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Robert Polidori's photographs of the Palace of Versailles

Photographer Robert Polidori takes a narrow view of the palace, says Crystal Bennes

It’s disadvantageous to know that the pictures in Canadian photographer Robert Polidori’s show are of the Palace of Versailles before seeing them. The Disney-esque mythology of Louis XIV's royal chateau in the suburbs of Paris is powerful enough to threaten Polidori’s beautiful collection, taken over the last 20 years.

In contrast to the usual attempts to capture the palace’s grandeur in wide-angled panorama, Polidori has taken a micro approach, capturing fragmentary views of the palace. Although the photographs are spatially restricted, they remain visually demanding; partly because of the decorative nature of the interiors, but also because of Polidori’s excellent framing. Seemingly arbitrary crops juxtapose intricate wallpapering with wooden mouldings and richly textured paintings.

Polidori is a meticulous technician, but what gives his pictures such impact is his use of large-format film – a Kipp Wettstein aerial photography camera is his weapon of choice. Images of coloured wallpaper are so lifelike, they look like the real thing.

The intellectual focus behind this series is restoration and revisionism. This is intriguing, given Polidori is primarily known for his exquisite, controversial images of destruction in Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans. Change, natural or man-made, the selective process of curation, or the destructive force of nature obsesses Polidori.

There is also the question of how the act of restoration is in some way subsumed by a nostalgia complex. Though nostalgia often saves historic buildings, the saving is typically accompanied by shocking anachronism. Consider Versailles’ latest restoration programme and its proposed removal of king Louis-Philippe’s grand staircase, added during the last major rebuild of the chateau in 1837. Constructed during the Bourbon restoration, it doesn’t complement our fantasy of Versailles as a 17th-century fairytale palace and so must be removed.

Polidori’s cleverly framed images highlight our fascination with antiquity while also mocking anachronistic intrusions. An image juxtaposing a CCTV camera with the elaborate panelling of Louis XV’s daughter’s salon is similarly witty. Each provide a loaded snapshot of modernity versus history; a reminder that 21st-century Versailles was made by us, for us.

Resume:Polidori’s micro pictures capture macro history in moments

(Robert Polidori: Versailles. Until 3 January 2009. Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3LZ)

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