It is his belief that the places we live in are our truest and most intimate portrait, unveiling our deep-lying identity through complex systems of representation. From picturesque rooms in the once luxurious grand homes of Havana to public schools and nurseries in the Ukrainian cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat that were evacuated after the 1986 nuclear disaster, all of this Canadian photographer’s subjects trigger reflections that mirror our history, focusing attention on socially and politically complicated conditions. By showing us traces of our past, Polidori allows us to thoroughly analyse the body of our own memory.
In his recent work, his focus has shifted from interiors to exteriors. The last series of photographs, shown at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York and contained in two recently published books by Steidl, Sixty Feet Road and Hotel Petra, are of locations in Mumbai, India, and Beirut, Lebanon. The portraits of Mumbai were all taken on one road, the eponymous “Sixty Feet Road” of the book’s title, where, as a result of uncontrolled expansion, temporary housing of the poor has been self-built – and it is this aspect of the site that drew Polidori’s interest. The emblematic photograph of the road is a monumental mural created by assembling 22 shots in order to map out an entire street, creating tight dialectics between photography and cartography.
Taking the word dendritic from the branching extensions of the mammalian cell structure, Polidori has adopted the term to describe rampant and spectacular urban growth, and it is his intention to publish a large volume, to be entitled Dendritic Cities, which will be a compilation of all of the sites in the world where he has photographed “auto-constructed cities”.
Beatrice Zamponi: How did you become interested in the collective process of habitat?
Robert Polidori: Unless we are attacked by some kind of serious global epidemic, we are heading for enormous problems of overpopulation, where we’ll be living one on top of one another. With the use of digital tools, I have assembled a number of photographs into a single body to make large-format murals. I work with the ideas of continuity and juxtaposition; borders and the parcelisation of space. We can easily perceive each house like a book, and the entire photo therefore like a big bookcase. I was interested in underlining the creative aspect of this modus vivendi, and how necessity always stimulates innovation.
Beatrice Zamponi: Another new book, Hotel Petra, features a series of photographs of a decaying and abandoned building in old Beirut. The – for you – unusually extreme close-ups and the colouring of the compositions are reminiscent of abstract expressionist painting. Was that intentional?
Robert Polidori: Hotel Petra was a famous hotel in downtown Beirut where Armenians and Jewish people lived together in a neighborhood close to the Grand Théâtre. It was severely damaged during Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990 and left to decay for 20 years. When I found it in 2010, its walls showed the accumulation of years of layering and peeling, without any type of maintenance or human intervention, only coats of paint that had been modified by a natural chemical oxidation process. Those transformed walls appeared to my eyes as if they were the most beautiful paintings ever seen. The pictorial aspect came about on its own. It was not instigated by a decision, although, in hindsight, it did become a powerful thread in the making of the whole series.
My intention in photographing these images was to make an aesthetic statement, postulating a kind parallel inverse of “trompe l’oeil” painting, inasmuch as in that kind of art, where a painter attempts to make highly illusionistic renditions of surfaces that exist in the world, and to do so with such a masterful skill that the viewer is at first fooled into thinking that the surface he sees is an actual virtual object or surface, with these images I photographed painterly surfaces and reproduced them in such a way that at first glance they seem to be actually painted. In the last 30 or so years I have witnessed and heard many artists who claim they merely “use photography” in their art, sometimes I perversely think of myself as a photographer who, in contrast, “uses art”.
Beatrice Zamponi: Your contemplative and static photography contrasts with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment”. Can you tell us more about your approach?
Robert Polidori: I have never been attracted to the 35-millimeter photojournalism that became popular and prevalent after World War II. The type of pictures published in Life magazine and others has always seemed forced, imposed, and propagandistic to me. Of course Cartier-Bresson was a humanist, but he used photography in a decorative key that I feel was not emblematic of the social reality in which he lived.
