Vincenzo Castella – An Interview

Vincenzo Castella

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.

Domani, 20th March 2022

Pavlo Makov – An Interview

Pavlo Makov

by Luca Fiore

“The air outside has become unbreathable. Smoke, dust and the smell of burning.” These words are uttered by Pavlo Makov, 63 years old, the artist chosen to represent Ukraine at the next Venice Biennale. We contacted him by phone at the Yermilov Center, a space in the basement of Kharkiv State University, which in recent years has been used for contemporary art exhibitions. It is there that he and other artists and their families are taking refuge from the bombings of the Russian troops. Their internet connection is not good; it often breaks up and so the dialogue moves to Telegram. He promises us that he will respond soon, “Not now, though, because I’m getting very little sleep.”

            He spent the night between Thursday and Friday, when he was still in his home, standing guard so he could wake up his wife, son, daughter-in-law and 92-year-old mother to the sound of sirens “What are my feelings in these hours? Very different. They depend on the situation, on the news we receive. But what prevails is the pride of being a Ukrainian citizen. I always have been, even though I was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian family. But now more than ever do I feel a Ukrainian citizen. In a different situation, such a statement would have sounded pathetic, but today it is not at all.” We ask him what has been, so far, the most difficult circumstance. He answers that it was not the first siren or the first explosion, but the period of uncertainty that preceded the attack. “The Russian invasion has been going on for eight years already. The scale of conflict has now simply changed. For those who live here it was already evident; those of you in Europe struggled to see it. Now it is before everyone’s eyes. But we reached this moment ready. I am not able to shoot, I am not trained. There are those who will do it for me, better than me. But the people here are ready to resist, everyone will do everything they can.”

            Yesterday, Makov and the three curators of the Ukraine Pavilion, Lizaveta German, Borys Filonenko and Maria Lankro, released a statement saying, “We absolutely support the statement of La Biennale di Venezia that international exhibits are platforms for collaboration and dialogue.” They note, however, that despite having received solidarity and offers of help from many of the Biennale participants, no message has come “from the Russian artists or commissioners of the pavilion whose army is currently bombing us and forcing us into shelters or exile.” The only person to contact them was Russia’s curator, Lithuanian Raimundas Malašauskas, who resigned from his post on Sunday. “We believe that dialogue is about two-way communication, not an imposed agenda. That’s why we don’t believe Russia should be part of La Biennale.”

            For Makov, participation in the Biennale is not just an opportunity to make his work known to the art world: “We will be like the eyes of our country which everyone will be able to look into. We will offer our gaze and, whoever wants to, will be able to better understand not only who we are as artists and curators, but also what Ukraine is. We are an independent country, a young state. It would also have been an opportunity to dispel the silly myths that we have been carrying around since the Soviet period. But now, since the day of the attack, these myths have already been largely swept away. But at what price?”

            The Kharkiv-based artist plans to exhibit a reworking of an old project he conceived in the early 1990s at the Biennale, entitled “Fountain of Exhaustion.” It is a pyramid of 78 bronze funnels with two blowpipes each. Water is poured into the funnel at the top and, dripping into those placed below, gradually seperates itself until it reaches the pyramidal base in the form of water droplets. The work is inspired by the crumbling infrastructure characteristic of post-Soviet cities, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. The water supply was precarious at that time and none of the public fountains worked in Kharkiv, where the artist has lived for almost forty years. Once, he recounts, an accident at the local purification plant caused flooding and a four-week interruption in water distribution. It is a work conceived three decades ago, but which touches on very topical themes, the curators explain: “The work aims to denounce not only the depletion of natural resources, but also post-pandemic burnout, the exhaustion caused in people by social media, and the exhaustion of populations caused by wars.” Makov’s fountain is a metaphor of how the lifeblood of man or nature is wasted because of inhuman structures, choices or logic.

            The work planned for Venice, however, differs from Makov’s usual way of expressing himself, who first trained as an engraver. The artist usually creates printed works using two or more small matrices, produced using the technique of etching, whose design is imprinted, successively, on different areas of the same sheet. The result is sometimes very complex compositions. While traditional printing uses the matrix of an image to print several copies of the same work, here the process leads to the creation of unique pieces that the artist can then add to using pencils, inks and other materials.

            In a corner of his studio, on the third floor of the Soviet building still owned by the Union of Ukrainian Artists (without which, during the regime, it was not possible to practice any creative activity) there is the desk where the artist works on the matrices with the burin, with the help of a magnifying glass. Next to it, occupying most of the space, is the large press with which he makes his works. The matrices depict trees, plants or buildings, with which Makov composes landscapes or maps of real or imaginary cities.

            In recent years, the Kharkiv artist has returned several times to the theme of war. Such is the case with the artist’s book “Donrosa. Diary of a Ukrainian rose garden”, a tribute to the city of Donestk, in the Donbas. The book is inspired by the drawings and notes of a rose enthusiast from Kharkiv who, between 2008 and 2010, recreated a garden in the Russian-speaking city that was designed in the 19th century and said to have been conceived by English landscape architects on the model of a Dantean circle. “Donrosa”, a cross between the words “Donetsk” and “rose”, opens with the verses of Canto III of Hell: “Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned, / all cowardice must needs be here extinct/ We to the place have come, where I have told thee / thou shalt behold the people dolorous / who have foregone the good of intellect.” The garden is seen as a labyrinth with a central plan, composed of hundreds of rose bushes, printed one by one on the same sheet. The work was then divided into sections and paginated in a small volume of which one thousand copies were printed. It is an imaginary place where beauty, pain and madness coexist. The image of a city at war.

                        In a prophetic work, entitled “Dorothea. Siege of Kharkiv” and made between 2015 and 2016, Pavlo Makov reproduces with some accuracy the plan of the city. Different types of buildings are repeated, creating the texture of the streets. You can recognize the main square in the bottom left, highlighted in red pencil, where you see the silhouettes of military convoys. Smoke rises from the chimneys of many houses. It looks like an ancient document, worn out by time. Instead, it is a work that speaks of a near future that has turned into a tragic present.

            The first time the writer visited Makov in his studio was in the summer of 2016. On his desk was a copy of the Italian edition of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. At one point the artist opened the volume and read the last page in his Russian accent: “The hell of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accepting the hell and become such a part of it that you can longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, then make them endure, give them space.” He looked up and added, “There, that’s what I’m trying to do. And that many in Ukraine are trying to do today.”

Domani, 1st March 2022

Pavlo Makov, Shelter Landscape, 2017

Jason Martin – An interview

Jason Martin

by Luca Fiore

“Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury was asked which celebrities from the past he would like to have a beer with in the pub. The boxer replied: Eric Cantona, Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley. Should they ask me the same, I would choose Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein”. Jason Martin, born in 1970 in Jersey, the largest island in the English Channel, is one of the heavyweights of contemporary abstract painting. The three names he cites, as his own personal artistic pantheon, are also a declaration of poetics. Although, in the early nineties at Goldsmith College in London, the cradle of the Young British Artists generation, the work that insinuated him into the seed of artistic research is a painting by the American artist Robert Ryman. “The all-white painting consisted of five span-wide bands of color, probably made with five uninterrupted brush strokes. They were the trace of a gesture that took place over a period of time, they outlined a time frame within which the color had been spread on the canvas. I liked the idea and started trying to develop it. It was a work on time, after all, and it was about why we are here now”.

