Between 1979 and 1984, Sergio Purtell crisscrossed Europe, camera in hand, from Norway to Greece, hopping from one night-train to the next. After “the most ritual” New York-London leg of the trip, the young photographer journeyed up and down the old continent, “the cradle of Western art,” which gave him a real “sense of belonging.” This feeling also originated in the memories of his life in Santiago: an American of Chilean origin, he found a sense of home in every capital, through their customs, buildings, or attitudes.
Edited by the British publisher STANLEY/BARKER, Love’s Labour revives Sergio Purtell’s photographic project from nearly forty years ago. Throughout the book, his photographs seem unmarked by time or old-fashioned naïveté. Purtell plunges us into the delights and dreams of an endless European summer, where the burden of history is remarkably balanced by the weightless freedom of bodies.
A journey to the ends of Europe
Love’s Labour retraces an imaginary cartography of the photographer’s journey from England to Spain through France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany. Although Purtell confesses that, “at the time,” he had no “broad conceptual plan,” the series of photographs nevertheless conveys a perfectly lucid coherence. Purtell manages to capture a feeling of Europe, a way of being and enjoying the summer period. Seeking to immortalize “the little things in life,” the photographer aimed his practice at the attitudes of those living it, provided that they reflected a little of this historical Europe that makes him “feel at home.”
An architectural motif, the title of a book (Der Steppenwolf), or an advertising insert are the only hints anchoring Love’s Labour’s photographs in the possible geography of the old continent. While the setting changes, the attitudes remain the same again and again: naked bodies stretch out listlessly in the town green or at the edge of a swimming pool; people sit absorbed in their thoughts and caressed by sunlight at the edge of a fountain or on a public bench. These images, however, do not exude a lack of care; rather, the pleasures of summer are associated with pensive, sometimes weary faces. Purtell’s Europeans are presented, and seem to exist, in the image of their roots: they resist the passage of time just like the statues they erected, with a sense of pride and gravitas.
Hours in the sun
In his flawless black-and-white images, Purtell attests to a mannerism that is curiously authentic, at a time when people “would not immediately strike a pose or put their best face forward.” His photographs reveal a strong sense of cinema, an innate feel for the frame reminiscent of Alain Resnais or Robert Bresson, whose Pickpocket is among Purtell’s ready references. Sitting on the grass, a glass of red wine in hand, a couple look past each other, carried away by their own thoughts. In the center of a park, they face a conquering statue, a sort of Hercules, leaving room in the background for a thinker plunged in self-reflection. For Sergio Purtell, “the images must have an intrinsic structure, which gives them a metaphorical life.”
Urban siestas, lovers’ complicity, or children playing in water are authentic and timeless moments into which Purtell breathes new life. One could spend hours observing or imitating the city sleeper sprawled in front of the Eiffel Tower, the readers in their deckchairs, or the stargazers sitting on café terraces at night. There is something noble and decadent about this European summer, like a precious object left too long in the sun.
By Anne Laurens
Sergio Purtell, Love’s Labour
STANLEY/BARKER, July 2020
112 pp, £40