Robert Polidori, Real Estate Photographer

Robert Polidori's "The Model School, Havana" (1997)

In Robert Polidori's photograph "L'Attique Chimay, Château de Versailles," light streams in through a skylight flooding a large architectural interior that is apparently undergoing restoration. Bright sunlight illuminates a single enormous painting: the unfinished "Oath of the Jeu de Paume" by the great eighteenth-century French classicist Jacques-Louis David. This well-known work is made up almost entirely of a highly detailed base drawing of carefully rendered nudes. As with these lines underlying David's composition, Polidori builds his own image around the precise, even classical, geometric shapes of the sawhorses and workman's ladder that punctuate the space of the room and roughly frame the large painting.

"L'Attique Chimay" is one of 14 large-format color prints by Polidori on display at the Weinstein Gallery. Polidori, an architectural photographer who worked from 1983 to 1988 recording the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, has also included shots from Beirut and Havana in an exhibit that displays a balance between crisp realism and bold compositional abstraction. Born in Montreal and splitting his time between New York and Paris, Polidori says that he "thinks in American, but makes pictures in French." His debt to the French tradition--with its love of subtly modulated tones and balanced compositions--is most clearly visible in the grouping of four Versailles pictures, which represent his earliest work on view in the show.

The 47-year-old photographer, who came to Minneapolis for the opening of his show (and Midwest debut) talks excitedly about his work, especially about the places he's visited and the people he's met. Admitting that he has done his share of "glamour archeology," shooting beautiful photographs of palaces and ancient ruins, Polidori ushers me away from the Versailles pictures and toward images of the bombed-out headquarters of Samir Geagea, the commander of Christian forces in Lebanon during the late 1980s.

Standing before "Pink Doorway, Samir Geagea Headquarters," Polidori insists that a photographer must be a "witness of this time." For Polidori this means working in locations that are still active or in use. Polidori recalls a confrontation he had with a soldier who surprised him in 1994 while he was shooting photographs inside this building, which was still patrolled by the Lebanese military. "One of the Hezbollah, or secret police, spotted me from a hundred yards away while I was inside the building. He didn't even come in through the door or use the stairs. He climbed up a tree and came in through the window. It surprised the hell out of me."

That Polidori creates such formally beautiful work by standing atop modern ruins is an irony that is not lost on the artist. "It's probably not politically correct to say this," he starts, "but Beirut residents remembering the whole of the war, they tell you that there is an eerie beauty about this sort of violence, and they will tell you also that they all found the beginning of the war quite exciting. The middle and the end--well, that was not so fun...The early letting out of anger, it's exciting, and there is an eerie beauty in it." The term eerie beauty aptly describes a haunting photographlike "Pink Doorway," where the tranquillity of the visual composition oddly enhances the memory of the clamoring conflict that devastated the building shown in the picture.

Fascinated by the impact of weather and time on the structure and function of buildings, Polidori traveled to Havana in 1997, where he focused his lens on the fading grandeur of the edifices constructed during the 1920s and '30s by the Cuban haute bourgeoisie. According to Polidori, in Havana most of the damage to the buildings he photographed was caused by water. This can be seen in "The Model School, Havana," where slim, raw wooden beams brace the weakened roof of a lovely interior, delicately illuminated by colored light flowing in through stained glass windows. In one of the most striking images on view, fragments of plaster and shards of wood float in the water that has collected on the floor of the long-abandoned, once-splendid theater featured in "Abandoned Theater, Havana Vieja #1."

These neglected rooms, like the battered Lebanese fortress, exist in marked contrast to the pampered interiors of the Palace of Versailles. In this difference, Polidori, who is a keen observer of the life of buildings, has documented an interesting phenomenon--a kind of architectural triage. Some afflicted structures, like some ailing people, are nursed back to health, while other specimens--however grand--are left to die.


Robert Polidori's photographs are on display at the Weinstein Gallery through April 30; (612) 822-1722.

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