Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Photographic Memoirs of Peter Schlesinger

The US artist distills over 30 years of intimate memories into a beautiful new monograph

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David Hockney and Cecil Beaton, © Peter Schlesinger
David Hockney and Cecil Beaton in Cecil's conservatory, 1970Photographs © Peter Schlesinger

Who? Even if you think you haven’t heard of Peter Schlesinger, you’ll know who he is. He’s there in so many of David Hockney’s iconic artworks: the blurred figure snaking through the swimming pool, the nude with the intense stare in the tropical garden, the delightfully well-dressed young man in the painting. Similarly some of the most treasured, iconic snaps of our beloved Hockney were snapped by Peter’s hand, or feature the pair of them laughing, kissing or talking. Peter is widely believed to be Hockney’s first true love. They met in 1966 when 18-year-old Peter was studying drawing at the University of California and Hockney was 28, fell in love, and hot-footed it to London where they spent many years in the company of some of the most dazzling stars of the swinging capital. Following the gallivanting Hockney around made for some pretty wild Kodak moments, and young, quiet Peter collected hundreds. Today, he resides in New York, and works as an artist creating sculptures, stonewares and ceramics, and occasionally exhibiting his now iconic photographs.

What? A spectacular monograph of Peter’s photos called A Photographic Memory has just been printed by Damiani, the cult Italian publishers that produce some of the most sought-after photography, art and pop culture tomes today. The book is a sumptuous collection of over 30 years of photographs Peter collected throughout his career. Opulent snaps of boozy lunches, candlelit al fresco dinners in France, sleepy mornings in various lavish apartments and hotels all over Europe would be beautiful regardless of who features in them, but that’s where these moments in time become really fascinating: they’re punctuated with some of the most intriguing stars and creatives of the century. A shot of some instruments lying in a grand, sunlit room are brought to life by a caption stating that the photograph was taken during a break in the recording of The Rolling Stones’ legendary Exile on Main Street. A man cutting another man’s hair is a wonderful, intimate portrait, but really becomes magical when you realise that the person having their locks trimmed is Manolo Blahnik. These images are an intimate, loving archive of what some of the world’s most famous people got up to on their days off. Largely, it seems, they were roaming about Paris, smoking fags in bed, having luxuriously lengthy lunches and sunbathing. 

Why? It’s important to point out, that regardless of Peter's knack of being in the right place at the right time (that's all the time), these photographs are not special merely because of their subjects. Peter was, and evidently still is, a fantastically talented photographer. Nestled in amongst the candid, quick shots of Andy Warhol in a taxi or Cecil Beaton grinning blissfully at his famous home in Wiltshire, are choreographed photographs that reveal Peter’s true love for his camera and his natural eye for composition, mood and light. The subjects in his archive could easily overshadow the artistic integrity of the images, but they don’t. What prevails here is Peter’s attention to detail, his ability to know which split seconds to capture, and his true passion for locking moments into infinity. In 2015 we are constantly warned of our incessant photo taking, encouraged to treasure moments without the need to document them implicitly. What this book shows us is that that’s absolute nonsense. Document everything: rainy mornings, loved ones, holidays, swimming pools, parties, weddings, smiles. Regardless of who is in the picture.

Peter Schlesinger: A Photographic Memory 1968-1989 is out now, published by Damiani.

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