'EVAPORATIONS' Gallery for Classic Photography, Moscow, Russia 18 June-02 August 2016
'EVAPORATIONS' Dom Kurlinoj Museum, Samara Russia 7 April 2016
'EVAPORATIONS' Rosphoto Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, June 2014
'EVAPORATIONS' Palazzo Esposizioni Rimini, Italy, April 2014
'EVAPORATIONS' Studio Gallery di Paolo Morello Palermo, Italy, Marzo 2014
To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered.
– Jean Paul Sartre
John Pepper’s photographs are about the possibilities of the encounter, about witnessing moments of life never meant for the camera or for memory. He is an observer, often from afar, who depicts human life in its essential form – detached from time and cultural specificities, and typically, alone. Pepper follows in the decades-old practice of the street photographer, carrying a 35-mm camera on travels in many parts of the world, wandering and waiting for situations to present themselves. He maintains the classic tradition – some would say, now archaic – of working exclusively with film cameras and black-and-white film, framing his images through the viewfinder, and presenting them as they are revealed on the negative, with no form of manipulation. In the digital era, his choice to remain steadfast with this approach is a declaration of willful determination. With these means, he conveys a mode of viewing the world that measures realism against a kind of uncanny storytelling, physical observation against psychic revelation.
Pepper makes his work in the public sphere – along streets and alleyways, often along shorelines, and only occasionally in interior spaces. Nevertheless, a sense of persistent quiet permeates these compositions, scenes of essentially private acts and moments of self-absorption. He is at heart an existentialist who practices photography as a way of grappling with human existence on its own terms, neither romanticized nor dramatized. The human form is central to his project, if rarely depicted up close; it is more commonly framed in a way that seems incidental. At times, a figure seems to be simply present, as if it has moved into the picture field at a fortuitous moment. Faces are often only partially visible, obscured by shadow or harsh light. There is no story to be told or lesson to be learned, no moment of epiphany. But this happened – a certain confluence of human action, light, and landscape, that became crystallized once the photographer pressed the shutter of his camera.
Many of Pepper’s photographs depict a single human figure, often silhouetted against the backdrop of a late-day light or caught in the blur of passage. The fact that faces are little discernible when captured in these ways does not lessen the emotional impact. Pepper, working alone and often in a foreign landscape, is preternaturally attracted to figures that inhabit loneliness. Even when he photographs couples or small groups of people, minimal interaction is visible; solitude qualifies as both an individual and group activity in this body of work.
One of the perplexing aspects of these images is the manner in which they refuse time, a quality that might seem to contradict the very nature of the photographic medium. Indeed, Pepper evinces a relation to time that is quite different from most other street photographers who seek to capture a fleeting moment of time. The ability to stop time, or to record a fraction of a second, has always been one of this medium’s hallmarks. But Pepper’s photographs – even those of people in quick movement – appear to more closely record a lasting moment, time slowed down, and the figures in the compositions made inert when pictured through the camera lens. In one picture made on a beach in Barcelona, a man has turned his body to face the sun. His form is expressed as a mass of weight, lacking the sense of a body in movement. In another photograph made in winter in New York, groups of ice skaters appear to have simply stopped in place; despite their forward movement, motion is only barely implied.
Pepper’s refusal of time is also evinced in the way he tends to behold the world, unconcerned for the moment, for fashion, or for any kind of journalistic sensibility. It is difficult to determine a possible date for most of these photographs. Some simply exist outside the need for time, as when he depicts two people (age, gender indeterminate), fishing along the shore, or a boy performing an acrobatic leap at the edge of an otherwise empty coastline. Even when he sets his photographs in urban space, it is one that is absent shiny newness, people engaged with technology or modes of dress that suggest an identifiable point in time. Instead, Pepper frames his images in a way that skirts time, conjuring moments that could have existed decades ago. In transcending the here and now, he reveals something more telling, more lasting, about the individual, human interaction, and public and private behavior.
This recent collection contains a single group of photographs to which a time and place is clear – those made in New York just months after Hurricane Sandy flooded much of the city’s coastline. Pepper is intimately familiar with New York but less with the far edges of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that he visited a few months after this hurricane devastated neighborhoods populated by the bungalows of working-class people. This journey to the city’s geographic edge was to a realm that literally and figuratively exists at the margins. Here, Pepper photographed mostly unpeopled landscapes. The most elegiac of these images is a grainy scene of a bent flagpole with a frayed American flag set barely at half-mast; the flat landscape surrounding it seems to have been shorn clean. Such a photograph presents New York as its opposite: empty, quiet, pessimistic. Other pictures depict a fenced off Coney Island; a vacant strip of carnival attractions, with two men framed by metal architecture engaged in a tentative conversation; and a mysterious scene of a conservative Jewish family grouped near the water enacting a private ritual. These unexpected views of New York chronicle a particular moment and place – New York after the storm, a habitat of melancholic survivors.
In a way, John Pepper was always a photographer. He received his first camera at age 12 along with some basic instruction from his father, a prominent journalist. Bill Pepper was then Rome bureau chief for Newsweek magazine; a role that put him into close contact with a wide circle of highly accomplished photographers. In these years, the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pepper had the good fortune to meet figures like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ugo Mulas, Chim (David Seymour), and Sam Shaw. At age 14 he apprenticed with Mulas, the Italian photographer known for his portraits and street photos. It was Mulas who told Pepper about the importance of walking, and of waiting. He would often go to train stations, where something would always happen, something worthy of being photographed. Like Mulas and the other storied photographers he came to know, Pepper became drawn to working outside, to walking the streets alone, and to seeing what would happen while traveling with camera in hand.
