamed against the backdrop of abandoned villages. I felt that I was in a parallel universe – serene, soothing and sane.

A half-hour ride in a small boat under a cloudy gray sky brought me to Hydra, the place where some of Cohen’s most beautiful songs were born. And that is also how the island struck me at first glance – beautiful, poetic, different. An island that served as a monastery for an older way of life.

Wandering deeper into the island, I discovered that, as is true of everything, the picture was more complicated. There were eruptions of loathsome Western modernity – boutique shops, hotels, restaurants and a bourgeois tourist industry. Charming streets and alleys that recalled the engineered beauty of ancient cities had become tourist attractions.

Nevertheless, the island has managed to uphold one ironclad rule – there are no cars or other motorized vehicles. Perhaps this is to attract tourists, or perhaps it’s to safeguard and preserve something.

A few hundred meters from the city center, I discovered a much wilder, more barren landscape that offered a glimpse of how things once were, of the places where Cohen lived and what he saw. And there, I too found inspiration.

I embarked on this trip with two analog cameras. One was a relatively new Nikon full of digital aids. The second was an original Nikkormat from the 1960s with a unique 40-millimeter lens that I took with me more as an experiment or an adventure.

But on my very first excursion, the Nikon broke. So I too, against my will, was drawn decades back in time, and so were all my photographs. I couldn’t escape the thought that what happened was no accident and would serve me in my work. And thus the entire project was filmed with my old camera.

During my work, I also realized that for me, creativity frequently blossoms in November, the month in which my father, who died more than 20 years ago, was born. This is a month when the wind is already cold and darkness dominates the landscape. There’s a sadness that seeps into me during this month, but also a kind of comfort, as the sun is no longer oppressive and revealing.

And that is also how I found Hydra. On one hand, it was touristy, Western and overeager. On the other, it was quiet, dark, mysterious and comforting.

This is a project about a life that once existed but is no more, yet left a deep imprint behind it. It’s about Leonard Cohen, my father, beauty and sorrow.

The project was supported by the Canadian Embassy in Israel.

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