Capturing the Restoration of Versailles

Robert Polidori is considered one of the world’s leading architectural photographers. He was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1951. He moved to the United States when he was ten years old, and then moved to New York in 1969, aged 18. In New York he worked as an assistant to the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, producing a number of avant-garde films in the early 1970s. It was only in 1980, when he received a Masters degree from the State University of New York, Buffalo, that he turned his attention to producing photographs.

He is now widely recognised for his luscious, large-format colour photographs that reflect on the human environment. His photographic career began in the early 1980s whilst he was living in Paris, when he began to document the restoration of the Château de Versailles. This has evolved into a vast thirty-year project. This particular image was taken in 1985, and contrasts the stark wood of the workman’s ladder with the lush red of the drapery behind. Concerning the project, Polidori has said: “What interests me is a notion of social portraiture. With Versailles, I had the opportunity to witness museum restoration, but I realised that what was really going on was historical revisionism. What does it mean to restore something? It means to make something old, new again. It’s a temporal paradox.”

His work celebrates the stillness and contemplation that comes from working with a large format camera and employing slow shutter speeds. Clearly interested in more than just the aesthetics of interior spaces, Polidori thinks of rooms as metaphors and vessels for memory places marked by history, and the lives lived there. His projects have included photographing apartments in New York’s Lower East Side, shortly after their tenants had died, the spaces of Castro’s Havana and post-war Beirut. Photographing in 2001, Polidori also captured the devastation both inside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and in the nearby town of Pripyet. In these works Polidori captures the ghosts of human habitation in sublime decay. Polidori was commissioned to record the aftermath of the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The resulting photographs are melancholic and quietly haunting. In this series of works, the ravaged houses and their mud-soaked rooms become metaphors for human fragility.

Polidori has twice been awarded the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography, and won the World Press Award for his coverage of the Getty Museum’s construction in 1998. He has published eleven photo-books, most recently After the Flood (2006) and a three-volume compilation of his images of Versailles, Parcours Museologique Revisite (2006). His works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Polidori is currently a staff photographer for The New Yorker, and lives and works in both Paris and New York City.

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