Carla Groppi seizes a photo’s essence

After Atget (5) Parc de Saint-Cloud by Carla Groppi

After Atget (5) Parc de Saint-Cloud by Carla Groppi - Credit: Archant

Documenting historic Paris preoccupied pioneering French photographer Eugène Atget for 30 years. Between 1897 and 1927, using a large-format bellows camera, he captured the city’s many facets, from magnificent palaces predating the Revolution to humble lanes and courtyards – but he always avoided modern Paris.

Atget also photographed the city’s inhabitants – favouring those working on the street, whether as hawkers or prostitutes – and its environs, including the parks of Versailles and Saint-Cloud. His imagery was notable for a wispy, drawn-out sense of light and blurred figures, both due to long exposures. A surrealistic quality, to be found especially in the photographs of mannequins and shop-window reflections, appealed to his neighbour Man Ray, the American modernist artist, who collected and published Atget’s photographs in the 1920s.


Now he has a modern-day admirer in West Hampstead artist Carla Groppi, who finds the contrast of light and shade that he achieved compelling. “Translating Atget’s photographs into charcoal or pastel drawings, often increasing the scale dramatically, is a process that I find both challenging and exciting,” she says. “Because the way that I draw is expressive, this translation is an attempt to capture some essence of the original, while at the same time imparting something unique of my own.”

Last month, Groppi’s pastel After Atget (5) Parc de Saint-Cloud (pictured) was selected for the Threadneedle Prize for figurative and representational painting and sculpture. It’s one of the most valuable art awards in the UK – £30,000 – and attracted more than 3,500 entries.

Although not shortlisted for the prize, she is in the exhibition which opened yesterday at the Mall Galleries near Trafalgar Square and so is eligible for the Visitors’ Choice award of £10,000. She scored a second success recently when two large charcoal drawings – again translations of Atget photographs of trees – were shortlisted for the National Open Art Competition.

Groppi’s parents are Italian, she grew up in Soho and has been living in Camden for 12 years. She graduated in 2008, with a first-class honours degree, from the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington.

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Unlike Atget, who never discussed his photography and left no artistic statements, Groppi explains her work well. In her statement for the Threadneedle Prize, she cites an observation by the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in The Task of the Translator: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language … to shine upon the original all the more fully.”

The Threadneedle Prize is at The Mall Galleries, London, SW1, until October 12, daily 10am to 5pm.