MACRO, Rome, Italy
For this exhibition, Swedish artist Anders Petersen presented ‘Rome, A Diary 2012’, 40 black and white photographs, each more striking than the next. The show was conceived as an intimate portrait of the Italian capital, with a particular focus on families and couples. The theme was reflected in the hang: the prints were displayed either in pairs or in tight rows of about a dozen, as if each series was a type of family. Photographs of Petersen’s companion, Julia, recurred across the room, surrounded by portraits of other eccentric creatures, human and animal, discovered by Petersen in Rome.
On entering the exhibition, what stood out was the Caravaggesque light of the installation. Petersen’s prints are so starkly contrasted and grainy, that seen together their visual impact is strong. The portrayed subjects did the rest; every one depicted is disturbingly intense, only partly a result of the photographer’s technique. Petersen has always had a soft spot for outcasts – sailors and prostitutes, say, whose physical features and behaviour may be immortalized as symbols of transgression, freedom, exclusion and loss. From a homeless person sleeping on the pavement, to a lady with a vampire pin-up tattooed on her leg and various zoo creatures, the overall mood here was one of Fellinian realism.
Although the images are only roughly poster-size, their effect is all-enveloping. Shot with a small camera, from a short distance and frontally, Petersen makes a point of working with discreet equipment, to preserve the intimacy of his encounters. Taken out of context, at the moment of public display, the images still speak of this commitment to vagrant bonding.
It is only fitting that the photo-diary is Petersen’s trademark format. He adopted it at the beginning of his career – with the acclaimed Café Lehmitz (1968–71), which was shot over three years in a bar in Hamburg’s red light district – and never really left it. It suits his practice because it combines the documentary with the personal. The diary, for Petersen, is a modus operandi, one dependent on prolonged and close observation. Indeed, the photographer is something of an ethnographer, exploring territory through social relations. Contrary to the ethnographic tradition, however, his reportages make no pretence of distance or neutrality. Rather the opposite; walking through ‘Rome, A Diary, 2012’ the imagery became increasingly intimate, iconic and visceral. If the first images proposed a fairly anthropocentric vision of kinship, eventually they turned more feral. A strong diptych featured Julia’s portrait next to a cropped pair of legs in snakeskin leggings, twisted around each other, so that at first glance they looked uncannily like reptiles. To follow, there was a spooky black cat, a group portrait of wild felines and a crocodile staring out of its cold lateral eye. In this conflation of species, humans were animalized by osmosis. In the final grouping, more explicitly sexualized images of cow tongues and a girl’s vaginas closed the circle of our animality.
Ultimately, ‘Rome, A Diary, 2012’ seemed to suggest that by entering the familiar – and thus the sexual and uncanny – the camera can cut through civilization and sneak a picture of a more instinctive society. The proposition perfectly suits Rome – a city believed to be descended from a wolf.
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