Martin’s first works consist of monochromatic oil or acrylic paintings, stretched on surfaces of aluminum, steel or Plexiglas with spatulas or combs that create swirling and hypnotic surfaces. Sometimes they look like the texture of a crazed vinyl record, in which the grooves are no longer concentric, but drawn with voluptuous elegance to produce visual vibrations of mysterious silent music. Black, bright red, metallic blue, white. When touching the color, light enhances the dynamism of the color surface. Over time, his research shifts to the use of pure pigment mixtures, which are applied on modeled panels, in which the exasperated sculptural effect seems to magnify the contortions of matter on a rippled palette of color. In recent years, the artist has also created works in mirroring metal (copper, silver and gold), made through casts of the paintings, in which the material painting becomes a real sculpture.

The latest works, conceived during lockdown, that the artist spent in his studio in the Portuguese countryside, exhibited in the recent exhibition, “Tropicalissimo, at the Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio in Milan, are mainly small-sized paintings, in which he is used more than one color. “It is a series of paintings that are a bit of a synthesis of the paths that I started to follow during the time of the pandemic, in which I worked freely, without the time pressures of the art market”, Martin explains: “I followed a playful and experimental attitude, in an attempt to conquer ground within the sphere of my pictorial language”. Parallel bands of color, spread with a rough spatula, in which the tones blend to form atmospheric shades. From pink to pale pink, then yellow which becomes a soft pistachio green. Or vertical textures of yellow that blend, in the brushstroke, with a soul of red, producing orange halos. Elsewhere, blue and white are mixed. Or green and yellow again. Leaving the narrow circle of the monochromatic world seems to have opened the door to figurative suggestion for the painter. “I feel like a landscape painter disguised as an abstractionist”, he explains with a smile. The masses of color and the composition of the forms lead the viewer’s imagination to reconstruct natural images in his own mind. Sunsets, vegetation, flames, water, ice, fog. “In painting, this is almost inevitable, even when we are in the field of abstraction”, continues Martin: “Leon Battista Alberti already understood this: painting recreates the illusion of depth on the surface. We are used to seeing something that goes beyond the flatness of the canvas. The painting is a threshold where a dialectic between surface and illusion is created. And the challenge is to look through, to see beyond”.

Martin has a very particular way of telling the history of art of the twentieth century: using his body parts. “Artists of the turn of the century painted with their wrist. Braque and Picasso, to create their Cubist paintings, drew signs by articulating the movements with the elbow. De Kooning, with his shoulder, drew even wider brush strokes. Finally, Pollock placed the canvas on the ground and painted with his whole body. Fontana also used gestural language. Yves Klein threw all of himself into the void of the work. Here, I feel part of this club”. Yet, it is the same who recognizes a debt also towards minimalism: “Yes, but it is as if I had found my personal way that combines abstract expressionism, action painting, and art that wanted to eliminate all body traces. It is as if I had filled the empty vase of minimalism”. This seems to be the common thread that binds all the work of Jason Martin who, in hindsight, has significantly evolved in almost thirty years of career: the dialectic between opposites. Abstraction and figuration, expressionism and minimalism, painting and sculpture. “I don’t think that, in an attempt to evolve my language, I will abandon this path, it is the only way I have to say something interesting to develop my own personal pictorial vocabulary”.

But another legacy also weighs on the artist’s shoulders, the one that comes from having participated in Sensation, the exhibition that the collector Charles Saatchi sponsored in 1997 at the Royal Academy in London (later shown also in New York and Berlin) and that consigned the Young British Artists to history. We talk about artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sara Lucas, Jenny Saville, Marc Quinn, the Chapman brothers and others. Jason Martin was among them. “I remember that they hung my paintings upside down… Which, for works like mine, is not a serious problem… If the painting is good, it works the same. It was a great opportunity, but – even if we were more or less all peers (Hirst is five years older than me) – I don’t feel like belonging to it. It’s a story I ended up in without really wanting to”. If those artists were seen as the expression of a return to a shocking realism, it was evident that Martin was not in the game. “It is clear that, from the media point of view, my work could not compete with the shark in formaldehyde. Mine is another way. Although I have a lot of respect for the work of Emin or Lucas, for example. But of that generation, the one I feel closest to is Ian Devenport who was eventually excluded from the Saatchi exhibition”.

Martin’s painting is much quieter, more intimate, than the roaring English art that was successful in those years. And he remembers well his fellows at Goldsmith, all busy finding their own way to create the installations that became popular in the following years. “I was one of the very few to paint”, he explains: “There I met Steve McQueen, the videomaker, now an Oscar-winning director for 12 Years A Slave. He too had started painting”. As in the tradition of abstract painting, even for the English artist his work carries a marked spiritual and meditative dimension. And maybe for the same reason, perhaps, aged 24 he wrote to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to offer him his works. “He never answered me back. Perhaps because I was too much distant from the minimalist style he favored. But painting is also a spiritual exercise for me. It arises from the need to find my place in the world and, at the same time, to try to leave a trace for when I will be gone. I remember that astronaut from space who covered the Earth from his sight by stretching his thumb in front of his eyes. And he said: all I know is behind my finger. Everything else is unknown to me.”

Domani, 30th January 2022

Bruno Ceschel – An interview

by Luca Fiore

What interests me most about photography, and in art in general, is the ability to build the future. Artists have the ability to narrate, to make us think about a different, better future. This is the common thread that holds together what I do: books, exhibitions and teaching.” Bruno Ceschel is well aware that photography has made its fortune on its capacity for memory, of resurrecting people, things and events that are no longer there, as Roland Barthes explains when he writes about his search for an image to revive his dead mother. And yet, in Ceschel, a restless visionary, what prevails is the opposite force: art has to push beyond the limits of the known and, as Luigi Ghirri said of Daguerre, to approach the boundary of the “already seen” and at the same time the “never seen”.

In the world of photography publishing Bruno Ceschel is considered the guru of self-publication. In 2010 he founded a cultural project, which later became a publishing house and a series of popular online masterclasses, with a clever and optimistic name: Self Publish, Be Happy!. Since then, if the way in which photographers think and make books has changed, it is also thanks to the enhancement and visibility given to hundreds of independent publications by young artists who were previously overlooked by publishers and curators. The Guardian called Ceschel’s initiative “the vanguard of the self-publishing revolution.” In fact, SPBH was born as an invitation to the new generation of photographers to send in their publications so that they could be included in the collection of self-published books that, last year, was acquired by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. Three thousand books and fanzines: a “snapshot” of what has sprung up spontaneously in the young community of artists over the last fifteen years.

Ceschel, born in 1976, began his adventure in Treviso, not far from the town where he was born and raised, Orsago, as part of the editorial staff of Colors Magazine, the cult magazine founded in 1991 by designer Tibor Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani for the Benetton group. After studying Sociology in Trento and London, he became editor during the period in which Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two key figures of the new photography, were directing the magazine, projecting it onto the international stage. Three years later he found himself in London, making do with collaborations with Italian newspapers, particularly women’s magazines. But the new turning point came when he was advised to send his CV to Chris Boot, former director of Magnum Photo in New York and London, former editorial director of Phaidon and future executive director of the Aperture Foundation – one of the industry’s master minds. By that time Boot was working on his own, publishing books by Martin Parr, Luc Delahaye, James Mollison and Stephen Gill, among others. This was greatly educative for Ceschel, who began to familiarize himself with the world of photography that matters.

