IGOR STERPIN, 2020
Gaze over the little things
Poderá alguma vez a mente compreender o enorme?
“Can the mind ever understand the vast?”
— Cristina Campo
The gaze of Igor Sterpin, a Belgian of Portuguese and Russian origin who has lived in Portugal for years, always focuses on the small things. A passing body, fleetingly, down a narrow street, across a translucent glass in the rain, soon metamorphosed, almost indistinct, silhouette; the reflection of the flickering light of the lamps on a pavement of rain-wet granite at night; an aspect of the river when, turbulent, it threatens the overhanging banks; the figures of those departing to any destination on a night bus; a group of children from the popular neighbourhoods playing in the streets, under the sun, while, on the abrupt screen that cuts across a granite wall in the background, the shadows draw a lively cinema of figures, such are some of the favourite focuses of this look, tender look, searching, under the traces of the immense human softness through which it moves, what would be the lost, mismatched but credible traces of what would be an immanent kindness to the world.
Or, through it, the visible manifestation of a sense of belonging, which is not in any way compromised with race or culture, social status or any other form of suspicion, but before it opens through the small, from the brief, from within, to a kind of more general light, to the revealed perception of a whole, whose sharing is endless and without beginning, and whose motive would be in the world from its inception, as a sign of the old universal commandment.
In this sense, we could say that Sterpin’s gaze belongs, in the index of this always impossible history of photography, to an ancient order which is the humanist tradition, which has always occupied it, or which it has always occupied, or which will even have born with it. An order to which Brassai belonged, more than Cartier-Bresson, who, more than men, was occupied and detained in choreographies and geometries that light draws. Which was expressed in almost naive, comical images of Lartigue, or Willy Ronnis, more than those of Robert Capa, where the human already declines, kneeling before the tragedy, the insensible manifestation of the monstrous, whether war or the one of nature.
Such a look stems from the conviction that there is somewhere what Edward Steichen once called the family of man, and that is why Igor does not want, nor ever seeks to, contemplate the enormous, the excessive, or the gigantic. This look is therefore close to those intimate areas where one suspects, almost forgotten, the detail, where the light converges on a fruit that marries its shadow, or a small gesture is sketched, crediting its caster of a commitment to your neighbour, but never to the distant.
It may be a woman who leans by a window, looking for the light that helps her draw a whimsical embroidery on the all-white linen of a towel; or simply a dog, snuggling up to the narrow portal of the house to which it belongs, faithfully sniffs the breeze in the afternoon air that rises up the street. Or it may be a shadow that repeats, in the slab of granite, the sophisticated shadow of a simple iron bar as the sun pushes it to the ground. It may be children’s astonishment at the possibilities of play in a world seemingly made for adults or the forgotten waiting for a body tied to the grave memories of its age; a donkey-drawn car driving down a road leading into the past, or the drawings the wind left only sketched on the soft sand. But what is important to see, and then to recognize, is that something unites them to all these image powers, as they gradually construct their distinctive look. And that, after all, it is the form of this look which ultimately reigns over a world whose revelation it never ceases to seek, as if to confirm it in an order of meaning. A look that, afterwards, and finding it again figured in images that can be shared, finally affirms it as an existing, possible, particular world, because it is cut out of the general, significant of the look that found it, to this world that thus shows and that reveals to everyone as if for the first time.
Certainly, photography is of all the arts, the one that took the idea of the democratization of the look further. The paradoxicality of this democratization is that photography allowed us to affirm the particularity of a look at the general of a world, constituting itself as a right of decision that asserts itself as a distinction from the others. The whole view is built on what are the indexes of sovereignty. A look is always an affirmation of something, whether simple or complex. And it misjudges, therefore, anyone who thinks that, because the tone of a given look is modest, it becomes, therefore submissive. For even in submission the particular form of sovereignty is always exercised if it seeks agreement on what one puts in and holds, and thus confirm what dictated it as the first form of that look. The same way a tyrant’s gaze can be clouded with pity if it happens at all what moves him, which secretly makes him oblivious to his conviction in command.
For all these reasons, I say, the images of Igor Sterpin, rather than witnessing the world as it is, or seems to be, that would be comfortable in the field of certain photojournalism, seek rather to surprise, as a confirmed, determined cut which in the world they reveal forgets the whole to draw rather an intuited form of it. The intuited, only suspected form of another world, also smaller, more sensitive, more apprehensible as a whole, precisely because it is cut from the whole of which it is part, can be told, or shown in the eyes of a child. Just as you can tell a family story, but not the story of all the families we come across.
A world that you do not want it to be too big or seen as an immense whole, nor want it to be touched by the violence of certain truths that happen in it, but rather seek to justify, or reflect, the form of a feeling that the gaze then transports to it, thus making it visible to others.
