Tough, dirty, and noisy, Naples is nevertheless a charming city that never fails to make you laugh. Fifty black and white photographs present an evocative tableaux of southern Italian life in "Siren City: Photographs of Naples by Johnnie Shand Kydd," an exhibition opening on June 30, at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.
Johnnie Shand Kydd (b. 1959) is the stepbrother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. He is best known for his acclaimed portraits of artist friends, especially the Young British Artists (YBAs), including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst before they became famous, which have been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2000, Shand Kydd began a creative odyssey in Naples, a place known as the Siren City for its the legend of the siren Parthenope who, having failed to seduce Ulysses with the beauty of her song, threw herself into the sea and was washed ashore at the spot where Naples rose.
Shand Kydd became seduced by the city's personality first as an observer and then as a participant in Neapolitan life. He explains, “In time I developed a relationship with the city something akin to a drug habit, returning again and again over the next eight years.”
His images intrigue with their ambiguity. As black and white prints, scenes of religious processions and hanging laundry, often set against the backdrop of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, appear to be from an earlier time. They are also direct, each image capturing a genuine Neapolitan moment, such as "Father, daughter and dog, Via dei Tribunali" which the photographer calls “the ultimate Neapolitan cliché, but too good to resist.”
Some works appear theatrically staged due to the heads-up given by the dutiful photographer who asked for each subject's permission. This loss of spontaneity results in prideful, yet humorous and natural poses as evident in his "Cadets outside Café Gambrinus," an image taken near the historic Royal Palace, a spot where Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde retreated after his release from prison.
Sexy, alluring and open, Naples is free from northern European reserve, notes Shand Kydd. Yet a darker side still looms, not only because of corruption and criminality, he says, but also from the city's inherent paganism. Images such as the one of a sexually ambiguous Lotto player and another of a defaced Renaissance sculpture hint at the grittier side of Naples.
Central to Neapolitan life is its seaside setting. A photograph of Mappatella beach depicts the most popular beach on the waterfront of the city, loaded with thousands of people dawdling on a tiny square of sand.
Affectionate and honest, rough and real, these views of Naples are a compelling documentary journey which reveal the photographer's depth of feeling for the so-called Siren City.
The exhibition had its debut at MADRE, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Naples, and runs June 30 to September 12, 2010, at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1.
A collection of his Naples images form the 2009 publication Siren City by Johnnie Shand Kydd, including 70 tri-tone illustrations (Other Criteria) www.othercriteria.com.