PHOTO SEN­SI­TIVE

RE­PORTS ON A PHO­TOG­RA­PHER WHOSE SEN­SI­TIVE POR­TRAYAL OF DESERTS IS THE SUB­JECT OF AN EX­HI­BI­TION IN A LEAD­ING DUBAI GALLERY

The Gulf Today - Time Out - - ART - Nevada desert.

The Empty Quar­ter gallery, Dubai, is cur­rently host­ing the pho­to­graphic works of John R Pep­per (In­hab­ited Deserts, Dec. 12, 2018 – Jan. 27, 2019). “Pep­per’s deserts are not ul­ti­mately the re­sult of travel pho­tog­ra­phy”, says Kir­ill Petrin, Rus­sian en­tre­pre­neur and art col­lec­tor who has writ­ten an es­say to ac­com­pany the ex­hi­bi­tion. “His pho­tographs, para­dox­i­cally, don’t take you to the ac­tual places where they are shot. They take you else­where, to a new place for your mind and imag­i­na­tion to in­habit … as you stand be­fore them, Pep­per’s pho­tographs slowly trans­form what you be­lieve you are see­ing into a to­tally dif­fer­ent thing.

“Not sur­pris­ingly, some of the rocks look quite alive, re­sem­bling the beasts of fairy­tales, or di­vine man­i­fes­ta­tions (as in the face on a cliff), or suc­cinctly mir­ror­ing hu­man in­ter­ac­tions, con­fronta­tional ex­changes (as in the photo of two boul­ders fac­ing each other), or dance, or a fam­ily re­union … Who said that deserts are un­in­hab­ited? Pep­per ’s work pop­u­lates them with our thoughts, our dreams”.

“My con­cept, my goal”, says Pep­per, “has been to use the desert as a pain­ter uses a vir­gin white can­vas; and while trav­el­ling through dif­fer­ent deserts of the world (from Rus­sia to Egypt, Mau­ri­ta­nia, Oman to the USA), I sought to dis­cover what im­agery was re­vealed to my eye - some­times it was iGURATIVE, SOME­TIMES AB­STRACT.

“In the South Si­nai in Egypt, there were tall hills of rocks. Climb­ing those hills, walk­ing through what ap­peared to be a sim­ple amal­gam of stones, I dis­cov­ered AN­THRO­PO­MOR­PHIC iG­URES SUCH AS FACES, iSH, ele­phants, hu­mans etc.

“Sud­denly the rocks, these non-liv­ing el­e­ments were trans­formed into the op­po­site: LIV­ING, EX­PRES­SIVE, VI­BRANT iG­URES. IN THE dunes of Oman the lights and shad­ows trans­formed a seem­ingly neu­tral val­ley into the body of a young wo­man try­ing to emerge from the sands.

“Con­cep­tu­ally I at­tempt to find the sym­bio­sis be­tween the land­scape be­fore me and the im­agery buried within me. I do not seek the im­age: rather the pho­to­graph iNDS ME. THROUGH THIS SUBLIMINAL SEARCH the re­sult is, hope­fully, my pho­to­graph, my “can­vas” is an ex­pres­sion of my in­ner be­ing, of what I feel as an artist”.

Pep­per re­veals more de­tails on his af­faire de coeur with deserts to Time Out

* WHY ARE YOUR DESERT COM­PO­SI­TIONS IN BLACK AND WHITE? I HAVE BEEN WORK­ING IN B&W SINCE I BE­GAN TAK­ING PHO­TOGRAPHS AT AGE 12. I BE­LIEVE THAT TAK­ING PHO­TOGRAPHS IN COLOUR IS LIKE GIV­ING THE ‘AN­SWERS’.

I PRE­FER TO HAVE THE VIEWER ‘iLL IN’ WITH his or her imag­i­na­tion. I be­lieve that the use of B &W in gen­eral is more in­ter­est­ing as it leaves more mys­tery - but in par­tic­u­lar for deserts, it adds to their sen­su­al­ity.

* ARE YOU GIV­ING A LARGER MEAN­ING TO THE WORD “IN­HAB­ITED” IN YOUR WORK?

The best an­swer to this ques­tion is in the cu­ra­to­rial es­say by Kir­ill Petrin who has per­fectly an­a­lysed my work. “The cam­era in Pep­per ’s hands”, he says, “be­comes a brush or chisel with which he blurs the lines be­tween cap­tur­ing some­thing al­ready made, and cre­at­ing some­thing which has never ex­isted.

“This tran­si­tion from “cap­ture” to “cre­ate” is even more ev­i­dent in the ab­stract or semi­ab­stract im­ages … Pep­per’s hands cre­ate ab­strac­tions that have all the ex­pres­sive power of great ab­strac­tion cou­pled with all the spon­tane­ity of na­ture”.

