This is one of a group of eight black and white photographs in Tate’s collection from John Riddy’s Palermo series 2011–13 (Tate P20426–P20428 and P81175–P81179). Riddy worked on the series over a three-year period between 2011 and 2013, although the examples in Tate’s collection date from 2012 and 2013. The series exists in an edition of five with one artist’s proof. As with many of his previous projects, his interest in Palermo was sparked by nineteenth-century art – in this case, the photographs taken in the Sicilian capital by the French photographer Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884), shortly after Garibaldi’s entry to the city in 1860. Riddy’s photographs focus on the historic centre – a combination of ruin and renovation – working class communities and street markets, alleyways and quaysides. The black and white images of this urban centre have a weight of texture and history that characterises much of Riddy’s work, as seen also in his colour photographs of views of London in the series Low Relief 2009 (Tate P79839–P79844). The absence of people shows an almost deserted city in Palermo, a quality that is further emphasised by the use of a rich grey scale that adds to the stillness of the compositions. Dominated by the horizontality of the format and a strong sense of symmetry that organises and distributes all the different elements represented, the photographs are full of texture and contrast. Their extreme clarity, depth of field and nuanced lighting highlight every single detail. Talking about this series and the considered nature of his approach and photographic process, Riddy has commented:
so much has happened recently in terms of technique and process. At its crudest we are all aware that a photograph can now be ‘made’ at a desk. But the progression from subject to print can be refined and driven by individual sensibilities … for me that progression has to start outside my conceptual compass. I spend more time looking to make fewer photographs, and even longer trying to make a complete print.
(John Riddy: Palermo, press release, Frith Street Gallery, London 2013, http://www.frithstreetgallery.com/shows/view/john_riddy_palermo/, accessed October 2013.)
Palermo (Giardino Inglese) 2013 (Tate P81175) depicts a frontal view of the statue Canaris a Scio 1876 by Benedetto Civiletti (1845–1899), one of the many sculptures housed in the garden. A Greek naval officer and statesman, Canaris was captain of a merchant vessel at the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Shortly after the devastation of the island of Chios (Scio) by the Ottoman Empire, forces under his command destroyed the flagship of the Turkish admiral Nasuhzade Ali Pasha (or Kara-Ali Pasha) in revenge for the Chios massacre. Civiletti’s sculpture portrays Canaris and an unknown naval officer on a small barque on the night they planted the bomb to destroy the Turkish flagship. In Riddy’s photograph, history and the present day are merged, with the vessel appearing to be navigating through an intense light that hits the two men from the right creating a stark contrast between the marble figures and the dark background. The graffiti scribbled over the sculpture and on the wall behind anchors the image in the present day.
Palermo (Piazza Marina) 2012 (Tate P81177) depicts a view of the Giardino Garibaldi taken from the Piazza Marina. Designed by the architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile (1825–1891) between 1861 and 1864, the Giardino is located in the quarter of Kalsa, in Palermo’s historic centre. On the right-hand side stands the majestic ficus tree that presides over the Giardino, its roots extending towards the centre of the composition which opens up to a broader view of the park.
Palermo (Palazzo delle Poste) 2012 (Tate P81178) depicts a dog sleeping on a cool stone floor against a marble wall. The setting is the foyer at the entrance to the Palazzo delle Poste, a rationalist building housing the main post office located in the centre of Palermo, built in the typical Fascist style developed in Italy during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite the grand scale of the building, Riddy has chosen to focus on the dog, capturing a view that reveals almost nothing about the magnitude of the architecture that frames the scene.
Palermo (Carmine) 2012 (Tate P81176), Palermo (Via Della Loggia) 2012 (Tate P20426) and Palermo (Frangiai) 2012 (Tate P20428) depict long vistas of the narrow streets that cram the historic centre of Palermo. Each photograph shows a different street, empty of people. In Palermo (Carmine) the rubbish piles up on the pavements and the shops have their shutters down, while some Christmas lights hang across the buildings. In Palermo (Frangiai) there is a row of cars parked in the middle of the street lined with buildings covered with graffiti. Palermo (Via Della Loggia) depicts the entrance to a street that curves away to the right; the shops have their shutters down, graffiti covers the walls of the buildings, there are electric wires hanging across the streets and a row of cars is parked on one side.
In contrast, Palermo (Caletta San Erasmo) 2012 (Tate P81180) and Palermo (Giovanni) 2013 (Tate P81179) depict two open views of an area close to the harbour, with the sea appearing on the horizon. Devoid of human life, both scenes seem to depict abandoned places; however, Giovanni is a popular spot where fishermen gather to eat. A silver car is parked on the left-hand side, next to the wall that marks the border of the Foro Italico, a big park that extends along Palermo’s coastline. Caletta San Erasmo is a location nearby, showing a quay with a couple of boats tied to it. The view opens wide towards the sea, framed by a high wall and the quay that runs into the sea on the left-hand side and a view of the bay at the right-hand corner.
Palermo (Panificio Morello) 2013 (Tate P20427) depicts a frontal view of the famous bakery Panificio Morello which was built at the beginning of the twentieth century. Riddy takes a frontal view of its deteriorating façade, which shows the mosaic Liberty that depicts Demeter and the fertility of the earth on the left-hand side, covered by the stalls that open up to the popular street market ‘pupa ru Capo’.
The Palermo series exemplifies Riddy’s considered exploration of the ambience and atmosphere of specific places. His photographs are filled with historical moments and references, from Renaissance painting and sculpture, to modernist and postmodernist architecture. His subject matter is typically broad, ranging from the humble domestic interior to images which may appear emblematic of a particular time and place, generally absent of human activity or intervention.
John Riddy, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 2000.
John Riddy, Palermo, exhibition catalogue, Frith Street Gallery, London 2013.
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