Bruno Ceschel

In 2008 he was asked to curate an exhibition for the Brooklyn Museum, with an Aperture catalog. The exhibition’s theme, at the time, was avant-garde: Contemporary Queer Photography. The project, however, fell through and nothing came of it. “But during those two years in New York, I came into contact with a community of young photographers and artists who were producing work that resonated with my interests. They were using print, books and fanzines and were self-publishers. The Do-It-Yourself culture in the United States is much more deeply rooted than in Europe, and what I was seeing seemed very valuable.” So he decided to launch an open-call, inviting people to send him their work for promotion on his blog. “I proposed an event called Self Publish, Be Happy to the Photographer’s Gallery in London, in which I showcased a selection of these books and organized meetings with the authors. They were works that were not circulating in the mainstream and people had no idea they existed. It was an overwhelming success. The principle was democratic; anyone could send us their work, then we would select what would become part of the collection. Overnight, I suddenly had a house full of books. I received as many as 15 publications a week. People talked about it, word got around. And the Photographer’s Gallery began keeping some of these books in their bookshop.”

Five years later, in 2015, “Self Publish, Be Happy” also became a book published by Aperture with the subheading, “A Do-It-Yourself Photobook Manual and Manifesto.” Ceschel’s introduction begins, “This is not a collection of recently published photography books. It is not a best-of. It is a call to arms, a rallying cry to take part, to act, to share.” The volume features big names, artists who would later become big, and others who have remained in the shadows. We find “The Little Brown Mushroom Dispatch” by Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, a series of publications in newspaper form documenting the American photographer and writer’s travels around the United States. Or “Nude” by Chinese photographer Ren Hang, which collects works that later became particularly famous after the artist’s suicide, printed by a printmaker friend. We also find “Gomorra Girls” by Valerio Spada, which recounts the story of the suburbs of Naples, alternating material from the police dossier on the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, killed by crossfire in a shootout, and images of the neighborhood where the girl lived. Or “Afronauts” by Spain’s Cristina de Middel, which freely reconstructs, through original documentation of photographs and the artist’s drawings, the story of Zambia’s space programme that dreamed of sending astronauts to Mars in the 1960s.

“Self-publishers have shattered the rules of traditional publishing, which were very much tied to the standards imposed by big names like Taschen and Steidl. They introduced innovations both in terms of the themes that were presented and the form of the book object,” Ceschel explains. “Not only because the artists often came from minority backgrounds and, belonging to underrepresented communities, told stories and themes that were hitherto unexplored, but they had a freedom and unscrupulousness in their use of the publishing medium. The physical appearance of the publication became an integral part of the narrative. The quality of paper, graphics, binding, printing techniques. They were young people who thought about books in a different way. It was an experience that certainly ended up influencing mainstream publishing as well. Today, even if the trend is that of the book “a la Michael Mack”, which is very clean and classic, we see certain experiments in books published even by more established and official entities. The language of the photographic book has changed forever.”

But there is another dimension that, according to Ceschel, has been brought out by this phenomenon. “Traditionally, photography has always been a parallel reality to the world of contemporary art, for various historical reasons, so much so that in museums it has always been considered a thing apart; paradoxically certain institutions have not even collected it. And the same has happened with photobooks, which have remained separate from the history of artists’ books”. In the last fifteen or twenty years, he notes, there has been a fusion of photography and contemporary art. “This phenomenon is not only seen in museums, but also in publishing: all these experiments do not come from nowhere, self-publishers did not invent them, but it is something that has matured from the experiences of the artistic avant-garde. Some scholars believe that the artist’s book is the form that expresses the quintessence of 20th century art because it has the characteristics that shaped the last century: the adoption of the industrial process, conceptual experimentation, the democratic, social and revolutionary impulse.”

And it is no coincidence, Ceschel continues, that many of the artists of the last generation were trained in universities where photography is taught in the Contemporary Art department and not in the Design or Applied Arts departments. “These photographers thus have a different way of thinking. Their mind is different from the previous generation, and that has always attracted me. But not because I am interested in contemporary art itself, but what is being said through it. In the end, what I am looking for – in general, in life – is to confront myself with new ideas. To be able to live better, to understand who I am and where I am. That is why I am always looking for something unprecedented, for what is being told and how it is being told.”

To explain what this means, Ceschel gives the example of his collaboration with artist and activist Carmen Winant, which he says is based on questioning her preconceptions and ideas about gender identity. SPBH published “My Birth,” the book of a project in which Winant collected almost 3 thousand images of women in the period of gestation and childbirth – a completely taboo topic in Western society – which was exhibited in the same year in the exhibition “Being: New Photography 2018” at Moma in New York. “That book had a visceral impact in the community of people I met at museums or fairs. We received so many messages of gratitude for that book. And for me, from a personal point of view, a world opened up that I did not know.” Another of Ceschel’s partnerships is with renowned American poet Claudia Rankine, with whom he collaborates regularly and with whom he is working on The Racial Imaginary Institute Biennale 2022, titled “On Nationalism: Borders and Belonging.” “Her radical work on the political and social construction of the white race has inspired me to embark on an incredible emotional and intellectual journey about my own identity.” Or his friendship with photographer and writer Nicholas Muellner, who explores the potential of the relationship between photography and literature. “He, too, opened up a world to me that was unknown to me. But the moment one gives you the key to enter it, you have the opportunity to discover how much is hidden behind that. These are all relationships that give me tools to open myself up to new ideas. As time goes by, I find that I am increasingly impatient with what gives me the impression of having already been seen and heard.”

It is from this impatience that, in 2018, the idea of organizing an event entitled “Photobook: RESET” at the C/O Berlin museum blossomed. “I had the impression that contemporary photography was not taking seriously certain topics that today, fortunately, have exploded into public debate. Why is it that museums only offer collections of works produced by men? Are there alternative voices to the heterosexual white man? But there were also the challenges posed by the acceleration of technological progress. These were the questions that I had and that I felt that no one was trying to answer seriously.” The idea was to invite photography’s elite – academics, curators, editors, critics, artists, designers – and ask them, rather than an ex-cathedra lecture, to get involved through the workshop format. “I did not expect solutions to be found. These are huge problems that cannot be solved in a weekend. But I wanted that, through very personal work, everyone would go home with a set of new questions to continue to reflect upon.” What have the results been three years later? “I do not like grading colleagues. But Lesley A. Martin of Aperture and Michael Mack came. Are their books now different than before? To some extent, yes. Things are moving along. I am not saying that event was decisive. Some things were already in the air. A lot of ground is still to be covered. But every now and then we see some jolts. Like what happened at Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, where Jane’a Johnson, a thirty-year-old African-American, was appointed creative director. She is the first non-Dutch woman to hold that position.”

