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Julian Lennon: I Wait for Things to Tell Me What to Do

Liverpool-born Julian Lennon had his exhibition, Horizon, opening this week at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York. A portfolio of 15 large photographs shot during Lennon’s traveling through Kenya and Ethiopia. It is an awareness-photography series, associated with his involvement in the Water and The White Feather Foundation initiative for Africa.

Walking into the gallery, you can’t miss the editing work that went into developing these breathtaking landscape images, as if Lennon wants to make sure that we are mindful that he is the outsider, the westerner who is looking in. Having a soft spot for outsiders (accepted or not), and for the honesty related with accepting and acknowledging one’s place in the world, I arranged a discussion with Lennon.

Pappos: “I was obsessing over how alien the landscapes in your photographs are. The Secret Way could have been an artist’s interpretation of an exoplanet. It is extraordinary. Being there must have been extraordinary.” 

Lennon: “Absolutely. The Secret Way is a large photo. If you notice at the top of the rocks in the background, you can barely see, there are hand-dug churches with practically no communication to the rest of the world. That was extraordinary. Life changing.”

Pappos: “Religion is present. Reverence caught my attention because of the two priests of sort. They have a scolding and protecting, a biblical magi-like stare in their faces. They stand out from the crowd.” 

Lennon: “These are the leaders of the community. NGOs and charity organizations work with them. Here we were with Scott Harrison of Charity: Water, and it was reverence, indeed. The handoff of a water well. The long white clothes you see, the cotton wraps and long scarves, they protect from heat and cold of the desert. They have a natural insulation for both. Scott was honored with such a scarf. It is a ceremonial piece. Water-work is the message. Awareness is at the heart of the series.”

Pappos: “Behind Closed Doors is the most difficult image, for me. The girl is looking at you as if she is judging you.” Lennon nods. “She is judging you,” I go on. “With all the colonial and cultural damage Europe carries for that part of the world… Kenya’s self-indulgent Happy Valley set of the twenties… I can’t help but speculate that with Horizon you are trying to find and trigger Hope, your signature photograph, through darkness or even rejection.”

Lennon: “I constantly try to look at things in a unique way. As we are all unique,” he says apologetically. “Back home, over a 30-inch screen, I went through 5,000 images and narrowed them down to 124, and then down to 15, and every time I would re-look at something I would see it somehow differently. Even with shots I took from years back. Especially shots I took years back. Re-observing and curating can help you pick up hope, highlight and spread empathy.”

Prior to our meeting, I researched Lennon’s older series. Shooting portraits is his strongest competence as a photographer. 

Pappos: “Considering your past and present work there is something Helmut Newton around it. There is ridiculous glamor in the photos you took of a Princess in Monaco, while getting dressed to get married, but, if look carefully, you spot bewilderment, clumsiness, even traces of shame in her expressions. With your current show it’s the other way around, zoom-in the awesomeness of the landscape, go through despair and drought, and you may find hope. Am I off?”

Lennon: “You are not off. I was petrified when I shot Princess Charlene of Monaco. Same when I shot Bono. I wanted to go beyond the obvious. What’s behind all this… With Horizon, it is understanding and alertness. I try to do that in all the work I do: music, documentaries, and photography.”

Pappos: “Your subjects are spread. You could be judged for that. It takes balls to be a flâneur.”

Lennon: “I grew being watched and judged. My upbringing was different. I mean, everyone’s upbringing is different. We all have our baggage. Certain parts of my life I lived in a fishbowl.”

He has been observing, while he’s been observed — can one really be a true stroller if one is constantly watched? 

Pappos: “Still, a form of luxury. Strolling does not require drive, a determination.”

Lennon: “When you fight, especially something natural, most likely the results will be affected. And you don’t gain emotionally. I wait for things to tell me what to do.”

Julian Lennon’s Horizon, March 12 – May 02, Emmanuel Fremin Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001