One thing’s for sure – photography has become easier, less cumbersome and above all, cheaper. Gone are the days when a decent camera would cost a month’s wages, that you had to wait days to see your photos and had the running costs of buying film and having it developed.
Now everybody carries a camera in their pockets all the time with the resulting instant pictures as good, qualitywise, as a mid-range camera from twenty years ago. But does that make everybody a photographer? Does it give everybody the photographer’s eye? Of course it doesn’t any more than giving somebody a brush and a tube of paint would make them an artist. The camera is a tool, a means not an end.
We won’t go into the merits of digital versus film but suffice to say, twenty years ago there wasn’t the choice and if you go back fifty years there was hardly the chance of taking colour photographs either. It could be argued that in the early to middle decades of the last century photography was in its heyday. Small 35mm cameras were available and the medium was taken seriously as a valid art form. Photographers like Cartier Bresson, Edward Western, Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Robert Doisneau, to mention just a few, taught us to look at a world which before we had merely seen.
Maybe the name of photographer John R. Pepper can’t quite be ranked alongside those above but his contribution to the art of photography over the past half century has been significant.
Born and brought up in Rome to American parents, he was a child of the street. Given his first camera in 1969 while still in short trousers, the twelve-year-old went out and photographed his home city while it was still recovering from the war. It was the age of Neo-Realism, of Rossellini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini et al when the light was clear and bright and the world was proud to be black and white.
Concentrating on the then deprived districts of Trastevere and Garbatella, the young Pepper roamed the mean streets, photographing mainly the poor as they struggled to exist. But life was simpler then, happiness was not dependent on having the latest iPhone or trainers. It was a time when communities consisted of real people not ephemeral FaceBook friends. It was a time when children played on the streets and when it was safe to do so and when the main requirement for a good game was imagination not a joystick controller.
Now over sixty, Pepper is still taking beautiful pictures all over the world. He still uses a 35mm Leica and still only works in black and white. The twenty-three photographs in the current RAW Streetphoto Gallery exhibition are all exquisite and all radiate an innocence and simplicity, both from the subject matter and from the young artist himself. Highly recommended. Michael Hasted 14th September 2019
John R Pepper Rome 1969 continues at the RAW Streetphoto Gallery in Rotterdam until 28th October.