* DO YOU THINK DESERTS ARE DIS­AP­PEAR­ING FROM THE EARTH?

I be­lieve that the deserts we know are still present and not dis­ap­pear­ing. They are present and will al­ways be present. Un­less you are in­clud­ing the Ar­tic Cir­cles as deserts, which they are; in this case, they are dis­ap­pear­ing. But the sand deserts, to my knowl­edge, are not.

How­ever, I be­lieve, sadly, that we are cre­at­ing new and more des­o­late deserts. These deserts are due to the lead­ers of the world ig­nor­ing Global Warm­ing, to large cor­po­ra­tions ig­nor­ing their re­spon­si­bil­ity in sav­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and due to, in ev­ery coun­try that has real deserts, the young men and women who prac­tice ‘Dune Bash­ing’ by go­ing out on mo­tor­cy­cles and cars and rav­aging the dunes by us­ing them as skate­board­ers use skate parks - the dif­fer­ence be­ing that the skate parks are made for that pur­pose. The dunes are not.

* YOU HAVE HINTED AT MAN MADE STRUC­TURES MOV­ING INTO DESERTS. TO YOU, IS THIS A NEG­A­TIVE OR POS­I­TIVE THING?

Man mov­ing into the desert is both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. It de­pends on how it is done. If man moves into the desert with­out re­spect­ing the desert, with­out be­ing con­scious that it is also an in­te­gral part of the over­all en­vi­ron­ment by try­ing to dom­i­nate it, then it is neg­a­tive.

How­ever, some­times, it can be pos­i­tive. If a coun­try cre­ates a new city with a new in­dus­try that gives work to scores of peo­ple and also re­spects the deserts around it, then it is pos­i­tive. Look at the in­cred­i­ble de­vel­op­ments of Abu Dhabi, Dubai in the UAE, of Argh-eJa­did in Iran or, years ear­lier, of Las Ve­gas in the USA, to men­tion only a few.

How­ever, man of­ten tries to im­pose him­self on the desert and the desert con­quers back its own ter­ri­tory. Of­ten man does not un­der­stand the true na­ture of deserts and ag­gres­sively tries to im­pose his will on it. It will not work.

* WHAT IM­PRESSES YOU MOST ABOUT DESERTS?

Si­lence, vast­ness, the im­mense pas­sage OF TIME, MAN’S INSIGNIiCANCE IN RE­LA­TION TO the size, scope, time of deserts; the ‘life’ in them; the pas­sage of his­tory in them; their lEXIBILITY, THEIR STRENGTH, THEIR SEN­SU­AL­ITY, THEIR DAN­GER AND HOW INSIGNIiCANT WE ARE, in a tem­po­ral con­text, to them.

* ISN’T BRING­ING AN EX­HI­BI­TION ON DESERTS TO THE UAE AND THE GULF RATHER LIKE BRING­ING COALS TO NEW­CAS­TLE?

That is up to the viewer to de­cide. But I don’t be­lieve it is so. Not only are the deserts dif­fer­ent in so far as the sand is dif­fer­ent (some is white and light and pure oth­ers is dark and rugged, other still is rougher still, other is cold rather than hot, etc) but the to­pog­ra­phy and geog­ra­phy and tem­per­a­ture are all dif­fer­ent.

What I am do­ing is cre­at­ing authen­tic and unique im­ages that are set in dif­fer­ent deserts in the world. Fi­nally, you might want to spend a mo­ment on the unique fac­tor here, made pos­si­ble by the fact that I am a cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Repub­lic of Italy through the sup­port of the Em­bassy of the Repub­lic of Italy in Abu Dhabi and the Con­sulate of the Repub­lic of Italy to United Arab Emi­rates, that the deserts of coun­tries from many re­gions are all ex­hib­ited here, be­cause art is not po­lit­i­cal rather a bridge be­tween the peo­ple and cul­tures of dif­fer­ent na­tions and helps, in its own small and par­al­lel man­ner, to at­tempt to pro­mote tol­er­ance and un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance.

* WHAT MES­SAGE WOULD YOU LIKE THE VIEWER TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE EX­HI­BI­TION?

In an ideal world, I would like view­ers to choose an im­age and buy it and take it away with them­selves, so they can live with it be­cause it brings some­thing to their lives.

But if they are view­ing it as though it were in a mu­seum, then I would be happy if THEIR SOULS WERE SOME­HOW iLLED A BIT BY MY work; if their eyes were richer be­cause of it, if their hearts were more at peace and if they felt that they had some type of ex­pe­ri­ence which made them, or their day, a lit­tle bet­ter.

Below: The Empty Quar­ter gallery, in­te­rior view. Dasht-e Lut desert.

Chara Sands desert.

The Empty Quar­ter gallery.

John R Pep­per

Scene from Dasht-e Lut desert.

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