Sergio Purtell, Love’s Labour

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 24.5×29.8 cm, 112 pages, with 64 black and white reproductions. Includes a brief text by the artist. Design by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As with many who came of age in the 1970s, Sergio Purtell’s twenties were peripatetic. But his were even more nomadic than most. After some early adventures on the Pan-American highway, he left his native Chile for good in 1973, fleeing the impending Pinochet regime. He settled in New York at the ripe young age of 18, but the travel bug remained strong. Over the course of his late twenties, he would spend large chunks of each summer drifting across Europe. “I would buy an inexpensive round-trip ticket from New York to London, and from there get a Eurail pass. Traveling cheaply, I could move freely around Europe, renting seedy little hotels, usually right next to the train station. Sometimes I even slept there on the station floor. Wandering made sense to me.”

The snippet above is from Purtell’s brief account of his adventures. It fills the back cover of his debut monograph Love’s Labour, paired with an old selfie from the period. This is the only text in the book aside from a few technical notes, so it might be considered an artist statement, or perhaps a manifesto. It is concise, matter-of-fact, and engaging, the pitch perfect accompaniment for Purtell’s photos which share similar traits. The book ambles easily through England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain between 1979 and 1984. With no identifying captions or dates, the time and location of particular photographs is difficult to ascertain, but that’s just as well. The focus here is joie de vivre, not petty details. Purtell’s sun-kissed subjects will convert any reader into an armchair backpacker. Who knows what day it is, or what country? The light is gorgeous and the pace languid.

A picture of a traveler on a ferry serves as visual prologue, then the book’s main body begins with a shot of a well-heeled young photographer in Paris. Strolling away from a nearby bus, camera in hand, it’s no great leap to take him as an avatar for Purtell. The world is his oyster as he saunters alone across a large plaza, some scattered city landmarks on the horizon behind him, the journey ahead yet unmarked. 

As we begin to retrace that journey some 35 years later, a brief sequence establishes three motifs. A photo of a grand formal fountain is first, then photos of two prone figures, and finally a piece of weathered statuary. Purtell returns to these subjects repeatedly throughout the book, often in combination, their boundaries blurring as the book proceeds. Humans assume the form of marble busts, while purring fountains are ubiquitous. These may be the souvenir tropes of any European junket. But in his world they reference a spellbound reverie, the foundation for his distinctive voice.

It’s around this point that the reader first begins to sense that the title Love’s Labour may be a misnomer. No labor is evident in any photograph. Instead they show the antithesis. Purtell’s subjects sprawl, sunbathe, sleep, read, swim, drink, couple up, and engage various other summer pastimes. But physical work? Not so much. The irony is that while stateside Purtell was quite productive during this period, earning his BFA from RISD in 1980 and then his MFA from Yale in 1982. He then went on to build a successful printing business in Brooklyn. All of which required plenty of elbow grease, as did the publication of this monograph. But judging by the photographs, while traipsing through Europe, he kept labor at arm’s length. 

“I was immediately reminded of my life in Santiago,” he writes of his travels. “The mannerisms, the customs, the relaxed attitude toward life, the mornings in cafes nursing a cup for as long as one wanted, the afternoons passed lounging by the cool of a fountain, and finishing the day at the local bar with a glass of wine.” He may have been lulled into a tranquil pace, but Purtell still photographed actively. Using a Fuji 6 x 9, he developed a visual style which hovered somewhere between the sober attention of Atget, the humanitarian curiosity of (Purtell’s Yale classmate) Mark Steinmetz, and the precise candid spacing of Cartier-Bresson.

All three traits are exemplified in an early photograph of three figures idling by a fountain, and also in its complement a few pages later which depicts another trio sitting by some steps. In the second photo, the setting and people are different but the composition is similar, with positioning, gestures, and racial makeup reversed. No one seems to be doing much in either picture, yet somehow everyone has taken up just the right position. A similar duality applies to the image on the opposite page, a marble statue leaning across an eagle, which finds a match a few pages later in a nude statue overlooking a fountain. If those connections prove too subtle, the following page is more overt, with a statue figure paired across the spread from a seated woman in nearly identical pose. With sequenced hops such as these, Purtell gradually lays the building blocks for his playful blend of figure study, relaxation, and dreamy afternoons.

