The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Review: Don’t Smile for the Camera

Susan Wear reports back from Don’t Smile for the Camera, a solo exhibition by the multi-talented Pete Zulu at The Customs House in South Shields
Pete Zulu’s solo exhibition, Don’t Smile For The Camera has opened at The Customs House Gallery

The latest exhibition at The Customs House Gallery, South Shields is a revelation – a snapshot of a lifetime’s work of photographing the ordinary and making it extraordinary.

The show presents just a few of the multi-talented chef, musician, writer and TV presenter Pete Zulu’s collection of 11,000 images, all shot on his Leica camera over four decades.

Always taken spontaneously, in black and white, with the subjects being the people and places he encounters in his daily life, Pete’s photography has a timeless, almost otherworldly quality. 

Although they’re all unposed, natural images – hence the title Don’t Smile for the Camera – each one invites you to see the everyday world and ordinary people from a different perspective, capturing fleeting moments, but telling a lifetime of stories.

Northumberland Street, Newcastle. Credit: Pete Zulu

If you’ve ever been to Pete’s restaurant, The Black Horse in Boldon, South Tyneside, you may find a couple of the shots vaguely familiar. 

But there are many more to see and it’s so much better to see them in the gallery, superbly curated by Rory Williams, where there’s time and space to appreciate the craftsmanship and let your imagination fire up.

From glamorous moody portraits, to iconic shots of landmarks, joyous youngsters in the street to the old man asleep in the bus shelter, or the rain-soaked dog appealing to come into the warm, they all demonstrate Pete’s unique ability to see what’s normally unseen.

Pete Zulu’s solo exhibition, Don’t Smile For The Camera at The Customs House

Some have their stories attached – dispassionately describing the moment how his three-year-old son almost broke his heart talking about dying; or wondering if a group of lads playing beach football would ever know the photographer was capturing their moment from high above on the Roker clifftop. 

Some are so subtle – you can just make out the glistening eyes of a sleek black dog on a jet black background and some have been printed gloriously outsize, reflecting wide open coastal spaces and skies.

And who knows, regulars at the Black Horse may even recognise themselves as the shadowy gangster-like figure eyeing up a shimmering dessert glass overflowing with Pete’s signature dessert of cinder toffee Eton mess….

Pete Zulu with one of his photographs at The Customs House Gallery

Pete is best known as award-winning restaurateur, a published writer and poet, the man who founded the Toy Dolls and sang Nelly the Elephant on Top of the Pops, and a doppelganger for Paul Young, but this exhibition is giving him much deserved recognition for what is perhaps the greatest of his many talents.

Pete Zulu: Don’t Smile for the Camera runs until March 31 at The Customs House Gallery, South Shields


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