Bringing together a hundred portraits, the exhibition “Être présent” (Be present), featured at the Rencontres d’Arles, covers some fifteen years of Pieter Hugo’s work involving a traditional practice that subtly manipulates its codes.
Pieter Hugo has made himself at home in portraiture. While landscapes and still lifes crop up here and there, the common thread in his work over the past fifteen years has undeniably been the human figure. A 2005 World Press Photo award in the portrait category is the unmistakable first official sign of recognition. It is through the prism of the portrait that the photographer examines the world around him. Whether he is photographing his family or strangers, his compatriots in South Africa or elsewhere in the world, he seeks to capture the individual and the collective, the particular and the universal, lending his work a documentary feel.
In its frugality, the scenography of the Arles exhibition resembles Hugo’s aesthetics, which shows people soberly and without artifice, mostly in frontal pose, with no lighting effects or staging. Like the portraits, the exhibition leaves room for emptiness, alternating between clusters of small format photographs and large, loosely spaced prints. Some images are presented in series, while others are isolated, which sets a certain rhythm to the visit. Meanwhile the intimate character of the rooms at the Palais de l’Archevêché, with its many fireplaces, is particularly well suited to this body of work.
In the 45-year-old photographer’s images, props and décors are rare, forcing the viewer’s eye to focus: we are confronted with the other, and thus with our human alter ego. It is no accident that most of the portraits are captioned with the model’s name, and that the photographer favors neutral backgrounds. Nadar had already praised the merits of this approach in the nineteenth century, finding that it offered a way to plumb the depths of the individual soul, to paint psychological portraits. And, indeed, what strikes in Pieter Hugo is the authenticity of the people and of the captured moment.
Aside from his breakout in-situ series, such as The “Hyena & Other Men” (2005–2007) and “Nollywood” (2009), Pieter Hugo has always privileged bust portraits. The series “Looking Aside” (2004–2005), which brings together people who are on the “outside” (albinos, the blind, the visually impaired, or the elderly), places the viewer face to face with those whom one often prefers not to notice. As the photographer explains: “In this first work, I explicitly adopted the position of confrontation, an attitude that is reprised in many of my later works.” Indeed, we are forced to withstand the other’s gaze, sometimes to the point of discomfort.
In another room, “The Journey” turns us into voyeurs. It surprises with its 48 small, framed vignettes grouped in rows of four. Unlike the previous series, “The Journey” is done in black and white, or to be more precise, taken using the camera’s infrared function. Pieter Hugo improvised it during a plane trip where, to kill time, he photographed sleeping passengers. On this occasion, the unusual character of the photos is derived from the models’ relaxed state, their abandonment to sleep. “We have almost no privacy anymore, and we are almost always under surveillance,” comments Pieter Hugo, pointing out a flaw in our contemporary society where the image is omnipresent, especially via video surveillance in urban spaces. Their eyes covered, their mouths open, etc., these “recumbent” figures are also disturbing, seemingly hovering between life and death.
The highlight of the exhibition is undoubtedly the series “Solus” (2019–2021) brought together in one small room. The series stands out by its simplicity. Pieter Hugo has chosen models with “atypical” physical features, proposing the following approach: “Come wearing your own clothes with as few designer labels as possible, in monochrome and ideally in blocks of color. … Simply introduce yourself and look me in the eye.” By choosing to portray his models with no makeup or special effects, Hugo no longer photographs individuals but a generation, as indicated by the series’ subtitle, “On Atypical Youth and Beauty.” Crammed together on the four walls of the room, the prints seem to surround us. And we are in turn encircled by their gaze. The effect is guaranteed. Pieter Hugo is right, “there is beauty in being beheld by the other.”
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l'Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.