Galleries: Powerful photographs of life in Naples' ghettos

James Prosek's "Blue Marlin," gouache and watercolor on tea-stained paper, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University through Jan. 21.
James Prosek's "Blue Marlin," gouache and watercolor on tea-stained paper, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University through Jan. 21.
Posted: October 28, 2012

As seen in his book, Gomorrah Girl, published by Cross Editions in 2011, Valerio Spada's documentary photographs of adolescents navigating Naples' crime-ridden streets were striking enough to win him Blurb's 2011 Photography Book Now grand prize for best book of the year. As large prints displayed on the walls of the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, where Spada is exhibiting them for the first time, they're less obviously tied to the book's narrative, which makes them even more powerful.

The story that Spada captured in his book begins with the death of a girl caught in the crossfire between rival gangs of Naples' Mafia, known as the Camorrah. The scene of the murder, the girl's family and friends, and Spada's photographs of the police photos of the original murder evidence are shown side-by-side with photographs of what appear to be young people possibly unrelated to the crime, but living a similarly Mafia-dominated existence in Naples' ghettos. (Much of the activity seems to take place in and around a decaying housing project in Scampia.)

Disaffected young women in minuscule bikinis look into Spada's camera with diffident expressions; in what appears to be a museum gallery, two teenage boys standing in front of a still-life painting stage a frighteningly realistic gangland-style execution with handguns while a little girl looks on with a slight smile. Young heroin addicts slump on stairs and in doorways. Perhaps not surprisingly, Spada's images of plucky pubescent girls who have probably not yet gotten caught up in the sex and drug trades are even more disturbing.

Despite Spada's use of color and his clearly contemporary subjects, his pictures quickly recall the harsh poverty of post-World War II Italian life as portrayed in Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 1950s, by Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and others. Sadly, this cast of characters is all too real.


Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St., noon-8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 215-232-5678 or www.philaphotoarts.org. Through Nov. 25.

Painted fish

If you haven't been to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University recently, now is the time to reacquaint yourself.

James Prosek, an artist and naturalist who wrote his first book, Trout: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), when he was 19 and a student at Yale University, is showing his recent paintings of fish from his newly published James Prosek: Ocean Fishes (Rizzoli, 2012) in a gallery on the academy's first floor.

Prosek's paintings of fish, birds, and other creatures have previously been exhibited at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Wajahat/Ingrao Inc. in New York, and at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., and will be the subject of a traveling survey exhibition opening at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 2013.

Though this group of Prosek's paintings follows the accuracy of detail one expects from such naturalist-artists as John James Audubon, Prosek's use of tea-stained brown paper - and his incorporating a hint of his personal connection to his subjects, for instance, painting his own reflection in a fish's eye if he sees it - puts his endeavor more in line with such contemporary artists as Walton Ford and Alexis Rockman.

On Dec. 5 at 6:30, the academy will award Prosek the Gold Medal for Distinction in Natural History Art, after which he'll talk about his work and sign copies of his new book. The event is free for academy members and $5 for nonmembers. Reservations can be made through http://prosek.eventbrite.com/#


The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. $15; $13 for seniors and children 3-12; free under 3. Through Jan. 21.

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