New York

Richard Pare

Sander Gallery

The production of Richard Pare, the British-born photographer, is multiple. Not only a taker of pictures, he is also their collector and commentator; Pare is a curator of photography for the Seagram Collection and for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the author of two important books on the field—The Courthouse, A Photographic Document (1978), and Photography and Architecture. (1839–1939) (1982). Hence when, as in his recent exhibition, Pare approaches the topic of Egypt, focusing on its deserts, monuments, lush oases, and capital city, Cairo, it is with neither an untutored eye nor a neutral mind. For he cannot approach the task of encompassing Egypt, its architecture and landscape, unthoughtful of the 19th-century precedents established by Maxime DuCamp and Francis Frith.

In this remarkable series of color photographs, I think Pare is commenting on the possibility of a 20th-century response to Eastern exoticism, taking into account the roles played by culture and by current photographic debate. On one hand he vies with these pioneers of photographic history, aiming to shape parallels to their documentary practice. Yet his impulse is also informed by awareness of his historical moment—of the impossibility of repeating their activity, impelled as it was by Western colonial expansion—and by an awareness of the inaccuracy of their assumption of neutral photographic “truth.” But on the other hand, Pare will not idealize his subject, will not falsely intensify the Orient’s “otherness.” His historical initiative can be neither that of the straight and factual recorder nor of the romantic subjectivist. What appears in his work is a paradoxical redefinition of materialist production under subjective principles, an amalgam of actuality and response.

Pare’s photographs triumph through editing, first as it is undertaken in the photographer’s eye through the choice of detail and vantage, then as it is completed by the activity of discrimination. He juxtaposes the awesome, crumbling past of Egypt with its burgeoning present, a present that pushes it, against our conception of the Orient, into the compass of Western development. Pare catches these points of coincidence: the “modern” city, with its street posters and billboard ads, fronts on ruins—ruins that often appear (as in the magnificent Citadel and Bab Zuweila from the Mosque of El Azhar, 1983) like stage sets. However, one senses that these images are only a few among thousands; they appear to be edited carefully according to the chance configurations of street posters and buildings, or, in the views over ruins shot from an elevated window, according to their sense of immensity vanishing into the distant view. Throughout, Pare demonstrates the incredible range of approaches to his subject that can be elicited through a very straightforward approach; his skillful framing works to accentuate a subject’s proportions or to play up its unexpected characteristics.

In Western Desert, Egypt, 1983, for example—one in a series of images of vast, pallid dunes—Pare frames so that while the “subject” is parched, rocky sand, two-thirds of the picture are cloudy. Some mosque interiors are shot so that the sunlight effects mini-conflagrations, while the pale-hued light in others lends sharp edges to its environment, setting the architecture off against its context. In one series of pictures Pare seemingly plays with current clichés, as in the tropical gardens that would look like backyards in Coral Gables were it not for the odd indigenous plants and trees that inhabit the photographs’ edges. Yet elsewhere, Pare maximizes the exoticism of the Orient: in scenes of vernacular houses, he focuses on the structures of doors and windows, on native twig constructions, wall paintings, baskets, and up-ended pots and pans. And on colors—the acrid yellows, cerulean blues, and sharp, unnatural greens that are known nowhere in the West. Through a frank and unflattering manner, the heritage of the discourse of this century, Pare evokes a striking range of response.

Kate Linker