'SANS PAPIER' Galleria Moenia, Todi, Italy 20 Giugno 2013
'SANS PAPIER' Manege Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia 14 October 2012
'SANS PAPIER' Galleria del Cortile, Roma 11 November 2011
'SANS PAPIER' Collegio degli Armeni, Venice 10 June 2011
We are all actors of our own lives. We are all vulnerable. We are all heroic. We are human beings. Therein lies the wonder. The passions, strengths, weaknesses, joy, innocence, sadness, violence, tragedy and the multitude of contradictions that constitute a person are what I believe make men and women so ‘beautiful’. That is why I try to get in close and photograph their eyes - -eyes that observe me watching them. It is as though they are briefly opening their souls and I am allowed in to capture a fraction. Through this action, capturing the moment, I may be also be making sense, albeit briefly, of their persona - -as well as mine.
"DIMENSIONS BETWEEN THE SUN AND EARTH" (1)
by Roberta Semeraro
The one and only protagonist in John Pepper's photography is humanity in its many manifestations. Men, women, young and old, children and teenagers, are captured in every day life between the earth and the sun. In his photography, the earth is a horizontal surface on which his figures are well anchored, yet also dimensionalized in their daily moments of labor and rest.
The landscapes appear variously in the sprawl of urban cement and streets of stone or when filled with water of the sea and sand of an arena. When John says that he is defined by the earth, he's giving us a literal key to enter his interior world with an awareness of life beyond surface appearances. His photos are real because they are drawn from reality without postures. Further more, they are to be considered real in being images caught in a "decisive moment"(2).
John is never hesitant. He is instead decisive, ruthless and almost cruel in capturing moments of life. Like a vampire, he feeds on other people's lives. Reality in his photographic universe is composed of people who live and fight to survive and, as such, his photography has been compared to neorealist cinema. There is no pity in it. And the reality he describes is surprisingly beautiful in its simplicity.
Even in the streets of a chaotic metropolis like Rome, there can be poetry in a family eating ice-cream on a bench, or in men, women and children chatting on the doorstep of their home. He searches for his subjects in working class areas of the city, like Trastevere in Rome -- in the back alleys and streets where time slows down. Behind every corner, the rare photo may be found.
His photographic world also knows no logic -- only technique and multiple points of view. In taking photographs he himself is often surprised: a young women in a car smiling and winking into the lens; the intense portrait of a homeless man with a scarred face, or the mystery of a young man in a white shirt with his hands in his pocket. A spontaneous reaction to these provisional encounters, composed only of glances and the infinity of silence, takes one beyond the portrait into other extended meanings. The subject is there by chance, unprepared to be photographed yet consenting to be revealed for what it really is.
John works with natural light. And it's the light of the sun that stamps itself on his film in configuring people and objects in his film. He works with a Nikon F using an external light meter with Tri-X and 400asa film -- carefully calibrating light upon the lens, opening and closing it to ensure a balance between light and shadow.
His sensibility for light derives from an initial adolescent experience in the dark room, and in part, from painting. He knows how to control light that can enhance vision yet also burn it --blurring the photograph. And he always uses first class printers like Fotogramma 24 in Rome.
Simona Bugianovi, in the great Roman tradition of printing art photography, considers working with John a unique experience. "I will never forget when John took me to a show of Caravaggio, to explain exactly how he conceived of light".
John follows with care every single passage in his photographs, even in their printing. When editing the proofs, he uses a felt pen to mark each photograph according to his personal vision. "John has an instinctive relationship with light." affirms Simona. And light is what drew him to Sicily. After residing in Rome, New York and Paris, he has been living in Palermo for the past two years. When he says that the sun is his dimension, he provides another key to comprehending his volatile temperament.
He is attracted to the people of Sicily because this island, bathed by waters of the Mediterranean, remains an oasis of passion and faith in a desert of humanity. Processions, country fairs and open-air markets in turn provide rare moments of inspiration for his photographs. In a world conditioned by the rising sun, people emerge in the first light of dawn to live in the streets -- boys playing cards, dancing, and eating spun sugar -- shouting and talking loudly without concern because the street is their home.
Palermo itself is a city with a pulsating heart. Here John loses himself because this dimension, after all is his dimension. The faces of Sicilians seem to adapt perfectly to the black and white resolution in his photos - raven-black hair, fair complexion, thick black eyebrows, large dark eyes and long noses cutting into the light.
Sicily, as a borderland of southern Europe, retains a masculine culture. The Sicilian man bares his chest and his shoulders as though they were war trophies. A sensual vein runs through nude and virile arms, forever tense and ready to fight. Sicilian men also know the burden of working the land and the danger of work at sea. This is their dignity and truth, for it has defined them and their strength for generations with a heroism residing in the creation and care of their families. The men in John's photos conserve intact this inheritance.
In confronting the old man in a T-shirt and shorts, amid playing children, with the old man in waistcoat, jacket, tie, wearing dark sunglasses while sitting on a stone bench, one can perceive exactly the differences between elderly people in two different social contexts. In the first photo, taken in Sicily, there is a mute dialogue between the characters when John captures the immortality of a decisive moment, resembling an invisible thread uniting different stations of life. The old people in the South are almost never alone. On the contrary, they have a determinant social role as reference points for their families, especially the children.
The old man in jacket and tie portrayed in Rome, hides behind black glasses, but the slight protrusion of his upper lip betrays a singular grief. The stone wall behind him resembles a cold white curtain that receives him not. John couldn't have captured a more mystical moment of solitude. In this photograph, built on horizontal lines, the man is the only vertical element, a conceptual time-line where the man himself is the only protagonist. His immobility refers us to the eternity of death, and John behind the camera understands that this man's death has begun with social oblivion.