In several photographs, Purtell shows off a candid shooting dexterity that would make Alex Webb blush. It’s no easy feat tying together several statues, vegetation, a stay pedestrian and a foreground dog into a tight composition. Two poolside nudes in a backyard under a man on a ladder might be just as tricky. But Purtell pulls these frames together easily, seemingly without effort. These are just two examples among several such juxtapositions. If he had entered a zone of good seeing, it might be credited to sheer love: “How does one fall in love?” he asks. “By being present, an act that is unavoidable when making pictures in the world. In photography, love is not blind—although many things can, deceptively, go unnoticed: a small gesture, the radiance of a glance, the texture of skin, the shape of a neck, a flitting blush, downcast eyes, a modest grace. Love can be a connection to something greater than ourselves, or the thing that shows us who we are. It requires relentless dedication.” 

About a third of the way in, Purtell’s subjects begin to doff their garments, and this theme gradually becomes a more prevalent. Perhaps the wine has kicked in, the summer sun too hot and sticky, and clothing has become a nuisance? Or maybe his sunbathers are unconsciously inspired by the rippling fountains and nude statues which dot the European cityscape. In any case, the skin quotient ramps up as the book proceeds, beginning with a buxom woman watching herself on TV near a tempting bowl of fruit. A topless couple in skivvies comes a few pages later, then an even more carefree pairing, two nudes on their backs holding hands by a river. Naked, prone, and daydreaming, Purtell’s figures make everything around them seem uptight in comparison. 

Exposed anatomies come in drips and drabs every several pages. By the time we encounter a reader of “Kama Soutra” on her patio and “Sexus” on her beach towel, we can see where things are headed. In the book’s final quarter, the floodgates open and bronzed bodies are bared in a flurry of photos, hinting at outright hedonism but never crossing into lascivious content. But one wonders, how is it that Purtell’s candid models all have magazine figures, with thin waists and sensuous skin, or that they pay scant attention to his camera? Purtell’s explanation is coy: “Walking through plazas, sometimes meeting friends who brought me into their homes, I was allowed to record lives that seemed familiar to me even though I had just arrived.” 

Finally, after heating up over several dozen pages with people, places, and manmade things, Love’s Labour cools into the perfect coda with its sole photo of natural scenery. The closing image is a bird’s eye view of a broad wave barreling into a coastline. Its form is majestic, statuesque, and terminal.

The book is printed with an open style—perhaps the opposite of film noir? Purtell clusters his zones around central greys, with few absolute blacks or whites. The resulting tonality is reminiscent of other summer tomes like Tod Papageorge’s Passing Through Eden and Dag Alveng’s Summer Light. Like those books, Love’s Labour exudes a parched quality which suits the mood, somewhere between jaunty and drowsy. The effect is enhanced by the book’s design. Its bronze-yellow cover is the color of a poorly fixed print left in the sun a while. Tucked just inside, marbled endpapers ooze like bodies splayed on the sand. All of these elements play together so well that one wonders, where has Sergio Purtell been all this time? How is this his first book at age 65? A quick glance at his CV reveals a thirty year gap in the resume, between active periods in the mid-1980s and mid-2010s. 

It turns out he’s been hiding in plain sight. His studio Black And White On White is in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, right under the nose of New York’s art world. Its focus to date has been on outside jobs, not on Purtell, who was mostly concentrated on his own commercial work. But its client list is a who’s who of important photographers, galleries, and museums –  Robert Adams, Bill Burke, Wendy Ewald, Collier Schorr, Dayanita Singh, and Fazal Sheikh, among many others. Through these contacts and school connections, Purtell has kept numerous ties in the photo scene. By circuitous circumstances one of them, Jeffrey Ladd, shepherded the work to Stanley/Barker. 

As a publisher with a strong record of publishing and promoting overlooked archives, Stanley/Barker proved a good match for Purtell’s early work. Their back catalog boasts a talented roster, most them late career photographers re-examining early work. It can be a challenge to reappraise and recontextualize the past without bogging in nostalgia or sentimentality, but Stanley/Barker has so far eluded this pitfall. Their offering by Purtell is merely the latest example. It’s a labour of love, well-timed for summer reading by a pool or fountain. 

Collector’s POV: Sergio Purtell is represented by Silas Von Morisse Gallery in New York (here). Purtell’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Nicholas Sack /

    A beautifully eloquent review by Blake Andrews, befitting the smooth and sensuous qualities of Sergio Purtell’s photographs. Contextual references are spot-on: Tod Papageorge and Mark Steinmetz, to which I would add Henry Wessel, especially for sublime depictions of dazzling sunlight on stone and skin. Speaking of which – Papageorge shot life on Los Angeles beaches in 1978; a brief selection features in ‘American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers’, McGraw-Hill, 1979. They are superb. An enterprising publisher like Stanley/Barker should consider these and more for a monograph.

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