JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Punctum Press (here). Paperback, 120 pages, with 83 black and white photographs. Includes several short captions by the artist and an essay by Marco Delogu. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: At some point in a great photographer’s career, perhaps at the very beginning or perhaps much later, his or her visual vocabulary coalesces into something solid, becoming a singular way of seeing that is both wholly original and immediately identifiable. As if using their eyes, we see the world through a kind of filter – the Callahan filter, or the Eggleston filter, or the Friedlander filter, each a discrete reality, unmistakable as the work of any other.
Never willing to be constrained, artists routinely test these boundaries by pulling themselves out of their comfortable surroundings and plopping themselves down in unfamiliar locales. The results are often bodies of work that bear the distinctive visual hallmark of the maker, but as applied to unexpected (or downright foreign) subject matter – Callahan in Cape Cod (or Providence), Eggleston in Paris, Friedlander in the desert or through a rental car window, even Moriyama in Hawaii or Parr in Atlanta. Anders Petersen’s pictures of Rome fall neatly into this category – images that are instantly recognizable as Petersen’s handiwork, but somehow subtly refracted through the rhythms of being an outsider in this bustling, history-rich Italian city.
Petersen’s photographs always have a vital, propulsive intensity (a “fever” as Marco Delogu calls it in his essay), a gritty, imperfect, rawness of experience that grabs the viewer by the throat with its aggressive immediacy. He has often been drawn to the margins of society, and in this manner, his Rome pictures are no different; there are plenty of scars and tattoos, show girls and sweaty sex, snarling dogs and meat carcasses, all seen in the harsh, shadowy glare of deceptively lush, high contrast black and white. In his adept hands, carousel ponies, feral cats, muscular motorcycles, peeling street murals, and styrofoam takeout bins take on surreal, almost menacing qualities.
Petersen took these photographs in three different stints: in 1984, in 2005 (a Rome Commission), and most recently in 2012, and so for diehard Petersen fans, some of these images will be familiar from other exhibitions and books (City Diary). But what I found captivating about this particular edit was that the careful accepting warmth of Café Lehmitz (a now iconic project from the beginning of his career) seems to have been rediscovered and applied to the venerable streets Rome in many of these pictures. While the dirty underbelly of society is still there if that’s what you’re looking for, I saw more nuances of authentic tenderness here than I have noticed in much of his recent work in other cities.
While part of this allure certainly comes from Petersen’s stolen portraits and nudes of his partner Julia, that same intimacy is consistently applied across the entire sequencing of the book. Tough looking men and rowdy boys cradle each other’s heads with unspoken affection, while ordinary couples steal kisses in cafes and parking lots. Quiet grace is found again and again: the angle of legs peeking out from under a flowered dress, the dappled reflection of trees on a woman in a car, a bent arm tugging at a white dress, and dogs held with the care usually applied to infants. Even the book’s cover has a contagious flyaway joy.
I’m more used to Petersen’s rough, assaulting grime, so this collection feels a notch or two removed from that overtly confrontational dinginess. Turning the volume down has allowed Rome’s lovely eccentricity to show through: the sinuous snake skin leggings, the improbable field of black cats, the dignified grande dame at the espresso bar, the all-over wall display of pointed shoes, the weathered statuary never far from view. It’s as if the passing years have mellowed his evolving collection of Roman photographs just a bit, allowing the balance between brashness and finesse to find a natural state of equilibrium.
Collector’s POV: For a photographer of Petersen’s stature and influence, his works have very little secondary market history and activity. Petersen is represented by Gun Gallery in Stockholm (here) and Rat Hole Gallery in Tokyo (here). Interested collectors will likely have more luck with one of these or the publisher (Punctum Press), rather than searching for prints at auction.