In recent months, a new chapter in Ceschel’s life has begun. After a decade spent between the United Kingdom and the United States, mostly in London, he returned to Italy and has settled in Milan. “Reaching 40, it seemed like the right time to think about something new. Brexit provided the impetus. London is a place I love and has given me so much. I had incredible opportunities there, but now by returning to my country I hope to bring back my experience and a way of thinking about this work and photography that is probably different. I have not yet found a way to do this. But things have always worked out for me by experimenting in the field. I am not going to change my method. We will see.” In the meantime, four new SPBH books have been released in recent months. Two monographs, “Promise Land” by Gregory Eddi Jones and “Say So” by Whitney Hubbs, and two short essays on topics – as is typical of Ceschel – that are anything but obvious, “Instructional Photographs: Learning How to Live Now” by Carmen Winant and “To Be Determined: Photography and the Future” by Duncan Wooldridge.

Il Foglio, 28th December 2021

Alberto Garutti – An Interview

Alberto Garutti

By Luca Fiore

Alberto Garutti (Galbiate, 1948) shares Conceptual Art and Minimalism’s interest in the procedures and systems for describing phenomena (maps, diagrams, geometric forms). The artist, however, merges “human matter” to this analytical approach, consisting of doubts, fragilities, personal and collective stories. “I Think I Remember,” a work made for his first exhibition in 1975 consisting of 32 black-and-white photographs, depicts the artist in the room in which he was then sleeping. Around him, represented in a systematic way, are objects usually found in a bedroom: a mattress, shoes, a glass, a pillow, records. In an extremely politicized historical period, putting an “individual narrative” into play was tantamount to going against the grain of the more radical experiences of conceptualism, which then dominated the art scene. It was in that context, marked by ideologies and dogmatisms, that Garutti decided to take a stance aimed at recovering a dimension of attention and sensitivity towards the other, and of course also towards things.

Garutti, like the conceptualists and minimalists, uses artistic language to trigger subtle games of mental associations, but he also opens up for us personal narratives associated with the emotional dimension. This is the case with the ‘Skeins,’ a series of works made with colored nylon yarn coiled around a spool of cardboard. The length of the material used varies and corresponds to the distance between two locations. In some cases, for example, they tell the story of the space that separates the artist’s studio or home from that of the collector buying the work. “I grew up in Milan in a family with four children, and when any of us would get sick with measles, Mom would send us to isolate at our grandmother’s house in Olginate, on the Lake of Lecco. And there I would feel really blue. An unbearable homesickness. And that feeling measured the distance between me and my parents.” Thus ‘Skeins’ represents the objectivity of a physical distance that corresponds, ultimately, to an emotional closeness.

When working on a conceptual level, the work is all the more successful because the simplicity of the idea is able to touch on complex and profound topics. From 2004, Garutti began placing a stone slab on the pavement of public places in several European cities (Siena, Milan, Florence, London, Lugano, Antwerp, Kaunas) on which he engraved the inscription “Every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now.” The inscription is an invitation to reflect on the uniqueness of a person’s human journey. The work also takes on a new depth of meaning each time it is looked at. It is a silent narrative that follows the viewer wherever he or she goes. It suffices even just to evoke it in your memory and you will be led to trigger a mechanism that will make you think back over your life, leading you to say, “Everything I have lived was, in some way, necessary.”

What matters most in art, the artist says, is the mysteriousness of the visual event. He demonstrated this well in a work, also from 2004, created in the Certosa di Padula, in the province of Salerno, where, on a wall of one of the cells of the monastic complex, he affixed the inscription, “A sheet of gold 20 centimetres wide, 20 centimetres long, with a thickness of 3 millimetres had been hidden inside the walls of this room.” Here Garutti asks the viewer for an act of faith (the actual realization of the work is attested by a notarial deed) asking them to believe in the existence of something that is there but cannot be seen. The very instant the visitor reads the inscription, the empty space of the cell is filled with a precious but invisible presence. Just as, in centuries past, the same room was occupied by the mysterious Presence recognized by the faith of a monk. It is the theme of the spirit, of the mystery of existence. This theme is fundamental for Garutti. For, as he often repeats, “If we take spirituality away from art, what would be left?”

From the early 1990s, Garutti began to reflect systematically on art in public space, contributing to the redefinition of the concept of the monument. This no longer included the equestrian statue of the founding father of the fatherland, the hero or the martyr in the middle of the city square, elements alien to the fabric of the city’s human and social relations. These works involve a process of creation that is simultaneously critical, ethical and poetic and that, as a whole, constitutes the work itself. “The method is the work,” the artist states. What this means can be understood in his recent Three Thresholds for Ca’ Corniani made in 2019 in Caorle (Venice), with landscape curatorship by Andreas Kipar and artistic curatorship by Elena Tettamanti and Antonella Soldaini, commissioned by Genagricola, Generali’s agri-food holding company that own the largest estate in Italy (17 thousand hectares). It consists of three works placed at access points to the area, which arose from his initial involvement with the life of the place, made up of meetings and dialogues with those for whom the work is intended. They are, he explains, the “unwitting patrons.” The works speak of them and they will be the ones to benefit from them. This is how Garutti identified the three places and three themes.

The first theme are the animals from the only farm that the business, to this day, continues to rent to a private farmer. They are three horses and two dogs whose life-size portraits the artist has produced in acrylic resin and white marble powder, lined up along a canal. “They are not just any animals, they are those of Renzo, the farmer I met in person. The work speaks of his work, his presence in the area, his toil and his affections. It is an invitation to reflect on the relationship between that man’s work and that particular landscape.” The inscription on the pedestals of each statue reads: ” The horses and dogs portrayed here live on the farm and are the custodians of this landscape. The work is dedicated to them and to the people passing through here who will see these fields cultivated like a great garden.”

Garutti then singled out another “emotional” place in the area: the abandoned farmhouse of Ca’ Cottoni, which he had secured and cleared of Eternit roofing. The work consists of 7 thousand square-based pyramids of gilded metal sheet, which reflect light differently according to its intensity and from different points of observation. The “caption” reads, “The great golden roof lends a precious touch to this farmhouse. The work is dedicated to its history and to the people passing through here who will imagine its empty rooms filling up with life again.” In the past, the building was home to many families in the area. There was also a rectory in it, where the parish priest lived. “That was where the life of the village took place. They told me that the faithful would go to those rooms to celebrate Mass in the winter because it was too cold and damp in the nearby church.” At the project’s inauguration in summer 2019, the local residents who attended, Garutti recalls, spoke of their relatives who had lived there. The new golden roof restores dignity and revives a history of relationships that time was making people forget.

The last site-specific work is that placed between the earth and sky. It is a large inscription of light (the handwriting is that of the artist) that bears these words, “These lights will vibrate whenever lightning strikes in Italy during thunderstorms. This work is dedicated to anyone passing by who will think of the sky.” The installation has a light intensity control device connected to Meteorage, which monitors the fall of lightning. It is a work that invites a relationship with that part of the landscape that is the sky: a place of imagination, where Zeus sits, or where the Eternal Father dwells. The theme, Garutti concludes, is “the enigmatic nature of natural phenomena and their seductive mystery. It is the mystical sense of nature, which art has always tried to represent.”

