Najjar captures order in urban chaos

BEIRUT: 39-year-old Lebanese photographer Serge Najjar arrived at his first solo exhibition via an unusual route. Trained in jurisprudence, Najjar works full time as a lawyer.

He took up photography a year and a half ago, snatching time between meetings or on his way to and from work to shoot his surroundings on his iPhone. Najjar began posting his photographs on Instagram, the online photo-sharing website.

Najjar’s photographs proved popular with Instagram users, and after just a few weeks he had 13,000 followers. He won the Pictet photography prize in January – without ever having shown his work in a physical gallery space.

Currently Najjar is exhibiting prints of his work for the first time, at Espace Kettaneh Kunigk in Clemenceau. His photographs are mostly black-and-white and are connected by a common theme – finding symmetry in urban constructs and transforming chaotic cityscapes into ordered patterns.

Almost every image is square – perhaps a hangover from Instagram, which requires photographs to be submitted in a traditional Polaroid format.

The photographer includes a human figure in most of his photographs, usually at the center of his pattern, reminding the viewer that the urban environment is designed around and for human beings. While some shots are posed, such as several Beirut photos featuring his wife, many are the result of patience or perhaps luck – a figure captured in exactly the right place at the right time.

A number of his photographs feature bridges, steps or glass tunnels, the regularity of the architecture lending itself to symmetrical imagery. With a keen eye for light and shadow, Najjar is able to spot patterns most people would walk by without even noticing. In his photographs they become impossible to miss – beautiful, almost abstract geometric studies.

His photographs of Lebanon are contrasted with a series taken in European capitals, his unusual perspective at once uniting the architecture and highlighting its differences.

The work has been beautifully curated by gallery owner Naila Kunigk, in conjunction with the artist, so that the layout of the work mirrors the symmetry in the photographs themselves. The gallery has been divided into two equal parts: one side filled with images of Beirut, the other images taken in Europe.

The first three photographs on each side are in color, and are all close-ups of apartment blocks, three taken abroad, three in Beirut.

“Berlin Colors” shows a regimented series of stippled grey-and-white stone balconies, which create thick horizontal bands across the square frame. Behind them the walls of each apartment are painted an eye-catching series of rich, earthy colors – deep reds, terra-cottas, browns and creamy yellows. Each wall is painted two colors, delineating the flats which share the balcony. This creates a line down the center of the shot, dividing it into two perfect halves.

On the opposite wall is Najjar’s Lebanese equivalent, “Urban Theater,” a shot of a distinctive modernist apartment building in Verdun, where each balcony is framed by a round opening in the building’s edifice, reminiscent of portholes in the side of a ship.

Though the building itself is symmetrical in design, the photograph lacks the geometric simplicity of its German counterpart, due to the colorful striped tarpaulins hung by residents. These tattered, mismatched swathes of cloth render the shot messier, but ultimately more charming.

A similar symmetry between the two series is exemplified in “Splash” and “A World Below,” the first taken in Europe, the second in Beirut.

“Splash” is a spectacular photograph, a complex black-and-white shot of workers cleaning the pavements outside a modern glass building. To the right of the shot are a staircase and the side of a distinctive stone building, with deep-set square windows like caves in a cliff face.

This view is reflected in the puddle of water on the ground and again in the glass face of the building to the left of the shot, so that the staircase and figures each appear four times – reflections of reflections. The effect is dizzying and slightly surreal, something like an M.C. Escher drawing.

“A World Below” also plays with the reflective capacity of water, capturing a street cleaner in Beirut, dressed in his Sukleen coveralls, sweeping the pavement beside a plush infinity pool in Downtown.

The beautifully restored buildings behind him are inverted seamlessly in the pool, as is a large tree with a gnarled trunk that stands beside the sweeper. The oval stones scattered across the bottom of the pool appear through the reflection, seemingly superimposed, as though two shots have been overlaid.

“Lines, Within” may be Najjar’s first exhibition, but it is the most interesting collection of photographs to grace the walls of a Beirut gallery for some time, thanks both to its content and its elegant presentation.

Serge Najjar’s first solo exhibition “Lines, Within” is up at Espace Kettaneh Kunigk in Clemenceau until Oct. 20. For more information please call 01-738-706.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 04, 2012, on page 16.




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