John Riddy: Palermo, London

For his fifth solo exhibition at London’s Frith Street Gallery photographer John Riddy’s latest body of work, Palermo, takes a broader look at the less visible parts of the Sicilian capital’s urban landscape. The sites photographed for the series range from abandoned back alleys to deserted shipyards. An empty town square photographed at midday would seem to suggest that the Palermo photographs are the product of a Photoshop session, wherein the artist has carefully removed all of the human subjects usually present in these locations. However, this is not the case, and post-production in Riddy’s work is limited to adjusting the textural elements in his photographs, including light and colour.

The works on display in this exhibition each display a remarkable sense of formal symmetry, this is perhaps most noticeable in the recurring scenes of vacant alleyways, in which Riddy has exploited the constructed environment surrounding the uninhabited laneways to serve as a compositional frame. Palermo (Carmine) (2012), for example, represents a disorganized alleyway, littered with empty cardboard boxes and projecting balconies. In the scene, Riddy’s angle is calculated so that the facades of the buildings align to impose a sense of linear perspective on the scene. In these black and white pictures, the sky above the buildings is reflected in the puddles below illuminating the middle ground and dividing the scene into two equal parts, and the discord created by the scattered objects is resolved through the formal composition of the scene.

The specific use of black and white film for this series may be something worth dwelling on. Whereas Riddy more often shoots in colour – as seen in earlier bodies of work such as Views from Mount Shin-Fuji (2005) – the decision to shoot in black and white for this series lends the works in the exhibition a sense of timelessness. However, a different story emerges when the viewer takes a closer look at the objects of the photographs, and the arrangement of the works themselves. From the first photograph in the exhibition- Palermo (Giardini Inglese) (2013), a photograph of a neoclassical statue in an empty room- to the last- Palermo (Frangiai) (2013), a photograph of a parked car- the objects in the photographs serve as iconic reminders of the inexorable passage of time.

Riddy’s process involves visiting and re-visiting the scenes in his photographs until they conform to the image he has created in his imagination, and this would seem to suggest that the artist therefore occupies the position of the observer waiting for the right opportunity to jump in with his camera lens. On the contrary, the Palermo works are anything but spontaneous. Physical decay of the urban landscape is juxtaposed with a remarkable formal beauty just as, in a more conceptual sense, time and timelessness contend with each other in these works. Through the works, Riddy displays an exquisite eye for composition and an acute attention to the details that enable the photographs to express an alternative side of urban life.

John Riddy: Palermo, until 1 June, Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London W1F 9JJ

Róisín Lacey-McCormac

1. John Riddy, Palermo (Frangiai), 2012, Archival pigment print, 86 x 93 cm, courtesy of Frith Street Gallery and the artist.