Domani, 24th December 2021

© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista

Danh Vo – An Interview

Danh Vo

by Luca Fiore

“A light cut of a saber will separate my head, like a gardener cuts a spring flower for his pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth that God reaps in His due time, some earlier, some later. May it be the purple rose, the maiden lily, or the humble violet. Let us all try to please the Lord and Master according to the scent or color that is given to us.” Thus wrote St. Théophane Vénard, a French missionary to Vietnam, on January 20, 1861, in his last letter to his father just days before his martyrdom. The full text in French, transcribed in beautiful calligraphy on a sheet of paper, hangs on a wall of the Milanese Viale Lombardia branch of Galleria Massimo De Carlo, which is hosting an exhibition by naturalized Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. The artist himself, who has participated three times in the Venice Biennale and has exhibited in major instructions around the world from the Guggenheim in New York to the Reina Sofia in Madrid, admits that it is the work that best summarizes the terms of his poetics, which he likes to display in every exhibition. “If I could have created only one work in my whole career, I would have produced this one,” he tells me.

Vietnam is the only Asian country that switched to using the Latin alphabet during French rule. The artist’s father, who fled the country with his family in 1979 and landed in Denmark when Dahn was only four years old, had never made use of his calligraphy skills except for a few signs to put on display in his own grocery stores. The man, now 72 years-old, never learned Danish or any other Western language. The work, first created in 2009, comprises of Danh Vo’s father, Phung Vo, copying St. Vénard’s letter in beautiful handwriting despite not being able to understand what is written. Thus, the artist explains, it is in fact a drawing and not a text. The “drawing,” in blue pen on an A4 sheet of paper, is re-done each time a collector requests it. “So far we have made almost 2,000. It is not an edition – each sheet has a fixed price of 300 euros – but it is a single work that will come to an end with my father’s death.” And it is no coincidence that the dating of the work entitled 2.2.1861 is 2009– ongoing. Vo continues, explaining that “it talks about how language travels, returns, and mutates. It references the fact that the writer cannot read and that the text is also an image. It is a work that reflects on how violent power can return cyclically in the history of a country. But it also speaks of the distance between the creator and the observer, the distance between the French reader of today and the 19th century, and finally the distance between me and my father.” It is a reflection on the difference between human beings, but also on their possibility to be connected. And again, it is a poke at the meaning of work, the toil of manual dexterity, the precision of the calligrapher.”

This sheet dictates the atmosphere of the artist’s entire intervention in the spaces of the Corbellini-Wassermann House, designed by Piero Portaluppi in 1934, home of the gallery. Vo enters into a dialogue with the marble and wooden flooring of the former apartment, using marble scraps he procured from a producer in Bolzano. The artist uses the stone, along with softwood, iron clamps and fragments of antique sculptures, to make installations that Vo says play with the concept of “interlocking.” The fragments of ancient sculptures rest on marble, which, in turn, rests on wood. The idea is to create a pedestal for the sculpture, but the work is a dialogue between the two types of stone. “It is an attempt to look at works from the past in a different way, through the lens of time and other elements that have intervened in the material, including the human hand,” he explains. He adds, “The point is to observe the different types of beauty of the stone, what has happened to it: the cutting of the machine, the chisel that carved it, or the time that polished it.”

The most striking work in the exhibition, which the artist conceived as a single installation made on site, is in my opinion the work whose base is formed by a kind of salt-and-pepper granite bench, on which a fragment of sculpture resembling the decoration of a lion’s foot and a bronze face of Christ rest “interlocking.” The two elements are supported by small softwood supports. Christ’s face cannot be recognized except by lowering one’s gaze to the level of the bench.

The use of armless crucifixes, statues of medieval madonnas or fragments of Roman sculptures is common in Vo’s work. Their recontextualization and re-signification resembles what early Christian artists did in turn with myths, festivals, and buildings from the Roman world. In their own small way, the Vietnamese artist’s elegant and balanced compositions participate in the same language as Rome’s Pantheon, where the grandeur of the pagan temple becomes a celebration of Marian worship. For Vo, this is not ancient art at all: “These pieces do not belong to the past. They are objects that we still come across today. And many of the ones I choose communicate the sense of destruction wrought by time.” By the same logic, he took the original frame of the Caravaggio stolen in Palermo in 1969 to the 2013 Venice Biennale: “It was like a scar. It had to do with the idea of the fragment.” In a sense, the words of Saint Vénard, the French missionary, are also used in this same way.

Vo’s relationship with the Catholic Church is not linear. In the 1960s his father had secretly converted from Confucianism to Catholicism in silent protest against the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As a boy, the artist was educated in his parents’ religion and tells me he went to Mass every Sunday until he was 18 when, hating doing it, he stopped for good: “I got rid of a trauma.”

One of his great points of reference is Cuban artist Félix Gonzalez-Torres, whose exhibition he curated in Brussels in 2010 as part of the “Specific Objects Without Specific Form” project. Vo says that Gonzalez-Torres “taught me to embrace contradictions. He works using oppositions. He could make a private fact public, showing his bed pillows on a billboard, and he could touch the private dimension of a public fact, such as the plague of AIDS.”

Bringing opposites together, showing contradictions remains one of the goals of Vo’s art because, he explains, “That’s the way life is.” Art, he says, must have to do with what one believes in, “and I believe in the contradictions of things. We learn that there is always meaning in life, but things often go in the opposite direction, contradicting it. And these two phenomena coexist. It is important for me to come to terms with this paradox.”

For the past five years, after a stint in Mexico City, Vo opened a studio in Stechlin, a village in the countryside an hour and a half from Berlin. The building is surrounded by a large plot of land that he is turning into a large garden. The artist realized he did not know the names of the plants, flowers and birds he was seeing. “I thought it was wrong,” he says, “So I decided it was time to learn them.” At first, not knowing German well, he tried baptizing plants with invented names. Then he decided to use their botanical names in Latin. This is how a new series of works, presented for the first time in the exhibition by De Carlo, was born, in which photographs of flowers taken by the artist himself are presented in prints with their Latin names underneath, written by his father Phung Vo in his perfect calligraphy. “Having a garden teaches you patience. It is good to watch things change over time. My exhibitions live for a limited time. When they come apart they disappear. Plants, on the other hand, keep growing and changing. The lockdown gave me a chance to notice the seasons. It had been ten years since, travelling all over the world, I had witnessed this phenomenon.” This, like the St. Vénard letter series, is also an ongoing work that is constantly growing. It will perhaps one day baptize the purple rose, the maiden lilac and the humble violet in Latin.

Domani, 19th September 2021

Berlinde De Bruyckere – An interview

Berlinde De Bruykere

by Luca Fiore

To elucidate on the poetics of Berlinde De Bruyckere, who was born in 1964 in Ghent, Belgium, where she lives and works, we have often had to resort to biographical information, such as her being the daughter of a butcher and having grown up in a Catholic context. Even though she became accustomed to seeing quarters of oxen carried on shoulders and bloody scrubs as a child, the artist has always said that her father’s job has not had any influence on the themes she touches upon in her work. More complex and profound, however, is her relationship with religion. She tells us that during her childhood, from the age of five, she lived in a Catholic boarding school. “My first approach to art came from looking at expressions of religious creativity. When I was taken into the institution’s chapel, my attention was drawn not to what was being said or done, but to the sculptures of the saints. I was not so interested in what people they represented, but in the fact that those objects were there, like presences. This deeply affected my sensitivity as a child. It taught me to listen to certain stories and then to see them painted or sculpted. They stayed with me.” During the first ten years of her career, she confides, she never tapped into this reservoir of images. Then, as she began working on the theme of the suffering body in the late 1990s, she inevitably returned to looking at the Great Masters. “You only have to visit one of your wonderful Italian museums to get an idea. How many works, read through a religious or mythological lens, touch on themes of life and death? The art of the Great Masters is like a hook from which I hang my own work, and which allows me to understand more.”

