The internet adores Serge Najjar, a working lawyer whose photographs of Beirut are widely shared on Instagram (@serjios). Chicago’s Catherine Edelman picked Najjar for his first solo exhibition in the United States; it is also the first time Edelman used Instagram to select a photographer to show, although her gallery’s program is already a leader in promoting photography’s digital turn. A showing of 17 photographs in A Closer Look at the Ordinary (through February 25) smartly figures out how to manifest Instagram images – made to be consumed online – into physical art objects, in part with detailed attention to paper stock, square formatting, and unglazed framing. In fact, the transformation is so complete that the photos are often mistaken for abstract paintings.
Wandering around Beirut’s neighborhoods and suburbs, Najjar gains access to schools, resort compounds, and construction sites in order to make tightly cropped views of new architecture. Importantly these geometric scenes are often punctuated with one or two people, a compositional element that pushes Najjar’s images beyond the genre of architectural photography into the psychological territory of how humans make, and are remade by, their habitat.
Cropped out from Najjar’s Beirut is the gritty stuff, including even the last century’s Lebanese modernism, which fulfilled the aesthetic of a previous generation. Instead Najjar shows us a clean, ritzy, even chic view of city life. Born and raised in Beirut, Najjar is acutely aware of the ways that layers of peace and war alter a city’s face. Najjar works on the heels of a building boom of the last couple decades. His images edit contemporary Beirut into a futurist playground.
It’s no coincidence that these photos often get mistaken for paintings; rooted in the ideals of hard-edged Constructivist painting, Najjar’s photographs look to geometric abstraction for a universal humanistic language – the same modernist dream of a century ago. With a joyous twist on geometric minimalism, Najjar has more in common with an Abstract Classicist painter like Frederick Hammersley than a camera-based counterpart like Lewis Baltz.