Random sittings

Jonathan Root has photographed designers and creatives along with their favourite chairs. But Edward Barber is not convinced that his latest show amounts to much more than a loosely strung together promotional effort

Portraits and chairs: two of my favourite things. Sitting Pretty, an exhibition by photographer Jonathan Root, should be my cup of tea then, if the publicity material is to be believed. ‘The lively display… will show 20 creative personalities photographed in a chair of personal significance… exhibited alongside a selection of chairs chosen by the sitters, resulting in a two-dimensional and three-dimensional exhibition of personalities,’ it reads.

Sounds interesting. Unfortunately, it ends up being rather frustrating and disappointing. The show is based on a slender idea timed to coincide with London Design Festival and Frieze art fair. The selection of personalities appears to be somewhat random. There are people who are clearly happy to be sitting on their favourite chair, like Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid. Others, such as the band St Etienne, look indifferent. Some are simply standing around, while a chair appears elsewhere in the frame, including designer Arik Levy and artist Aki Kuroda.

The sitter’s relationship to the chair is perhaps being questioned, as in David Adjaye’s graphic, wide-angle, standing/stretching pose. Or are the images challenging what constitutes a chair/seat? Isi Metstein and Andy McMillan appear to be simply sitting on some steps. Are some of the portraits here just to make up numbers, or am I missing something?

There is some visual coherence in this body of work. Most of the images are in Root’s trademark saturated colour, plus a smattering of black-and-white and sepia tone. Many of them are shot with a similar lighting arrangement. Wide-angle lens and high/low viewpoints have also been used – not always to positive effect.

Root is clearly an excellent technician and a talented image-maker working across editorial, fashion and advertising. Sadly, too many of the images here look like the ‘editorial bland’ style made popular in the 1990s by photographers such as Harry Borden and now used widely throughout colour supplements and glossy magazines. By this, I mean environmental portraits without much sense of place – just a bit of coloured/distressed/textured wall as a backdrop for the figure, illuminated by flat frontal lighting.

Root does attempt to be quirky occasionally – what Susanna Brown, a cataloguer at the National Portrait Gallery, has described as ‘a love of whimsy’ – only to end up in the school of trying too hard, and emulating David Stewart’s exemplary colourful and playful advertising work.

Root also does a more Helmut Newton-style sometimes; he was voted Erotic Photographer of the Year in 2005. He is quoted as saying, ‘Photography is a journey; it’s boring to do the same pictures your whole career.’ This is obviously not someone who worries about a signature style.

Ironically, the most engaging and memorable portraits in Sitting Pretty are those where Root’s intervention is less readily apparent and he adopts a far more straight approach – for example, Piet Hein Eek sitting comfortably on a bench with wonderfully soft cross light, or Jurgen Bey in repose in a beautiful coloured interior.

In the highly competitive world of editorial photography it is essential to have a defined signature style. To prove this, we only have to look back at the origins of Blueprint magazine and the memorable early covers that were so consistent stylistically – thanks to Philip Sayer’s graphic and dramatically lit portraits combined with Simon Esterson’s art direction.

Sitting Pretty is a classic demonstration of a working photographer putting together a set of somewhat disparate images with a loosely connected theme as a promotional device. Attention-seeking in an overcrowded market place? I’m all for it.

Sitting Pretty is at The Mews, 1a Birkenhead Street, London WC1 from 17 September to 22 October

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