by Luca Fiore
In 1984, Luigi Ghirri wrote that Vincenzo Castella – then 32 years old – was one of the most important figures of the “new Italian photography.” This was a generation, the Scandiano-based artist explained, whose approach to photography was neutral and impersonal. The “death of the author” was the unifying element of the new trend, which followed the example of Walker Evans: silence, rigor and simplicity.
Almost forty years have passed and Castella has shed the role of the young promise to assume that of the master. His work has evolved, but without betraying the convictions that had founded the poetics of his beginnings. “Every new photograph should be looked at as a new fact,” says Castella. “Not as a variant, nor as a reproduction, or even as a reality or its opposite. The photographic act is neither convenient nor functional; but it is a subtle, elusive and infallible gesture.”
At the turn of the 70s and 80s, Castella’s lens rested on urban landscapes, the interiors of houses or shops, industrial areas and glimpses of archaeological ruins. Color images were made with large-format plates, capable of accurately recording even the smallest details. “Everything seems to be guided by a skilful direction, which discreetly indicates, emphasizes, leads the path of our gaze,” Ghirri writes when looking at these images by Castella. “Not to force our vision but to better make visible the theatre sets of the world.”
In the following decades, Castella focused on the fabric of the city shot from above: Milan, Naples, Turin, Athens, Amsterdam, Cologne. “What I have tried to do is to convey the continuous intensity of the urban machine, which develops a life beyond the concern of the person who designed it,” he explains. “My idea of the city is that of a spaceship built elsewhere and dropped into our reality. So I focused on the hooks, the hinges, the connections where you can better see the city; the Italian city especially develops more on lived experience than on urban design.” These are images in which the gaze can get lost in their many details, all rigorously in focus. They demonstrate an effort of precision that is a gesture of affection towards the web of streets and buildings within which the lives of men stir.
The years at the turn of the 2000s, on the other hand, were years of technical experimentation, which led him, among the first in Italy, to scan photographic plates, printing them from files. Within him was the desire to reflect on the nature of digital transformation, which he does not consider a neutral process, along with the curiosity to obtain far from naturalistic chromatic renderings, but more resembling to industrial products: “A particular green that, more than resembling the colour of a meadow, resembled the colour of an Apple screen.”
More recently, Castella’s interest has shifted to art history: Santa Maria Novella in Florence, San Maurizio and Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. His attempt was to return, through peripheral shots, to a poetic reading of architectural spaces or frescoes. This is the case with Leonardo’s Last Supper, where he focuses on the walled-in door that punctuates and wounds the work. The concrete rectangle, which the photographer makes almost disappear into the darkness at the bottom, appears as a metaphor both for Leonardo’s impenetrable masterpiece and for the diaphragm that separates us from ultimate knowledge of the world.
Parallel to this, the artist is also pursuing projects concerning nature. These are close-up photographs, made with nineteenth-century lenses, with an uneven focus. The effect is painterly, now far removed from Evans’ surgical precision. They are often photographs taken in botanical gardens, although they give the impression that they were produced in wild settings. “In such cases I try to raise the temperature of the visual action. Nature allows me to create uneven backdrops of plants in captivity. I’ve almost never photographed a forest,” Castella explains. “I don’t photograph the created or the creator, but something I consider a text, often treated in art history in the peripheries of paintings, in the margins. I am attracted to the color green; it’s a color that is not beautiful, but is ambiguous, which gives you the perception of understanding more. I don’t think it’s by chance that it represents hope in popular culture.”
In his recent “Il libro di Padova” (The Book of Padua), published by Silvana Editoriale, Castella combines these two thematic strands – the art of the past and nature – by proposing a journey that starts from the Botanical Garden, passes through the Venetian city’s main historical buildings, and then returns to its starting point: Goethe’s Palm, Galileo’s desk, the Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel. “It’s a path manual, where you add up what you know and what you don’t know and at the end you get a mysterious mathematical derivative that, somehow, allows you to know something.” Until then, the artist had conceived his work in terms of “parataxis,” that is, the juxtaposition of main, independent and interchangeable sentence-images. In Padua, however, he tried to construct a ‘hypotactic’ text, in which the discourse is articulated by main and subordinate clauses, in order to help the cognitive process.
One of the book’s most intense moments is the page with four photos of the “Martyrdom and Transport of St. Christopher”, Andrea Mantegna’s fresco in the Ovetani Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani. The vertical, panoramic-format images dissect the work in three intervals, somewhat imitating the movement of the gaze that follows, from left to right, the pictorial narrative. This choice allows him on the one hand to include the dimension of the time of observation, and on the other hand to enter into a relationship with the work by going beyond trivial photographic mimesis. The artist includes not only the painting, but also the portion of the wall below it and a section of the floor. “We cannot understand the enormous heritage we have in Italy if we do not extend our field of vision to the place where the works are kept. I’m not interested in denouncing degradation – and that’s not the case in Padua – the point for me is broader observation.” Castella’s images of the Ovetani Chapel have also brought to light the losses sustained by the March 1944 bombing: the work and its wounds, those of time and those inflicted by the hand of man.
For Castella, reality is not what we see. It is better. “Because the visible is made up of what is framed by the lens and is captured on film, but also by what is invisible to the eyes and the camera. I’m not talking about ghosts, but about what – although not seen – we can only get to know through what appears to us.” This is why the artist always tries to work in “negative space,” both from the point of view of his choice of subjects, and his framing. On the one hand, he depicts fragments of cities or works not worn out by the gaze of the mass media, and on the other hand, the widening of shots to capture the outline of the subjects, often also achieved by use of the panoramic format.
Another choice that recurs in Castella’s work is that of the reverse shot. This is the case with the wooden horse in the Great Hall of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, which has been shot from behind, capturing only its pedestal and legs at surface level. The space from which the monument is usually observed by the visitor is instead at the edge of the shot. “It’s the work that begins to look at you,” he explains. He had done the same in Florence, when he shot Santa Maria Novella from the apse towards the façade, depicting the iron and wooden back of Giotto’s crucifix in the foreground, which stands out against the backdrop of the black and white stone vaults.
The rhetoric-free attention to a landscape unknown to the collective imagination, which he shared with the “new Italian photography,” now appears transfigured. He still has a good dose of nonconformism within him, for whom the image is both a tool and an end to gain a liberated awareness. Society has changed, which has found new ways to imprison images. He himself has changed, who refused to settle for any singular way of desiring the liberation of the gaze.