Discreetly located in a simple rectangular recess, at the heart of the Barbican’s 2006 survey of European Photography, a series of Anders Petersen’s Café Lehmitz photographs came close to resembling genuine photographic treasure.
Made over three years in the late 1960s, the photographs effortlessly affirmed their place in a somewhat contentious show of subjective documentary work. More usefully, perhaps, they provided a key into a lineage of self-reflective practice that would follow, both in Europe and America. Graham Smith’s all too rarely seen South Bank photographs, for example, would later echo the sense of veracity and participation found in Petersen’s work – and it’s impossible to think of these pictures without noting that those who populate Nan Goldin’s sprawling and formative early colour work convey similar intimacies. The expansive Ballad of Sexual Dependency would begin to gather momentum as Petersen’s influential Café Lehmitz was finally published in Europe in 1978.
Petersen’s most recent work, French Kiss, gathers photographs made on extended recent trips to the Saint-Etienne and Gap regions of south-eastern France, and once again confirms his thought that throughout his work he has been making, and trying to re-make, the same photograph. But where once the Café Lehmitz became a surrogate world, cushioning and constraining its dwellers, French Kiss exposes a wider, more harshly lit space, without the benefit of such tobacco-stained boundaries. It’s a book where Mediterranean skies are burnt to black, to meet dark interiors, and where incidental couplings seem to fan the final embers of some dwindling, lurid carnival.
French Kiss joins a very different and experimental world from that which he first embraced in Café Lehmitz. It is a world after The Banquet by Araki, in which photographs of food were gathered in memory of his wife, as a brave and ambitious dedication. In the Petersen book, a plate of glistening oysters becomes an abrupt and luscious punctuation, generating notions of procreation and sustenance, particularly when placed between a close embrace and a solemn, unclothed portrait.
As Christian Caujolle notes in the book’s only extended text, there is a sense of skin upon skin, of lives in shadow, shaded from an austere and grain-blistered landscape. This shade finds partners at rest, sleeping like evacuees exhausted from the strain of an emotional war. Elsewhere, sitters present themselves to us, in alert and knowing moments that emerge from dull rooms as partially clothed moments of sanctuary, sexuality and forthright self- proclamation.
Petersen’s work has often been underwritten as melancholy. It is, we hear, the work of a poet who draws upon a universal sadness in our name. Perhaps this is something felt by those outside the pictures, by those (as John Berger once usefully said) afforded “a compassionate leave” from what they witness. Instead, French Kiss perhaps draws us closer to Petersen himself, who has refined a working process over a course of more than 20 previous books.
When Petersen’s work succeeds, it does so because the knowing skills of photography become secondary and effortless, leaving only intimacies, revelations and possibilities. The formal tactics that dominate French Kiss have been long refined. Yet, perhaps for that very reason the book rarely feels as untethered as the Lehmitz work still feels when happened upon, a substantial series defined, not by the photographer, but by risk, openness and the energy of his subjects, by the depth and relationships, and by the uncertain prospect of reaching a steady tomorrow.