By “decorative” I mean that the decisive and privileged moments he loved to seek out and capture were in my opinion statistical anomalies in the unfolding of the time continuum before him. In other words he chose to capture moments that rarely resembled reality, but that were somehow pleasing to his personal taste. There inherently is nothing “wrong” with that. Personally I am more attracted to photographs that attempt to be more objective and “emblematic” of a subject’s qualities rather than a personal subjective interpretation of phenomena. The late 19th century photographers I admire were fascinated with the world and used the camera as a means of objective discovery; the 20th century, in particular its fascination with non-representational art, turned this inside out, and led to the contemplation of the character and ego of the artist himself as the preferred subject matter. In my opinion it was the beginning of the “Me Generation”.
Beatrice Zamponi: How did you develop your vision stylistically speaking?
Robert Polidori: We moved to the United States from Canada in 1961, when the US was celebrating its American Civil War Centennial. I was 10 years old, and was much impressed by the pictures in Mathew B. Brady’s books that were passed around at school as historical documents of the war. That was when I was touched by the phenomenological power of photography. Ever since I have always been attracted by pioneers and practitioners of the principles of the view camera. The control of perspective given by 35-millimeter cameras is all but nil compared to the large-format camera, and to me this is a fundamental differentiating factor.
Humorously speaking, I imagine I should consider myself a modern 19th-century photographer, intent on documenting the end of the industrial era. Photography came about at the advent of the industrialization process. I wonder how it will fare in the future, although references to the use of the camera obscura go as far back as 500BC in China.
Beatrice Zamponi: There is a book that influenced you, The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates, which discusses mnemonic systems in antiquity. In what way was it important?
Robert Polidori: It was fundamental in order to understand how photography is a technical instrument in favour of memory. It’s needed to witness and remember. Like ceramics, it’s a utilitarian art. Photography’s karma is somehow linked to serving history and temporality in a more general sense.
Beatrice Zamponi: The book describes how in the Pythagorean School, the students were not allowed to speak for two or three years. They were taught to memorize empty rooms. A room was a locus for memory. How does that connect to your work?
Robert Polidori: The idea is that the mind has the hardest time remembering banal everyday things, but can more easily recall things that stand out of the ordinary. So the practitioners of this art learned to codify phenomena in visual terms that stood out of the ordinary, which they could recall at will and extract data from time and time again. I have attempted to train my viewpoint in this direction, to channel distinguishing elements, and the room has become a focal point of my work. What is affixed on walls is the superego, in the Jungian sense. It’s the exteriorization of the soul life or of personal values. To get back to a point I made earlier about 20th century subjectivity, it is not my subjectivity that interests me, but rather the subjectivity of others observed in an objective fashion.
Beatrice Zamponi: Your encyclopaedic work photographing the Palace of Versailles, called Parcours Muséologique Revisité, is based on this same idea. Could you explain the project?
Robert Polidori: The concept of the book was to document the lengthy, and perhaps perpetual, restoration process of the palace, which had become a history museum, and reveal how the choices made about what to restore over the course of time were profoundly tied to the idea that the person in charge had of himself. It’s easy to understand for example why François Mitterrand loved to restore and remodel rooms of Louis XV, or Nicolas Sarkozy would prefer Louis-Philippe’s quarters, seeing their reciprocal affinities. Conducting restoration is a form of historical revisionism.
Beatrice Zamponi: In this voluminous collection that took you almost 30 years to compile, you often focused on details. Why?
Robert Polidori: I did nothing but visually transcribe the mechanism through which memory works, fragmenting and selecting reality as it came across to me – returning there many times over 30 years, each time coming back with the need to photograph aspects that I hadn’t before, imposed on me by the desires of my own memory.
Beatrice Zamponi: Referring to your photo series of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, published as After the Flood, you say that the most important loss in the life of a man is his memory. What does that mean?
