Most people are indifferent to deserts. Deserts are "away". They are "elsewhere". There is nothing to see there except sand and stone.
John Pepper's photographs rediscover deserts, and while going with him on this adventure, you may discover a thing or two about yourself. His photographs, paradoxically, don’t take you to the actual places where they are shot. They take you elsewhere, to a new place for your mind and imagination to inhabit.
Because as you stand before them Pepper’s photographs slowly transform what you believe you are seeing into a totally different thing. And not just one.
The conflict of light and shadow, of black and white, the harmony of grey shades, the simplicity of forms and complexity of details, often turn them into powerful metaphors of the human condition—and yet they do so without a trace of human presence.
Matisse once said his art mission was to provide a mental chair for a working man. Some of Pepper’s photographs, instead of entertaining the viewer, offer a chance to get teleported into these mystical places, to roam the rocky plains, to meditate, to bury in there the stress and burnout of urban life in order to come back with new ideas, newly found calm, or just a fresh outlook on life. These photographs intend to be seductive. Fields of rhyming shades and the rhythm of lines appear so enticing that one may wonder if the images were created by an artist, rather than captured by a camera. It is at this juncture that I started seeing how the camera in Pepper’s hands becomes a brush or chisel with which he blurs the lines between capturing something already made, and creating something which has never existed.
Abstract Expressionists struggled over the idea that their paintings could only be good if they looked “spontaneous”, not meticulously thought-out, while being clearly emotionally expressive. Pepper’s hands create abstractions that have all the expressive power of great abstraction coupled with all the spontaneity of nature. The eye cannot tire of exploring these jagged, cracked, and stained surfaces. The mind cannot get enough of the seemingly random results of millennia of the elements fighting each other.
And then there are the dunes—and how by their very nature they border on the abstract and representational. For this viewer, the best way to describe the process of looking at them is to be “swimming with one’s eyes”. For indeed the eye swims through the desert swooshing along the curves of their ridges, chopping through the ripples, diving inside them; and the mind emerges from each such encounter refreshed and excited.
London, November, 2020