Robert Polidori: de directe nabijheid van het voorbije

Señora Faxas Residence, Miramar, Havana, No. 1, 1997

De wereld was nooit alleen van het heden. Je kunt het verleden camoufleren, inlijsten of tot studie-object herleiden, maar de confrontatie drukt telkens een verhouding met de wereld uit: wat wij ervan gemaakt hebben of wat ervan geworden is. Dat kan met een zekere traagheid of met ongelofelijke snelheid hebben plaats gevonden. Het ritme van de geschiedenis houdt zich niet aan regelmaat. De chaos is een duidelijk resultaat van menselijk of natuurkundig ingrijpen. Fotograaf Robert Polidori (1951) brengt dat in beeld. Tot in het detail.

Robert Polidori is one of the world’s most acclaimed photographers of human habitats and environments. Creating meticulously detailed, large-format color film photographs, Polidori’s images record a visual citation of both past history and the present times within the confines of a single frame.

Born in Montreal, Polidori moved to the United States as a child. Polidori began his career in avant-garde film, assisting Jonas Mekas at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, an experience that critically shaped his approach to photography. While living in Paris in the early 1980s, he began documenting the restoration of Versailles, and has continued over a 30 year period to photograph the ongoing changes.

Polidori’s additional projects include Havana, Chernobyl, and the aftermath of the flooding post Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. His current work deals with population and urban growth through photographing “dendritic” cities around the world, including Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and Amman.

Since 2015, Robert Polidori and his family live and work in Ojai, California.

Teatro Capitolo La Havana 1997

All artists, as best they can, make sense of a world that is often senseless. Mr. Polidori’s work, from Chernobyl to Havana — in sometimes dangerous, topsy-turvy, out-of-time places — generally bears witness to profound neglect. A photojournalist’s compulsion and problem is always to contrive beauty from misery, and it is only human to feel uneasy about admiring pictures like these from New Orleans, whose sumptuousness can be disorienting. But the works also express an archaeologist’s aspiration to document plain-spoken truth, and they are without most of the tricks of the trade that photographers exploit to turn victims into objects and pictures of pain into tributes to themselves.(Michael Kimmelman, NY Times sept 22 2006)

Klaslokaal Chernobyl

I certainly didn’t feel any shame while photographing these sites. I simply attempted to portray things as they appeared to me. I never once attempted to execute any embellishments. For this reason I felt surprised and puzzled when criticisms arose. How could I answer the challenges? If I had made these images intentionally ugly would my critics have looked at them more carefully or generously? Likely not. And besides, since when was pathos morally inadmissible in the photographic arts?
I feel nothing when I make these types of photographs. I feel before and after, but while executing them it is my belief that there is only time to accurately act and react. In the few short moments of pause when self-reflection becomes possible, I think of myself as performing some sort of photographic rite of Extreme Unction by commemorating the life trajectories of habitats that were permanently interrupted by cataclysm.

DLes Derniers Jours de Napoleon, Versailles, 2005

Polidori has captured several facets of human experience, from the excesses of Versailles to the turmoil and tragedy of post-Katrina New Orleans. With each image, he eschews nostalgia and judgment, allowing the sharply focused details of the photograph to communicate particular elements of the subject’s psychology and history. Explaining his interest in interiors and architecture, Polidori has said, “Besides the obvious sheltering from the extremes of the elements, people make rooms to live in as if they are animated by an unconscious desire to return to a prenatal life, or even before that, to a soul life. This is what they exteriorize in rooms, their internal soul life, or less magically put, their personal values, if you will.” (Artsy )

Salle de bain de Marie-Antoinette, (33 B) CCE.01.038, Corps Central – R.d.C, Versailles, 2005
Chronophagia ‘La Guarida restaurant entrance, Havana, Cuba 1997’

Maar ook het verre verleden zoals de fresco’s van Fra Angelico geschilderd tussen 1439 en 1444 kun je als fotograaf in hun ruimtelijke aanwezigheid benaderen net zoals de restauraties in Versailles.

