Anders Petersen, Napoli

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by L’Artiere Edizioni (here). Softcover with tipped-in image, 19.5 x 28.4 cm, 61 pages (in two interleaved booklets), with 60 black-and-white photographs. Includes an essay by Valeria Parrella (in English). In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Ramon Pez. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The idea of making a photographic portrait of a city isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Of course, for most visitors and snapshotting tourists, the photographic portrait they envision of a place like New York or Tokyo is one filled with visual stops at notable landmarks and famous sites, and broad views of the geography of the city, so we all can identify where they have been. In a sense, these photographs can provide both visual and structural orientation to the place (almost like a map or an itinerary) as well as a scaffolding of memory for the maker, with visual touchstones that can then kick off reminisces and retold anecdotes in the future.

But for many artists, the obvious Instagram-ready destinations are the last place they might think to look to find the actual pulse of a big city. Instead, its subtle rhythms and moods are to be discovered less in its places and more in its people, and so photographers often head off to wander the streets and interact with the locals. The unique visual personality of a place like Paris or Mumbai then emerges from following these human trails wherever they might lead. Along the way, glimpses of the particular urban fabric might present themselves and provide a kind of visual backdrop or setting, but it’s the people and the way they live their lives in the city that ultimately drive the storytelling.

It isn’t entirely surprising that a photographer like Anders Petersen would be drawn to crafting people-centric city expressions. Petersen first made his photographic mark back in the 1970s with his intimate images of the patrons of Café Lehmitz in Hamburg, and in the most recent decade or two, the Swedish photographer has made a range of globe-trotting photobooks, many of which he has called “city diaries”, stopping everywhere from Rome (reviewed here) and London to Stockholm and St. Petersburg. In nearly every case, Petersen has encountered a roughly vibrant urban underbelly, which he has then embraced with brash sensitivity, documenting its thrumming energy in gritty high contrast black-and-white.

The southern Italian city of Naples is Petersen’s most recent destination. The images in Napoli were made during a 2022 artist residency there, and its coastal location is immediately evoked by a bold cover image of sea creatures, featuring the vaguely unsettling twist of a spotted moray eel. Inside, after an introductory bow delivered by a man in plaid suit and a bowler hat, what immediately sticks out about this photobook is its unconventional tri-fold construction. The book is built from two separate booklets that are interleaved together like a shuffled deck of cards. Each spread is actually three vertical images wide, with flaps opening to each side and page turns alternating from one side to the other. This arrangement breaks down the idea of a linear forward-to-back sequence, and instead creates shifting combinations of images and groups of pictures, allowing different kinds of visual echoes and juxtapositions to wander through the pages. The resulting feeling is dense, interconnected, and at times claustrophobic, with people and places forced into unnervingly close proximity, almost like a crowded carnival.

Petersen’s cast of Neapolitan characters cuts across a wide cross section of communities and subcultures, blending them into a chaotic brew that simmers and swirls with life. Many of Petersen’s portraits turn on his observation of the small details that give an ordinary person a sense of individuality. An older man in a suit holds a white daisy. A woman seated on a couch looks up with unexpectedly large dark eyes. Another woman raises her shirt to show off her pregnant belly. With each page turn, more and more people open themselves up to Petersen – yet another woman has several silver rings on her fingers, an older woman smiles wearing a prominent cross necklace, a third blonde woman stares into the camera with horror film intensity, and a long necked woman in a hat draws attention to her chandelier earrings. Nearly every sitter and subject feels actively engaged, or at least aware of Petersen’s presence.

A few patterns do emerge as Petersen winds his way through the streets of Naples. He catches people dressed for a wedding (a man in a patterned tuxedo and a braided flower girl with bows on her shows), dressed for the club (in drag, in slinky tight fitting dresses, in sparkly panty sets with fishnet stockings), and dressed for everyday (in a striped blouse, in a polka dotted dress, in a polo shirt with white striped trim, in a shirt covered with watch faces, and in matching dark blazers, white shirts, and jeans). He then moves in even closer, paying attention to the gestures of arms and the overlooked touches between couples and family members. Arms and hands surround in embrace, touch shoulders, brush against hair, or linger on hips; a broken arm turns around a back; a boy’s arms cross and twist; and quiet moments of touch (a gentle haircut, a quick dab of putting on lip gloss) feel like stolen intimacies. A curly haired boy even blows a bubble with his gum, his hair and rounded mouth matched across the spread (depending on how the pages are opened) by a stone relief with a hole for a mouth and another woman with hair styled into a lilting cascade. Petersen makes the most of these seemingly inadvertent and fleeting echoes, pulling the entire body of work into animated conversation with itself.

It wouldn’t be a Petersen city portrait without a few feral animals and strange oddities, and Napoli has plenty of both sprinkled in between the images of local citizens. Fish heads in a box and a slithery octopus offer connections to the nearby sea, while various growling dogs turn up here and there, with an eerie carousel horse and a hawk perched on a gloved hand thrown in for good measure. The city’s relentless passion for soccer finds a voice in a Maradona flag and a statue commemorating Luis Suarez’s famous bite. From there, things get even more puzzling – cubbyholes filled with doll legs, a suit mannequin tied up in measuring tape, dark angel wings on a stone statue, and a streetside sock display covered in overnight plastic wrap. Even Petersen’s images of nature and other patterns feel almost surreal, with spiky leaves, lily flowers, criss crossed architectural struts, the shadows of ancient pillars, a curved pruned bush, and even a stack of twisted cinnamon rolls somehow taking on a hint of tactile unease.

The fact that Petersen, who is nearing 80, is still visiting cities and finding a way to boldly imprint his own distinct vision on them says something about the durability of both his approach and his aesthetic eye. While there is a certain commonality that can be identified across all his city projects (like a visual signature), that consistency never turns into predictability or comfort; his images (and photobooks) always seem to search for an edge of friction or tension that keeps us off guard. In this way, his city portraits are familiarly unfamiliar, still engaging with people and probing dark corners with audacity and curiosity.

Collector’s POV: Anders Petersen is represented by IBASHO Gallery in Tokyo (here), Jean-Kenta Gauthier in Paris (here), and Spot Home Gallery in Naples (here), which provided the artist’s residency program during which the images were made. His work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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