I’ve just discovered the most wonderful photographer. It was one of those wonderful moments in which, browsing on the internet, you stumble across something and follow a thread which leads you to an entirely new talent. This photographer’s name is Pierre Gonnord: born in France, he now lives and works in Spain. Choosing people with striking or interesting faces, he takes portrait photographs which, from a distance, could easily be paintings by Caravaggesque old masters. It’s no wonder they captivate me.
What little I’ve read, since I first saw his work online during my lunch break today, says that Gonnord focuses on people who find themselves on the margins of society: gypsies, the blind, the dispossessed. He presents them with deceptive simplicity, against a black background, creating compositions which are immediately compelling. I didn’t even realise that people looked like this any more. It’s as if figures have stepped out of Renaissance or Baroque paintings, and seeing these powerfully individual faces, I realise anew how completely anodyne is the modern cult of beauty. These people, whose characters have moulded their entire beings, have a beauty all their own – far more powerful than the insipid symmetry and smoothness which faces us every day in magazines. Gonnord’s sitters have worlds of stories to tell.
Elderly women have faces graven with deep, soft wrinkles which make them look like a St Elizabeth by Stanzione or an Anna by Rembrandt. Old men with tangles of wild beards and startled eyes could be Biblical patriarchs. One, with his long white beard and emaciated torso, is the twin of a St Jerome by Ribera. A young man with thin oiled ringlets, his body blending into the background, has the direct but vulnerable stare of a young St John the Baptist in the wilderness. A slightly older man again makes me think of St John. I find it interesting that I – an agnostic – respond to these images in predominantly religious terms. No doubt this is partly because the sitters are presented in the close-up format typical not only of Renaissance portraits but also of devotional images of saints. In reality, however, these photographs are not for display in an intimate space, but are printed out on a huge scale, as tall as a man. Gonnord’s most recent series has further captivating images, including a young girl who has the otherworldly air of a Botticelli angel. The photos were exhibited at the Venice Biennale this year.
Photos from that same exhibition have come to London, in the shape of the Real Venice photography exhibition at Somerset House, which runs from 11 October until 11 December 2011. The show also includes the eerie black-and-white photographs of Hiroshi Watanabe, in which Venetians are presented in masks and cloaks, as enigmatic as their city itself. Naturally I won’t be able to stay away.