Peter Schlesinger documents the architecture and culture of Yemen during the 1970s
Brought to life decades later to raise awareness of “the beautiful country and culture”, Peter’s works are now composed into a book published by Damiani.
- Ayla Angelos
- 26 March 2021
In 1976, Peter Schlesinger visited the country of Yemen Arab Republic along with a group of journalists, after years of closed borders. An American photographer and artist – not to mention former model and subject in a number of works by David Hockney – Peter travelled with partner Eric Boman, who was on a photographic assignment for a French fashion magazine. This was the first time he’d travelled with Eric (he has a rule that usually stops him from doing so), but saw it as an experience that couldn’t be ignored. The country had opened up, and in the interest of gaining tourism, the government had invited a group of media outlets to come and observe its rich cultural offering.
Yemen has a long and enduring history, with conflicts dating back decades and continuing right through to this present day. Peter's travels in the 70s, however, proved to be a prodigious opportunity to document its locals and attractive landmarks before destruction. A painter, sculptor and photographer, the artist grew up in Los Angeles and moved to London to study at Slade School of Art, before returning to America and situating himself in New York City, where he currently resides. He’s long been interested in the camera’s ability to document the world around him: “Photography is immediate and a specific moment in time, unlike other arts which take time,” he tells It’s Nice That. “And I am fascinated by composing space. It’s also entertaining.”
The immediacy of the camera was what inspired Peter to take things further with the medium, which resulted in a variety of works including Disturbia, a collaboration with Gucci for a limited edition art book centred on the fashion houses’s Pre-Fall 2018 collection. And let’s not forgot his first monograph, A Photographic Memory 1968-1989 – an overview of Peter’s work spanning 30 years, including portraits and still lives; or even Checkered Past: A Visual Diary of the ‘69s and ‘70s, the photographer’s account of his life in London during the 60s and 70s with David Hockney and his circle of friends – W.H.Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Paloma Picasso, Twiggy, Robert Mapplethorpe, Amanda Lear, Yves St. Laurent, Rudol Nureyev among many others. So when it came to the documentation of Yemen during the 70s, let’s just say that Peter was able to do so with an eye that’s seen years’ worth of experience.
Peter Schlesinger: Eight Days in Yemen, a new book published by Damiani, captures the travels of a photographer and partner as they journey through this mesmerisingly archaic territory. Over the course of eight days, Peter took hundreds of photographs, lensing fascinating images of the capital, Sanaa, as well as the northern city of Sa’dah. “I didn’t really know anything about it,” says Peter of his preconceptions of the country. “Some scenes in the movie by Pasolini 1001 Nights were filmed there, which I had just seen. There were no tourists there. The only other foreigner we saw worked for the UN and he said it was the most unhygienic country he had ever been to. We had a wonderful driver who was sweet and told us about the culture and people.”
Peter and Eric stayed in the capital, and would take trips out to the surrounding areas, which includes an excursion to Sa’dah. “We needed permission from the military to go there,” he recalls. “The hotel was very primitive and the only place we could eat at, as the food was not safe to eat anywhere else.”
Upon meandering through this momentous documentation, the pages are awash with the incredible scenes of architecture and daily life. The detailed brick work, white painterly decor and traditional patterns mark each building, which – when captured through Peter’s array of artful landscapes – appear in beautifully uniformed fashion. It’s quite unlike any of the architecture found in western civilisation, and the scenes of Yemen’s locals going about their daily lives only add to the gentle hum of the city life. But sadly, much of what we’re observing within these pages have now been left in ruin. “Yemen plunged into civil war and was in the news every day – and still is,” says Peter. “Seeing the destruction going on and looking back at my photographs, I realised that it was a document of a country that had changed so much, and also been destroyed so much.”
It was a rare opportunity for Peter to capture these images; documenting a time before globalisation and the sheer destruction of civil war. His imagery, though, sheds light on life before all of this, and in turn raises awareness of the devastation that was about to occur. “It would be good for people to see what is being destroyed,” he concludes. “I think most people still seem unaware of what a beautiful country and culture it is.”
Peter Schlesinger's Eight Days in Yemen is published by Damiani at £35
GalleryPeter Schlesinger: Eight Days in Yemen, published by Damiani (Copyright © Peter Schlesinger, 2021)
Peter Schlesinger: Eight Days in Yemen, published by Damiani (Copyright © Peter Schlesinger, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.