De Bruyckere has absorbed the desire to offer something that can give hope, of showing something beautiful, yet difficult, from Catholicism. “I think of Roger Van Der Weyden’s Pieta, which he says he painted to allow people to mourn the loss of a loved one. I, too, basically want to do something like that.” But the theme of flesh, its suffering and redemption is quintessential of a Catholic sensibility and art. If salvation exists, it must involve not only the spirit, but also the human body. If the possibility of resurrection exists, it must also involve the flesh. And the body of Christ, first crucified and then resurrected, is an image of the destiny of any other body.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Engelenkeel (photo: Mirjam Devriendt)
Courtesy The Artist and Galleria Continua

Those who imagine Berlinde De Bruyckere as a sort of dark lady, constantly immersed in thoughts of death, are mistaken. Her vocabulary does not lack words like “joy” or “happiness.” When we ask her about her life as an artist, she sweeps away any doubts: “I feel privileged to do a job that forces me to think about such important and life-related issues. I am a happy person. I have a great family. But in my work I do what helps me as a human being. And it’s very nice to get reactions from people who, in turn, have felt helped.” What sustains her creative energy, she confides, is contact with other people, and the joy of going into her studio every morning and testing her ideas out: “Everything doesn’t always go the way I think it should. Sometimes I fail. What remains is the joy of feeling surrounded by people who try to help me achieve my passion. What also helps me though is what I see on my commute to my studio, or in the news, or in books in my library. There are many sources of inspiration.”

In these days, the Belgian artist is presenting an anthological exhibition at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht entitled “Engelenkeel” (Angel’s Throat), in which she presents, among other things, two new works made during the pandemic: Archangel and Sjemkel. They are female figures, standing on a rough wooden base, covered by a cloak made of cowhide that leaves their bare legs uncovered. The sculptures are made from wax, resin and pieces of authentic leather. “When I visited the churches in Rome as a girl, I was struck by these wonderful creatures placed on the outside of the buildings,” she explains. “I felt they were very significant, both for the theme itself and because of the relationship between the figure and the architecture. I made some drawings and collages of them. I used to collect feathers and attach them to very glossy black paper. But I had never tried to make sculptures out of them.” These figures, almost ghostly, look very much like another cycle of her works made in the late 1990s, in which upright female bodies, made of wax, were hidden under heavy colored blankets. It was the first time that the human figure appeared in the artist’s work, which later became one of the key themes of her poetics. The idea was to create an intimate space, where you could be alone, isolated, with your own thoughts and feelings. “It was interesting to notice the reaction of the models posing for those sculptures. They said they were totally uncomfortable under the covers. Since they couldn’t see who was looking at them, they felt even more naked than they would have had they been completely visible. It’s the relationship between you and me that makes it all the more complicated.”

The external form, the silhouette of those women hidden by the blankets, is very similar to the angels in the Maastricht exhibition. “But when you see them from life,” she explains, “you realize that what looks like a curtain or a blanket is actually wax molded from a mold made of cowhide. This was initially related to the myth of Marsyas, the satyr who, having challenged Apollo on who was more skilled in the arts, was flayed for his pride.”

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Engelenkeel (photo: Mirjam Devriendt)
Courtesy The Artist and Galleria Continua

The idea of the angel came to De Bruyckere when a Belgian journalist, at the beginning of the pandemic, asked her what work of art she would like to have in her home at a time when museums were closed and one could not have direct contact with art. “I started looking through my books. Flipping through one on Giorgione, whom I love very much, I found a painting that I had never seen in real life. A dead Christ supported by an angel, which is in a private collection in the United States.” It is a square canvas occupied for the most part by Christ’s naked torso. Behind it is a large-winged angel holding him up. Light comes in from the side and the angel’s cheeks shine. “That’s the image I was looking for!” – she recounts – “it showed what I saw happening around me. People suffering and people, in hospitals, trying to help. It was a time when we were all asking ourselves so many questions. We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know what was right. There was a lot of fear, we were scared of each other. But, at the same time, I saw people giving their all to do what they could to help those in need. In my eyes, those people had become angels. I thought it was time to address that theme.”

De Bruyckere’s angels diverge greatly from classical iconography. The figures, posed on a high pedestal, suggest, under their heavy leather cloak, the presence of protrusions that could be wings. The asexual beauty of the art of the great masters is not conveyed; there is no narration. Their face is hidden, as it is in all human figures produced by the artist. The reason why the face is absent is that its hairstyle is related to the fashion of the moment, while the naked body is something universal. “Covering the figures allowed me to imagine the wings. It’s something much more intimate. It’s much more connected to a sense of hope. There’s the notion that these creatures might be able to fly. The way I place the sculptures on the base is also designed to make it unclear whether they are flying away or coming to rest on the ground. It’s something you need to feel, not something I decide. Do you wish for them to leave, or to come to help you? Or do you want them to go to someone else?”

Looking back over De Bruyckere’s career, it is evident that the theme of the human figure was touched upon even when tree trunks or the bodies of exhausted horses are depicted. “In 1999 I worked at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, which is entirely dedicated to the events of the First World War. There I exhibited five life-size portraits of dead horses, made by stitching real leather. The shape of those corpses is a very powerful metaphor for death. It rendered the idea that we are dealing with something larger than the size of our bodies. After seeing a work like that, we will look at a suffering body differently.”

The 2011 series “Into One-Another” in fact dealt with suffering and mangled limbs, in which the artist began to fuse together pieces of naked human bodies made of wax, so that each part seemed to grow from the other. The theme was also picked up on later using horses. It’s certainly a sexual metaphor, but for the artist it is also related to the process of metamorphosis: “It’s about something arising out of something else and becoming bigger and more important.”

What is most destabilizing about De Bruyckere’s work is that the theme of death and suffering of the body is inextricably intertwined with that of beauty, which, as is her intention, appears necessary to deal with decay, anger and fear. “If I leverage beauty, using beautiful, soft and flexible materials such as blankets, horsehide or wax, I can go deeper and achieve greater intensity. If I used bronze or cast iron for my sculptures, which are cold elements, the viewer would be drawn away from the theme. I make use of what people like to touch. Fragile elements.” The dimension of beauty is also linked to silence, “which is what comes immediately after the incomprehensible moment of death. After the suffering of a body, even that of a horse, there is a silent pause, which is very helpful in trying to understand and find calm. The last moments of life are the most difficult, you feel that you don’t want to leave and that you want to keep living. They can be moments of struggle, even aggression. But when it’s all over, silence comes. Very often in my works you can see both struggle and calm at the same time.” But the most scandalous aspect of these works emerges when beauty becomes sensual and is contaminated with a sense of the end: Eros and Thanatos. De Bruyckere is aware of the presence of this figure in her work. “With Thanatos there is silence, while with Eros there is passion and life. They are the opposite of each other, but both are deeply rooted in us. We are always thinking about life and love, but also about death. This is not a duality that I am interested in intentionally bringing out. It appears because it comes from the deepest part of me.”

