LA DOLCE VITA

beachJohnnie Shand Kydd started his photography career by taking documentary pictures of his friends, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor Wood. Shot before these Young British Artists became famous, his observational black-and-white portraits went on to make his name. Forty-two of his works are now owned by London’s National Portrait Gallery, testament to his skill.

Over the past decade Shand Kydd’s cinematographic eye has roved further afield. A three-month visit to Naples in 2000 was the start of a long-term project to photograph the “siren city”, which cast a powerful spell over him. Fifty of the pictures that resulted have just gone on show at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.

Founded in the 8th century BC as a Greek colony named after the siren Parthenope, Naples is a place of contradictionsgrimy backstreets join stylish boulevards, crumbling buildings conceal elegant ballrooms. As famous for its pizza, pasta and rich cultural heritage as it is for the camorra, the secretive, mafia-like crime clan, Naples is a place where paganism sits alongside Catholicism, where darkness of mood and lightness of spirit go hand-in-hand, and where the passion of its residents make for theatre.

Girl on SwingThis is what Shand Kydd captures so brilliantly. Shot with a Rolleiflex, his silver-gelatin prints are reminiscent of Luchino Visconti’s neorealist cinematography. Energetic and stark, they tell the story of a very different world. Shand Kydd's snippets of real life are full of grit and wonder: a plaster saint watches over a girl in a swing; a father, daughter and pet dog are nestled together on a scooter; three boys pose casually at Mappatella beach, their sultry body language reminiscent of the paintings of Caravaggio.

And then there is the glorious shot of a bride rolling on her stockings after paddling with her fiancé in the sea. Clad in lace, her face a picture of concentration, she is being watched by a man in a brocade waistcoat and helped by an older woman in a black swimsuit. This picture handily sums up the humour, tension and assured simplicity of Shand Kydd’s photographs, which bring the streets of Naples to life.

"Siren City: Photographs by Johnnie Shand Kydd is at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London until September 12th

~ HELENA DOUGLAS