John Stewart: Potato • Digital Image • Zhaji, 2009

Light From The Dark Room

3rd December 2010

Jill Glenn reports on John Stewart: A Retrospective, at the Wilmotte Gallery

All photographs courtesy of the artist and Tristan Hoare

Shape, form, texture – the underpinnings of every great work of art – are perhaps nowhere more evident than in photography, and the first UK retrospective of the work of John Stewart reveals his mastery of all these crucial building blocks. As with all art, though, you don’t look first at the structure but at the overall effect. And the overall effect is beguiling.

This selection of around 40 works from Stewart’s extensive portfolio includes never before seen still-life images and recent photographs of rural China, all with the quality of stillness that has pervaded his work for decades. Despite the restricted (even non-existent) colour palette, you couldn’t call these pieces black and white, or mono, though. Far too reductive. There are shades of immeasurable gradation and complexity here. Where there is colour it’s soft and subtle.

I’d have liked titles, instead of technical data (2/14, 2009, for example) but perhaps it’s merely a matter of interpretation. The images emailed to me for illustrating this feature were referenced with little more than basic descriptions – potato, kitchen, broom – but even so, that added to my understanding of the final result, by showing what was in the photographer’s head, what he saw, as he composed and took and developed the image. I missed that direction when I was in the gallery, but maybe that forced me, as someone new to Stewart’s work, to engage more thoroughly with the art and the artistry itself. Some of the subjects in the China series are predictable, but the images are rarely that.

Despite their surface simplicity these pieces are still challenging, still demanding. The grain of wood, exquisitely rendered: do you move in to admire the texture, do you step away to evaluate the whole? Do both. Either way, you lose yourself in the delicacy and density. There is brick and stone that you think you could touch; metal that you swear would be sharp if you reached out your hand to it – and yet the overall effect transcends realism: the whole is more than simply the sum of the parts.

Turban String • Charcoal print • Jodhpur, 1996

Stewart’s approach is to 'make' rather than ‘take’ a photograph, so his work is really not unlike painting. The similarity is enhanced by his partiality for the Fresson Process, a unique charcoal-based photographic printing process invented in the 19th century and mastered by the Fresson family over four generations. Each print requires hours of such painstainking work that the Fresson studio produces only two thousand a year. The result, though, is a uniquely textured photograph with the suppleness of paint. The technique generates an image that is distinctively charged and reminiscent of the ‘pointillist’ technique seen in Impressionist painting, a style very appropriate to the intensity of the work. Stewart has been behind the lens for over 60 years now, and his photographer’s eye formed and informed by a range of rich and unexpected life experiences.

Born in London in 1919, John Stewart grew up in Paris, destined for a career in business (despite an early prediction by his maternal grandfather, made when John was just four, that he would be “the artist amongst us”). After a short-lived stint as a navvy, and a slightly longer one as a trainee stockbroker, the outbreak of the Second World War took him into the Intelligence Corps. Much of his extraordinary life has turned on chance: his wartime journey to the Middle East in 1941, for example, was diverted to Singapore, where he spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war (a time which later led him to work as technical adviser on David Lean’s 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai). Freed in 1945, he went to Manhattan, where he found work first as an academic, and then as an editor; neither suited him, and after his marriage – “to a very young woman”, in his words – he and his wife, Natacha (later a regular contributor to The New Yorker), went to the south of France: a couple of months in the sun, and an opportunity to plan John’s future. There was, again by his own admission, little actual planning… but by the time he returned to New York in the autumn his career path had been settled. He had met and photographed Picasso, Matisse and Braque – astonishing experiences for a man who had bought his Leica camera merely to take on holiday with him, and who had never seen any of his shots developed – and in another of those serendipitous moments had also bumped into eminent French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. The latter was horrified to hear that Stewart planned to take his films to a New York drugstore for developing. If I were you, said Cartier-Bresson, “I should try to spend a few days in Paris… and entrust my films to Pierre Gassman. He will show you how to develop, how to crop, all kinds of things. And tell him I sent you.”

And that, adds Stewart, “is how I found out what I would do in life.” He obeyed Cartier-Bresson’s instructions, arriving back in the USA with a stunning first portfolio that opened the door to a job with Alexei Brodovitch, celebrated Russian art director of Harper's Bazaar. Each week Brodovitch, a notoriously tough taskmaster, would teach photography to some twenty pupils, Stewart amongst them. "You are to engage", Brodovitch told him, "in beauty, fashion, still life, reportage, portraits. Everything."

Black Iris • Charcoal print • Provence, 2005

Having served his time as an everyday, workaday photographer – albeit a skilled and acclaimed one, whose output appeared regularly in Vogue, House & Garden and Elle and is now in museums and art collections around the world – in accordance with Brodovitch’s dictat, Stewart gave up commercial photography in the 1970s, in order to devote himself to his personal work. He rediscovered and began to reinterpret his early fascination with still life, and found a particular fondness for textiles, and for rusty abandoned man-made objects. He also writes, and has published a number of books that reflect his life in and out of photography with wit and style. His latest, Flotsam – Adventures of a Footloose Photographer, is a series of fascinating random anecdotes from his long career: a session with Muhammad Ali; hiring a Cessna to follow a Swiss balloon race; a trip to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand; living Rothschild-style in Château Lafite to photograph the vineyards…

In his 90s now, he lives and works in Paris… still passionate, still full of life: a twinkle in his eye and a camera in his hand.

John Stewart: A Retrospective is at the Wilmotte Gallery at Lichfield Studios, 133 Oxford Gardens, London W10 6NE, until 28 January 2011.
Nearest tube station: Ladbroke Grove or Latimer Road.
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm; closed 18 December – 10 January.
See for more information.

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