We all suffer, we all die. And we are all aware of it. But shouldn’t art say something we don’t already know? And yet, addressing such a theme has a sting to it, rubbing salt into the wound. If we don’t know why we die, it’s difficult to give ourselves an answer as to why we live. No one is interested in quick answers. To deal with the theme of death is to confront the great mystery of life.

A few weeks ago, De Bruyckere placed a sculpture, Honte (2018-2019), in a small chapel in Ghent, which depicts a foal that has survived only one day lying on a large rock. “The work was illuminated by natural light coming in through a stained glass window. At the opening, there were many astonished reactions. They said, ‘It’s so beautiful.’ Yet they were faced with the figure of a dead horse. Nature created something wonderful and, after just twenty-four hours, has deprived it of life.” The animal, the artist explains, lies on a large stone. “I see this dialogue between the boulder that took millennia to form and the fragile and wonderful animal that lived just a few hours, lying with its eyes closed with its hoofs on its face, as if to protect itself. It shows no signs of suffering, so much so that someone thought it was sleeping. I like that the position of the animal insinuates this doubt: is it dead or asleep? It depends, perhaps, on a certain kindness that I try to give to my sculptures. But more than kindness, I would say softness.”

Instinctively, De Buyckere’s work has come to be likened to Alberto Burri’s “sacks” and Francis Bacon’s bodies. “With regards to Burri, I think we are united by the sense of fragility that the material used communicates, although recent works made with blankets come from another idea.” After using them as an image of shelter and protection, over the past decade, the artist has tried leaving them outdoors for months or years to expose them to the elements. “Nature is my silent worker. Using this type of fabric fits better with my way of thinking today. Time has transformed the material. And also the way I understand it. The social context has completely changed since the 1990s. Today we are no longer able to protect people, to offer them help. We abandon and let those who cross the sea die.”

A comparison with Bacon has accompanied De Bruckere for years and, she confides, she does not particularly appreciate the work of the great English painter. “At first I was annoyed by it. But the fact that they kept comparing me to him led me to wonder if there really was a relationship. We actually have several things in common.” One of them, she explains, is twisting bodies, deforming them. The other is the way she depicts skin and flesh. “But there’s also another aspect: Bacon presented his paintings behind glass and with large gold frames. I think because his themes are so strong and direct, he felt the need to place something between the work and the viewer. It’s a bit like what I do with display cases to protect horses or human bodies. It’s a filter between the viewer and the fragility of the sculpture.”

There is another artist to whom De Bruyckere feels she owes a great deal: the 16th-century German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. For a long time, she says, she produced drawings from his paintings, interested in the way he deformed figures and the way he rendered flesh tones. The painterly quality of her sculptures, she says, came from him. “Another artist who has influenced my poetics is Pier Paolo Pasolini. The Into One-Another series came about because I was working with my team on his work to find aspects to translate into sculpture. I love the fact that he worked with his friends, his lovers, his own mother and had them act in his films. It’s a bit like working in my studio, where we have become one big family. We hang out, we know each other’s children, we love each other and help each other. It’s a very nice way to work, even if it’s challenging. I don’t just have my family, I have something bigger to take care of. Working in a studio is not just doing your job, everyone takes charge of the works that are created, like real things, not like fairy tales.”

Her next big project is an exhibition at Palazzo Pitti, in the spaces of the Uffizi. The exhibition is scheduled for next November. To work on the project, De Bruyckere will have to go to Florence several times. “Some of my works arise in relation to the work of the old masters, others do not. I’m interested in perceiving whether my most recent works have any connections to the masterpieces of the past. It’s an opportunity that rarely happens in life and I want to give it my all.”

Domani, 11th July 2021

Lesley A. Martin – An Interview

New Black Avanguard

by Luca Fiore

They call it the ‘golden age of the photobook’. And we are right in the midst of it. Over the last two decades, photo publishing has experienced a real boom – both quantitatively and qualitatively. In complete contrast to the print market, the interest of authors and the public has only grown. The number of publishers has multiplied and the practice of self-publishing has spread. And the goal of many photographers, rather than exhibiting their work in an exhibition, is above all to see their images take the form of a book.

The onset of this phenomenon was made to coincide with “Fotografía pública. Photography in Print 1919-1939”, the exhibition curated by Horacio Fernández in 1999 at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid – an unprecedented attempt to consider the photographic image from a publishing standpoint. In the meantime, first attempts were made to historicise the phenomenon, giving it a centrality that had never been acknowledged. Andrew Roth started with his “The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century”, published in 2001. This was followed by the three volumes of “The Photobook: A History”, edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Bedgere, published by Phaidon between 2004 and 2014. But the revolution had already begun in the early 1990s, especially with the books designed and produced by the Swiss Martin Keller who, with Scalo Publishers, had shaken up the field with masterpieces such as Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh”, in which editorial form and content reached unprecedented standards.

In the late 1990s, Lesley A. Martin became an intern at the Aperture Foundation, the most prestigious photography institution in the United States, founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall. Today, having become the creative director of Aperture, having founded and directed The Photobook Review and having established the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, Martin is the most powerful woman in the world of photobook publishing. A female figure that stands out in an environment dominated by men, even if, after all, it was a lady who produced the first photography book in history: English botanist Anna Atkins, who in 1843 published a collection of images of the algae she was studying. Martin has lived and worked in Japan, but makes use of Italian book printers – her favourite is Trifolio in Verona, which also serves MoMA in New York. This allows her to brush up on her Italian, which she learned in Casal Palocco, between Rome and Ostia, where she lived with her family between the ages of 5 and 13 (her father was employed by Firestone).

Lesley A. Martin

If you ask her what the purpose of publishing a paper book today is, in an age when images are the engine of the digital world, she employs a culinary metaphor: “I love junk food. So do social networks, to which I am as addicted as anyone else. I read books on my smartphone and, for certain content, I think it makes sense. But slow food is something else. The paper book experience manages to bring together images, text and graphics in a way that best conveys the photographer’s intentions.” And it’s also a matter of quality: “For music, vinyl is back in vogue, which has a better sound quality than streaming. The same applies to photographs on paper. It’s true that nowadays most images are created digitally on a screen and it’s changing the way we approach visual storytelling. Some people may be working on discovering new ones, but I have yet to see technologies that can show complex narratives in the way that the traditional book can.”

For Lesley Martin, when it comes to photography exhibitions, however, the matter is entirely different. The metaphor she uses is again musical. “When it was allowed, I loved going to concerts. You listen to live music in a certain place at a certain time. And you can do it with others. But then, back home, I want to listen to the record once, twice, a hundred times. The recording is the ‘canonical’ form of the musician’s work, to which we return as a reference, in contrast to all the variants there may be in a live performance.” In this sense, she explains, the two forms of presentation of the work are complementary and necessary. “There are cases in which, even for books that I have edited, it has happened that, looking at the images on show, I have noticed details that I had not noticed during the editing process. Then, however, the photographers tell me that for them it is the book that matters. But maybe they just say that to me just to please me… [she laughs].”