The gestures in these photos are always spontaneous and natural. Children are often caught in the most naïve poses while playing. And they are also the ones to express the most intense emotions, as in the little girl hugging her mother. Its structure is worth noting. The daughter and the mother are of the same flesh; there is no space between their bodies. The little girl's curly raven-hair is one with her mother's. The photograph is also harmonic in its composition - two symmetrical sources of light, with perfect balance between the black and white portrayals.
The sun, the light of day, returns to reaffirm itself in landscapes, where space is defined by the presence of people. The vastness and profundity is perceived in relationship to the dimension of a human being. One or more characters are captured in the foreground while we see others far away and still others on the horizon. The image is enlarged according to vectors of the half-lines cutting across angles formed by conjoined positions of the figures.
In the photograph of the young women in bathing suits, the particular detail of the camera foretells the unfolding action. The woman in the black bikini is caught while she leans forward, smiling at the woman with the camera. John seizes the moment when the woman extends her right leg, and in lifting her foot from the sand creates a straight line with the rest of her body. Between the two women a triangle is formed, the base of it being their shadowed line. At the center of this triangle, there is a smaller one, created by three other people bathing in the sea.
In the compositions of Mannerism, such as in Pontormo, the figures are elongated and contorted with eccentric, destabilizing elements, allowing the viewer to see beyond what is represented. I believe this is what John means when he says: "what you see is not what you get," in his concept of photography. The people he photographs are not necessarily beautiful or shapely - indeed, they are often defined by a grimace deforming their faces or in a gesture contorting their bodies. And in this imperfection John provides a key to the reading of his images. The truth is in imperfection because life itself is imperfect.
In following and searching for human beings, John, finds his sites variously in the countryside, on the beaches or simply in pausing at the seashore during a stormy day - seeing in the distance an adolescent girl contemplating the waves breaking on the rocks. Her body is slightly bigger than the pebbles on the beach in the foreground and, against the immensity of the sky, she appears even more fragile when compared with the strength of the sea. The horizon is defined by the black mountain range and by white clouds formed by rising sea foam while the sea itself is a spectacular fresco of intermingling black and white. Beyond the girl, one catches sight of a small fishing village. In this photo, the instant becomes an eternity with an awareness of nature as a stepmother, even while a gathering of black threatening clouds could easily, from one moment to the next, unleashing a storm.
In the photograph of the man in a bathing suit under a white umbrella, his head, as well as his face, is hidden while holding the umbrella. Frequently, in John's photographs, one cannot see the faces of people portrayed from the rear, hiding their identity. Here, however, it is not a casual element, but rather is purposely intended to conceal the identity of the subject, John does not look for the identity of people he photographs. He seeks to avoid particulars of identity, while finding fragments of himself in others.
Sans Papiers means without papers, without identity documents. John's photographs are filled with portraits of these Sans Papiers people, about whom we know nothing, other than an instant of their existence when captured. Often in his photographs we find drifting people of different ethnic groups as in the photograph of a horn player sitting on the ground next to a wandering garbage collector; a beggar on a sidewalk asking for money with his head bowed and his hands together; two gypsies dancing; a startling portrait of a beggar with a black hood in Trastevere.
People living in the streets have nothing other than what philosophers call the naked life -- a life without goals, at the mercy of anybody, wherever you look(3). In a certain sense, John finds these people without looking for them, if only because they are there, in the streets, and are not invisible. Indeed it is the visibility in their breath of life that he captures. In his world everyone has the same right to exist, and in looking at them he senses this as well.
As a consequence, John's photographs may be defined as without time. In this context, it is difficult to place them in time without knowing when the picture was taken. These people, on the margins of our consumerist society are beyond fashion or trends. They are dressed simply, without frills and with whatever comes in handy, so that a beggar from the 70s is not much different than one today.
And again, one senses the collapsing of time in photos taken in Sicily, where time has stopped in its course. On this legendary Mediterranean island, the atmosphere is redolent of fifty years ago and its traditions and religion cannot be eradicated at any time. Like Swann, upon dipping a madeleine in his tea, remembering his childhood breakfasts before Sunday mass, John recovers his own lost time(4) in dipping into past experiences. And similarly, through these instants in other people's lives caught on the run, John reclaims his inner time fragmented in past experiences. Perhaps this is the unconscious motivation, which brings John to this corner of the world.
And yet again, it may be said that these photos are without place in the sense that John prowls the back streets of Trastevere, or the historical centre of Palermo, without focusing on buildings or monuments. His interest is always toward people, while history itself becomes a stage for their performances. Or he looks for non-places(5) , spaces in the city that have no identity, areas of transit like train and subway stations - fringes of the modern world where people pass without seeing each other.
These photographs are emotions, feelings captured in images and as such, immaterial and without need for documentation -- Sans Papier. In the cover photograph of this book, a young woman and a young man hugging each other seem, at first glance, to resemble two people enveloped in one another, their hearts beating only for the other. However, in the imperceptible forehead wrinkle of the girl looking away with reflective melancholy and in the boys drooping eyes of resignation, John reveals a painful gulf between their two bodies.
John's photography, apart from obtaining formal excellence, can be located in many aspects between two great traditions at the onset of the past century in Paris -- the street photography(6) of Robert Doisneau, with whom John shares a rooted empathy for ordinary people, and the humanistic photography of Brassai, Willy Roniz and Izis where he shares their incredible capacity for entering the human soul.
* * * *
(1) Interview with John Pepper
(2) Henri Cartier-Bressonr
(3) "Siamo tutti Sans Papier", Maurizio Ferrarsi, il Sole 24 orer
(4) Swan's Way, 1913 "Rememberances of Things Past", Marcel Proust
(5) Non-place, Marc Augé
(6) "Photography of the XX Century", Taschen