And so these forms of the gaze capture from him, in a sensitive, complicit economy and in its animated mode of conviction, certain signs of space and time, memory and matter itself. His space is thus always approximate to a framework that excludes the immense to focus on the next, on a scale that the steps can effortlessly traverse. And his time is never that of something that could be about to happen, as you see in Atget’s images, as before a time of what has already happened, of what has already become rest and quiet, serenity, calmness, or simply waiting for what is known. Neither is his story of any convulsion, such as that of volcanoes or deserts, as seen in certain photographs of Irving Penn, nor is his memory of an age of the earth, or of time of a war, as before of a look that once peered, many times, that same stillness and wanted to rest in it. Like in one of them, a boat lies, abandoned, in the soft white light of beach sand.
Few things witness human psychology like photography. Photography tells, almost shamelessly, how the person who executed it thinks and feels and intuits in the depths of himself. Even if I did not know him, I would say that Sterpin’s photograph reveals to us a sensitive and melancholy man. A man of traditions who, every day, helps the world to continue on its most solid gutters. Those who, so often unnoticed, build the glory of this anonymous humanity to which we all want to belong. It is not a look that surprises the heroic, the excessive, the unexpected or the eccentric. It does not seek the exceptional, the great, or wants to impress those who accompany him with feelings of strangeness, amazement, much less fear. This look is rather that of a man who is known to belong to a world much larger than himself, and therefore does not want to see him as a ferocious exaltation that would appear to him as inconvenient and superfluous. Igor Sterpin’s gaze on the world around him confirms this world at its best. In being as it is, every day, serenely equal to itself as the rhythms of the seasons, thus continuing forever.
Therefore, do not look for a trace of the disturbance. Looking at the world as it is, and figure, this look gains melancholy precisely from the fact that it always recognizes an immanence with which it is moved and confirmed, much like when a child gazes the mother and it is touched with a serenity that does not need a great exclamation or loud celebrations to communicate in it the bond that binds them tight.
Igor Sterpin’s gaze prefers to dwell on small things precisely because he suspects of essential inhumanity, which he hates, and that he wants to be distant from. And so he observes, with the lingering attention for entomology or botany, how the particular is exercised in the nearest, rightly and accurately drawing upon the chaos of the general. The way the curtain unfolds in the afternoon wind, how the dog looks, how the hand rests on one knee or the child laughs distractedly at everything it sees. The way the serene water near the riverbanks absorbs from it, or the way the hand extends over the eyes protecting them from the excessive light that does not let them see. This gaze, too, is in some way intended to preserve itself from an excessive light that could blind it, or to prevent it from meeting the images of a world thought to be generous and welcoming.
This particular gaze is, I believe, the affirmation of essential humanity that preserves itself in it, but which preservation also helps us to see the world in another way. In a time and space increasingly flooded daily by the most frightening omens, this look, which is suspicious of excess, and which knows that the world itself, before humans came to it, was serene, constantly seeking what it is a sense of an essential reunion with this first light. And finding it, even in brief reflexes, give us a quiet image.
As we look at the image, our eyes also come, dipping deep as they show us, to understand the essential dimension of this serenity that makes us eager to become inhabitants, not of tragedy but greater and perhaps more essential wholeness.
For all this, the images of Igor Sterpin lead, however, without wanting to be pedagogical, or propagandistic of anything, to a path that leads to a wise intuition. Maybe even an ethic. That we can live in the world as a part of it, belonging to it entirely, without ever wanting to be excluded from it.
In this sense, his photography fulfils what is, because it is democratic, one of the greatest tasks of photographic art: to reconcile us with life and others, to draw our attention to the particular, while cutting in it, an index of the general just as in each human being, we can, under the dimension of the loving gaze, rediscover all humanity. Our humanity.
Bernardo Pinto de Almeida
JANUARY 18th - MARCH 7th 2020
Igor Sterpin is a photographer, composer, and director. He spent his childhood in Tunisia, Brazil, and the Belgian Congo, but it was in Belgium that he spent most of his life where he was born. In 2001 he decided to move to Portugal and has been living in Porto ever since. His professional career has also been diversified, including documentaries and television programs, soundtrack composition and film, fashion and show photography. Alongside this, there has been more subterranean authorial work, devoted to both biographical issues and scenarios, environments and people.
He has worked as a director at the television channels RTBF, ZDF, ARD, RTP, and SIC, as well as several art institutions, including the Serralves Foundation, the Nadir Afonso Museum, and the Fernando Santos Gallery. As a photographer, he worked with L’Histoire de La Mode au Cinquantenaire, Bonzaï Records and did the scene photography for Jacques Borzykowski and Christian Van Cutsem. As a composer, he did the composition of soundtracks for various documentaries, radio soap operas and the movie Thomas Est Amoureux of Paul Renders.
©️ Elena Borghese