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Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop
Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop

Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop

13 May 2017 | Euan Gubbins

Modern Art Oxford and the Old Fire Station have come together to put on one of the best photography exhibitions of the year so far, in a small but endlessly interesting presentation of portraits by local Iranian-born artist and chip shop owner, Kazem Hakimi.

The photographs displayed here, taken from Kazem Hakimi’s ongoing series OX4, show the clientele of Hakimi’s much-loved chip shop on the Iffley road: a simple idea with hidden depths. What is instantly striking is the formal excellence of the photographs, which have been beautifully presented by the curators in perfect rows and grids in the two galleries. The compositional unity of the pictures, all identically sized with a universal white background, is immediately pleasing. As the eye moves across each face and figure, vibrant colours and minutely captured details begin to reveal photographs with huge personality. Hakimi’s humanist style presents his customers with immense dignity, and completely on their own terms. Some, particularly his image of a grinning nun, have an iconic quality, while others such as a portrait of a young girl seemingly eyeing up the lens, are charming and funny. His images feel very contemporary; it is clear that we are looking at people alive in 2017.


 
Hakimi’s brand of street photography has a special quality because of his position as a local chip shop proprietor. Whereas a photographer like Martin Parr photographs chip shop customers with detachment, Hakimi is very much a part of the street he is recording. As a member of the community, he has created a more insightful portrait of the area – in this case East Oxford – than any outsider ever could.
 
The visual unity of his portraits has an equalising force, too. Framed so consistently, and crucially with each image being the same size, different people become one and the same. Hakimi has documented the inhabitants of multicultural East Oxford effortlessly. Intentionally or not, this effect produces a montage with a clear message in favour of diversity and community. Using very slight changes in composition, at times moving in close and elsewhere pulling out to show most of the body, Hakimi ensures that each subject maintains their own individuality. This individuality, within the context of the united community of portraits, further intensifies the humanistic element of the series.


 
Much credit is due to the two galleries for showcasing the work, and to local writer James Atlee for his efforts to have Hakimi’s photography exhibited. At a time when contemporary gallery spaces can be increasingly elitist and alienating, it is refreshing to walk into a major art museum and discover relatable work by an artist who, far from being aloof, shows an active interest in the person on the street, to the point that it forms the entire basis for his work. The experience is vastly improved by seeing both parts of the show, which is displayed across the two galleries. The walk between the galleries becomes part of the art, the passersby on the street suddenly rendered beautiful and less intimidating; they are simply more potential subjects for Hakimi to meet and record.


 
I met Kazem Hakimi at the exhibition and the quality of the work immediately made sense. He is an energetic and incredibly friendly presence, agreeing that his photography exists somewhere between studio and street; it is formalised but fast. Each portrait takes between 15 and 60 seconds, an incredible speed brought about, in part, out of necessity – to avoid the food order burning. Hakimi told me he felt the work was a documentation of his friends; his love for them and their returned affection are the foundation for the works, and his intention is that the emotion he feels for the subjects should be transferred to the viewer. In his own words, ‘when you go back and see them the way I see them, it binds hearts together’. In this way, Hakimi imbues portrait photography with the personality and emotion that it so often lacks.


 
Part of the pleasure of seeing the exhibition also comes from witnessing a photographer being discovered. The curators, experts who have previously organised street photography exhibitions at the Barbican, have recognised the strength of his work. Hakimi has been taking pictures for 30 years and the practice is evident. We are only seeing a fraction of his presumably grand body of work, further glimpses of which can be seen in the publication given out at the gallery.
 
When asked about his favourite photographer, Hakimi said there were far too many greats to choose from, but reeled off a list of photographers he considered masters, including Cartier Bresson and Lartigue. All his hard work seems to be paying off, with his 2016 BBC interview quickly going viral, viewed millions of times around the world. Hopefully this exhibition, the first major show of his work, will pave the way for more of his photography to be displayed in years to come.
 
Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop is on display at Modern Art Oxford and the Old Fire Station until 2 July. See the exhibition website for more information.
 

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