In addition to the unusually early exposure that Pepper had to a great deal of exceptional photography, he also gained an enduring appreciation for a classic mode of working with the medium. He has always worked with film cameras, being uninterested in turning to digital cameras or image-making techniques. Moreover, he typically uses Tri-X film, a high-speed black-and-white film once popular with photojournalists because it can be used in dim lighting situations as well as to capture movement. Tri-X is known for producing a sharp image with a grain structure made more visible when the film is pushed, a technique Pepper often employs. As he matured as a photographer, he maintained this preference. “In choosing black and white, one chooses not to have color,” he states. Color functions as content in and of itself, an added element that “takes the edge off” from the actual subject of the picture. For Pepper, photography in black and white offers a distillation of what has been seen through the viewfinder; it can infuse a scene with mystery and offers the possibility of constructing, photographically, an image out of reality.
In this sense, Pepper’s work is a departure from the photography of his youth, the street photography that aims to reflect a gritty, unadulterated realism. These photographs, in contrast, can be seen as a form of willed creation; his images are as much “real” as conjured. “I go to a place I don’t know,” he states, in explaining how these images come to life. Pepper speaks of a subliminal process of photographic composition, stating that he simply must trust the moment when a subject or situation comes before his camera.
Pepper has produced some of his most enigmatic work along the coast of the Russian/Finnish border, where he made a small group of photographs of a small gathering of people along a grim shoreline, an ominous sky hanging overhead. The photos are cinematic in their scope, scenes that suggest that we’ve stumbled into the midst of a complicated story. Pepper’s use of black-and-white film, along with the grainy quality of the prints, underscores their bleak character. These are some of the most specific images in his recent oeuvre – we observe the details of a place, see peoples’ faces, and can imagine something of their circumstances based on their dress and environment. At the same time, these photos are among his most ambiguous, devastating in their lack of explanation or resolution. The narrative, if there is one, can only be devised by the viewer. They are surely not staged, and yet they seem enacted, as if the photographer had a directorial role in willing these moments into existence.
“We are all actors of our own lives,” Pepper once wrote. And by extension, we may be actors in the lives of others. One issue that the documentarian and those working with the camera in the public sphere have long grappled with is their relation to the subject. If the majority have produced their work in the public sphere using various forms of furtiveness, a few seek permission, not wanting to exploit the person photographed. For Pepper, the lack of relationship with the subject, the denial of collaborative authorship, is essential to his practice. He notes that the people within the picture frame are integral to the image, and yet they are only part of it. The landscape, built forms, and light, all contrive to form the photograph. The human subject assumes the function of an actor, even if undirected and unaware of this role. For Pepper, the real relationship is with the camera, with the overall image that can be created.
Pepper often works in cities – in Italy, where he is based, and recently in New York, Barcelona, and Vienna. But he is most powerfully drawn to recording human life along the shore – a setting that attracts people of every kind, and a realm where people feel free to exhibit private behavior. Water is fundamental to ritual and to spiritual beliefs across the world; it connotes cleansing, healing, and life itself. Water can also be forbidding, destructive, and deadly; our greatest stories (Noah, Moses, Ahab) tell of epic confrontations with the sea. And it is profoundly personal, whether because of our dependence on it for our survival or for the memories held by so many of days at the shore. For Pepper, the human form takes its proper scale set at the water’s edge, against a vast liquid expanse that holds this broad arc of symbolic connotations. Seen against its vastness, the human form is small and yet relentlessly alive, simply being, observing and being observed.
Good photography, or any other manifestation in man, comes from a state of grace. Grace comes when you are delivered from conventions, obligations, convenience, competition, and you are free, like a child in his first discovery of reality. You walk around in surprise, seeing reality as if [it is] for the first time….
(1) Jean Paul Sartre, “Une Idée Fondamentale de Husserl” in Situations I (Gallimard: Paris, 1947).
(2) Push processing allows a photographer to underexpose film in the camera (for example, to maintain a fast shutter speed in low-light conditions) and compensate in the darkroom by developing the film for a longer time than recommended for the particular type of film.
(3)Sergio Larrain, letter to Agnès Sire, published in Popsicle # 46, December 16, 2013, “The Letters of Sergio Larrain.” Retrieved from HYPERLINK "http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/blog/popsicle-46-the-letters-of-sergio-larrain" http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/blog/popsicle-46-the-letters-of-sergio-larrain on February 28, 2014.
- Galleria Studio Paolo Morello, Palermo,Venice
- Palazzo Esposizioni, Rimini, Italy
- Officina delle Zattere, Venice, Italy (Parallel event Venice Architecture Biennale)
- Rosphoto Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
- PhotoMed Photography Festival, Sanary-sur-Mer
- France ARKA Gallery, Vladivostok
- Russia State Art Museum, Irkutsk
- Russia State Art Museum, Novosibirsk
- Russia State Art Museum, Omsk
- Russia Ekaterinburg Gallery of Modern Art, Ekaterinburg, Russia