The invitation to photograph the frescoes within the Convento di San Marco, as well as the building itself (renovated at the time of Fra Angelico by the patron of the Dominican order, Cosimo de Medici) was a fitting project for Polidori, who believes that rooms act as vessels of memory. Since the 1980s, he has been involved in an ongoing study of the decades-long restoration of the Chateau de Versailles and had previously turned his eye on war-torn Beirut, the devastated landscape of New Orleans and the faded splendor of Havana. By capturing scenes of wreckage, restoration and grandeur uninhabited by human figures, Polidori brings us into communication with the echoes of history that resonate in architecture. These works evoke the inexorable forward thrust of time and its power to reduce people, buildings and civilizations to dust and ruin.

Het beeld van een beeld plaatst het kunstwerk of de architecturale ruimte in de historische omgeving zoals wij die nu ervaren, soms gelijkend op de oorspronkelijke ruimte, soms met sporen van de hedendaagse aanwezigheid. De atmosfeer waarin fresco of ruimte ervaren worden, brengt ons dichterbij hun oorspronkelijkheid of de intentie waarmee ze ontstaan zijn..

Salle les campagnes militaires et le décor des résidences
royale, Aile du Nord–1er etage, Versailles, France
(Room of military
campaigns and decor of royal residences, North Wing–1st floor, Versailles,
France), 1985

Polidori documented the ongoing restoration of the 17th-century Palace of Versailles. His photographs from this series have the scale and architectural sweep of history paintings, he uses light and color to underscore the images’ painterly aura. But instead of providing narrative dramas, his photographs are peopled by a disconcerting mix of construction materials, upended royal portrait paintings, security cameras and discolored walls. In place of the clarity we expect from a museum presentation, historical distances are collapsed and jumbled. Taking us behind the scenes, Polidori offers a case study of the way that historical consciousness is constructed. (Mark Dean)

Enfilade 3 / Aile de Nord, Premier Etage, Salles du XVIIème, Versailles, 2018
Fujicolor crystal archive print mounted to dibond

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.

Chernobyl, gymzaal in school

Metaphorically speaking, photography does to time what a wall in a room does to time. It’s a kind of slice of time that is transfixed and only very slowly degrades its semblance. Curiously akin to the quantum of time it takes to forget something. I would say that the emblematic photographic image is a picture from inside a room looking out. I think this defines photography. It’s the metaphor for the notion of first sight. What one saw first.

When I realized the psychological importance of rooms and my commitment to them, I wandered away from cinema. There were other books too, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space talks about rooms and beehives and a set of drawers, all these receptacle kinds of images, and their metaphorical and psychological undertones.

Samir Geagea headquarters, Beirut, Lebanon, 1994
Hotel Petra #6, Beirut, Lebanon (2010)

La Poétique de l’espace explore, à travers les images littéraires, la dimension imaginaire de notre relation à l’espace, en se focalisant sur les espaces du bonheur intime. Le « philosophe-poète » que fût Gaston Bachelard entend ainsi aider ses lecteurs à mieux habiter le monde, grâce aux puissances de l’imagination et, plus précisément, de la rêverie. Aussi l’ouvrage propose-t-il tout d’abord une suite de variations poético-philosophiques sur le thème fondamental de la Maison, de celle de l’être humain aux « maisons animales » comme la coquille ou le nid, en passant par ces « maisons des choses » que sont les tiroirs, les armoires et les coffres. Il ouvre de la sorte une ample réflexion sur l’art d’habiter le monde, impliquant une dialectique de la miniature et de l’immensité, puis du dedans et du dehors, qui s’achève par une méditation des images de la plénitude heureuse, condensant les enjeux anthropologiques, métaphysiques et éthiques de cette oeuvre sans précédent.

Robert Polidori, Sala Alejo Carpentier, Gran Teatro de la Habana, Habana Viejo, Havana, 2000. Fujicolour crystal archive print
Robert Polidori 6328 North Miro Street, New Orleans, March 2006