"No Woman's Land": A 1929 Expedition to Mount Athos and Meteora

April 2, 2019

When Visual Resources staff discovered a barrel containing nine film canisters during a move in the Department of Art and Archaeology in late 2017, a forgotten journey came to light. After extensive research, complicated by incongruous labels, the film was determined to be the product of a 1929 trip to Mount Athos and Meteora, Greece, undertaken by department alumnus and architect Gordon McCormick ’17, Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and Russian émigré, painter, and explorer Captain Vladimir “Vovo” Perfilieff. It was not an official Princeton University expedition, but was undertaken “to obtain cinematographic & pictorial record of life and architecture of ancient monasteries.” In fact, Mount Athos and Meteora lie at the spiritual heart of the Orthodox Church housing the two largest monastic communities in Greece.

After the identification of the film, two hundred and fifty-four photographic prints and eighty-one glass lantern slides in the Visual Resources Collection were also found to be material retained from the expedition. In the course of further research, nine watercolor paintings in the Graphic Arts collection of Firestone Library, attributed to Richard Stillwell, actually appear to be the work of Vladimir Perfilieff from this trip.

The story of the expedition is as layered as the journey of its last record. It is the story of a charismatic self-made Russian man who reached the upper echelons of American society, earned significant notoriety, and had a significant effect on the people he met. It is the story of a young photographer whose adventurous nature, technical skill, and creative talent would earn him the highest award in Hollywood. Finally, it is the story of rare artistic documentation of a different time and place, and an adventure to locations of profound spirituality.