Robert Polidori: When the survivors went back to their homes, they mainly sought photographs. Through those icons they re-found a small part of the memory of what they had lost. They didn’t take objects away, but tried to salvage pictures. Their other belongings, with the exception of metallic or ceramic ones, were completely destroyed by the waters of the flood. Once a home is destroyed and considered to be beyond repair, the resident’s last and most precious connection to the abode are the memories of the time and events that transpired there. These are the most succinctly inscribed in the photographs that were there taken. In most of the destroyed homes I visited where the owners were allowed to return for inspection, I could see traces of their trying to salvage photo albums by laying them out and trying to dry them. This is true for all passing time; our only connection to time past are our momentos and the memories we ascribe to them.
Beatrice Zamponi: Do you ever adjust things in your photographs in terms of composition?
Robert Polidori: Very rarely. I never illuminate the rooms artificially, so once in a while I might open a window. Or I might turn on a light, but only one that belongs to the furnishing. As a rule, I never add elements that are not already part of the setting. At times I may move an object that may block a view or some such action, but I do not editorialize or attempt to change the nature of a given scene.
Beatrice Zamponi: Profound harmony is seen in your photos, especially in the colour and composition. It is right to speak of the search for beauty in decadence?
Robert Polidori: My work has sometimes been accused of being too aestheticising and of mystifying tragic events. I never modified anything I found; as I have just said I never sought to embellish the scene that I found in front of me. Everything that my pictures offer is born by coincidence. Obviously, nature is an absolutely astounding force of imagination and creativity.
Beatrice Zamponi: You have said that you don’t care for black and white photography. Why is that?
Robert Polidori: Most people see in colour, including myself. It’s difficult for me to understand the value of black and white. To choose an instrument and means that relay less information than what you can actually see in reality doesn’t make much sense to me. Why should I be content to behold something that contains less? And besides, rightly or wrongly, I associate black and white with the printing of the written word.
Words printed in color don’t usually add much except some external design flourishes that are normally not intrinsically linked to any text meaning content. But as far as material phenomena are concerned, the colors reflected by their surfaces hold perceptual information concerning the nature of their physical make-up.
Beatrice Zamponi: The photo series you made in Havana starting in 1997 is perhaps your best known. What makes these images so iconic?
Robert Polidori: Frankly I don’t know why they are so popular. They resonate with feelings of many people that go beyond what I perceived in them. For me they recount an experiment that is unique in the world. The over 50-year economic embargo against Cuba made time stand still, but the population continued to live. My pictures reflect the layering generated by that process – the fact that a church was turned into a bank and then a disco, and now, once again, restored into being a church was something that fascinated me. In just this one instance we can see four time levels. It’s rare to see that many clear and distinct temporal layerings in one locus.
These are all signs that silently witness the inexorable and paradoxical transformations brought about in a society.
Beatrice Zamponi: What do you look for when you take photos?
Robert Polidori: Traces of human interventions, metaphorically speaking a fresh corpse. I am interested in the deterioration that occurs nearest to death, because over time one loses definition and the details of temporal reconstruction are wiped away. That's why the aftermath of Katrina was such an amazing experience for me.
Beatrice Zamponi: You’re quite a traveller. What country bewitched you most?
Robert Polidori: There are many places that I have dearly loved and came back to time and time again because there were so many interesting sites that I wanted to photograph there. India and Brazil, in particular, come to my mind. But if the word bewitched is the keyword in your question I would have to answer Yemen. Unfortunately, not much of it will remain I think. The Saudis are slowly destroying it. I was speechless when I first saw Shibam and the area around the Wadi Do’an. Seeing all those 5 to 7 story buildings remaining from centuries ago.
Regardless, the habitat structures in Yemen have an allure that is truly unique. I’d also like to mention the island of Socotra, 350 kilometres from the coast. It has a microclimate that allows unique types of vegetation to thrive. It is known to botanists as the Galapagos of the plant kingdom. Ever since I moved to California, I have been increasingly aware of the world of plants and their structure. I would like to take more time to explore that world.