Ghost towns like Chernobyl and Pripyat, New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the dusty streets of L’Havana, empty apartments in the Bronx and the Palace of Versailles during its restoration. His pictures are hardly ever of people, nearly always of places. And these places are knocked-down, bleak and desolate; they are open-air sites, rooms buried in the dust with old furniture and scraped walls. Robert Polidori, like an anthropologist, captures and tells the human presence by photographing zones of exclusion and what was left behind in these dead zones. We have met with Polidori at the café of Galleria Carla Sozzani in Milan, where a few days earlier he had unveiled his “Versailles” exhibition.
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The Canadian photographer Robert Polidori, a staffer for The New Yorker, has had the Palace of Versailles within sight of the prying eye of his lens for nearly 25 years.
He pokes and prods into every corner of the 18th-century building, taking entire series of often quite glamorous, large-format photographs, registering the pageantry, and then the underside – or perhaps the back side – of the pageantry. What interests him about the place is how it has been mummified by the heritage tourist industry.
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After Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori went to New Orleans, where he lived years ago, to shoot photographs of the devastation for The New Yorker. He stayed longer than first planned, then went back again and again, for weeks, taking hundreds of pictures with a large-format camera that produced wide, superbly detailed color photographs. The camera was awkward to manipulate through the wreckage and in the heat, without electricity and lights. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff L. Rosenheim, a photography curator, has selected a couple dozen of these big panoramas and interiors to make a pocket-size lament for a woebegone city.
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Robert Polidori is one of the world's most acclaimed photographers of human habitats and environments. His career began in the mid 1980s when he won permission to document the restoration of the Château de Versailles, beginning a love affair with the palace that has continued to this day. He has since documented sites across the world and is currently a staff photographer for The New Yorker. He was commissioned by the magazine to photograph New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, and many of these images were subsequently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Robert Polidori's first love was avant-garde film. He learnt much while working as assistant to Jonas Mekas at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, and that experience vitally shaped his approach to photography. He rejects Cartier-Bresson's notion of the "decisive moment" – the perfect instant in which to capture a truth. Instead he prefers the qualities of beauty, stillness and contemplation that come from working with a large format camera and employing slow shutter speeds. He thinks of rooms as metaphors and vessels for memory - places marked by the signatures of lives past and present. Sometimes those signatures are private: One of his first projects involved taking pictures of apartments in New York's Lower East Side, shortly after their tenants had died. Sometimes they are social, historical, even ecological: He has captured the dusty grandeur of Castro's Havana (Havana, Steidl, 2001), the legacy of war in Beirut, and the devastation both inside the Chernobyl nuclear plant and in the nearby town of Pripyet (Zones of Exclusion, Steidl, 2003).
Robert Polidori lives and works in New York. He won the World Press Award in 1998, and he has twice won the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography (1999 and 2000). He has published eleven photo books, most recently After The Flood (Steidl, 2006), and a three-volume compilation of his pictures of Versailles, Robert Polidori: Parcours Museologique Revisite (Steidl, 2009). His major solo exhibitions include a mid-career retrospective at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, and his work is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.