Aperture is a publisher with a long history and has contributed to building the canon of American photography. Books such as “Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph”, Steven Shore’s “Uncommon Places”, Joel Meyerowitz’s “Cape Light” and Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” are must-haves and best-sellers. But the challenge today, Martin explains, is to revise this canon and fill in the gaps. “We are working hard to right certain wrongs done in the past. The main objective, therefore, is not so much to find the new artist to publish, but to look back and introduce our readers to figures who have so far remained on the margins.” The most important example is Kwame Brathwaite, an African-American photographer who worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Fiercely independent, he set up an agency to distribute his images and only worked with black models. “He made really extraordinary portraits. He was an expression of the Black is Beautiful movement, which is also the title of the book that came out two years ago and was edited by Tanisha C. Ford. We had a travelling exhibition and the book, which cost 50 dollars, was reprinted several times.”

The visibility of black photographers is a topic that, according to Martin, applies to the past as well as the present. “Voices like Brathwaite’s are still there today. And, perhaps, with social networks, they have more tools to make themselves known. But I am very interested in identifying certain phenomena and going to meet them. Thus in 2019 The New Black Vanguard was born, a collection of 15 young black artists from the UK, Nigeria, South Africa and the US.” When you try to point out that it is a very ‘American’ topic, Martin replies, “No, it’s not. So much so that we will take the exhibition that was born from this project to the Arles Festival this summer, but we have asked the curator Antwaun Sargent to add European artists as well. For example, Silvia Rosi, Italian of Togolese origin, will take part.”

In addition to her work with books, Martin is also in charge of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards, which she helped found in 2012 and which has now become the world’s leading award for photo publishing. It is presented every year at the Paris fair held at the Grand Palais. “It was like a second degree for me. Every year I have the opportunity to look at about a thousand books from all over the world. Of course, I don’t get to look at them all with the same attention, but over time you start to notice patterns, genres, trends, both from the point of view of themes and production choices.” It is not the Prix Nadar, which rewards the best book published in France, but has the ambition of monitoring the global market. The prize awarded to Paris Photos is divided into three categories: best PhotoBook, first PhotoBook and best exhibition catalogue. The short-list consists of 35 books in total, which are exhibited during the week of the Parisian fair attended by 70,000 people each year (“At the end, the books are completely worn out…”). The selection then tours several festivals in eight cities in the United States, Japan, Australia, Lithuania and Ukraine. “This gives great visibility to these books, which usually end up sold out. It is a great opportunity for their authors to take important steps in their careers,” explains Martin. “But above all, the prize serves to give an idea of the higher level at which the game of photography publishing is being played. And, as the rules prohibit the participation of Aperture books, it also allows me to see what standard of quality I should be aiming for in my work.”

Lesley A. Martin’s other creation, born in 2011, is the PhotoBook Review, the magazine that comes out twice a year as a supplement to Aperture, the flagship magazine of the Aperture Foundation. Circulated in 15,000 copies, it is the only trade magazine in print and with international circulation. “It is a fascinating space for debate on the ecology of our world. It is interesting because we try to bring together the various people involved in the production of photobooks: photographers, graphic designers, editors and book printers.” In recent years, Martin has chosen to present monographic issues with guest editors. “They are a plunge into a particular area of interest related to the key themes of our work. This happened, for example, with the issue on the relationship between text and image, which we entrusted to the Italian Federica Chiocchetti, founder of Photocaptionist”.

And how has the publishing world handled this year of the pandemic? “We learned a lot of things. For example, that people still love books, especially if they can’t go to museums and galleries. I myself, not being able to go to Paris Photo or the New York Book Fair, was able to order books I was interested in online. It was beautiful and important. But now we also know how dependent we have become on internet communication. What does this mean? What legacy do we take away from these months?” This is a question that many people are asking themselves, and no one seems to be able to answer it yet. “But I am optimistic because I see many interesting and intelligent people who are working to find new ways forward. I am confident that we can find the right balance between real life and digital life. If only for the fact that the photobook boom would not have happened without the advent of the internet. It would be unimaginable without digital processes, which have lowered production costs and thus consumer prices. Many questions remain open.”

“But Still, It Turns”, the exhibition curated by Paul Graham at the International Center of Photography in New York, which tries to propose a new canon for documentary photography, has been the subject of much debate in photography circles. According to the British photographer – and not only according to him – this type of research has been penalised in museums and galleries in favour of images shot in a studio or heavily modified on a computer. But the issue, according to Martin, is what is meant by “documentary photography”. “I am old school and I love photography because it captures something that is in the world. Between me and reality there is this medium, film. It is something wonderful and poetic. That kind of research, if done well, is the best you can ask of photography. Yes, many photographers, like Graham, feel marginalised by the space given over to more experimental forms. But I think the world is big and there is room for everyone.” Many artists, she explains, are reflecting on that part of our lives that takes place in the digital world. “I think photography made in the analogue world is just as important as photography that investigates digital reality. If we didn’t take both aspects into account, we would have a much poorer understanding of the world.”

Il Foglio, 20th June 2021

Dana Scruggs, Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Dana Scruggs
Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Orleans, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Arielle Bobb-Willis
Daniel Obasi, Moments of Youth, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Daniel Obasi
Nadine Ijewere, Untitled, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019)© Nadine Ijewere, for Garage magazine
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite

Michael Mack – An Interview

by Luca Fiore

The photography exhibition of the moment – and the current moment is definitely not insignificant – is “But Still, It Turns,” which opened last February 4 in New York at the International Center of Photography, managed by Englishman David Campany. Curator of the exhibition of the works of eight American and European artists is fellow Englishman, photographer Paul Graham. Galileo’s phrase “Eppur si muove”, which acts as the exhibition’s title, already provides a value judgement on documentary photography, which has fallen into the background after the splendour of the last twenty-thirty years; yet, it’s still vital to the work of those whom Graham defines as photographers interested in life “as it is”. The days of rhetoric about the objectivity of the medium of photography are certainly over. The illusion that film or image sensors can record “the” truth, without technical or cultural filters, seems to have vanished. And yet, there are still those who have not given up and have not lost interest in what Roland Barthes called “intractable reality”. Graham’s choice fell upon Vanessa Winship, Curran Hatleberg, RaMell Ross, Gregory Halpern, Kristine Potter, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Italians Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti. The ambition is to write a true manifesto of a new way of doing photography, which the New York Times has compared to the enterprise undertaken by MoMa in 1967 with “New Documents”, launching three authors – almost unknown then – into history: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The most astute observers have noticed that the names involved in the exhibition – Campany, Graham, and two of the artists in the show, Winship and Halpern – are also linked to someone else, similarly an Englishman: Michael Mack, founder of MACK publishing house, which has published work by the other four. If there were a campaign to write a new page in the canon of the history of photography, he would undoubtedly play the role of an authentic Pygmalion.

Michael Mack

Born in London in 1965, Mack worked for 15 years at the court of the German Gerhard Steidl, undisputed king of art and photography publishing. After an interlude of a few years, in which he published under the label Steidl/Mack, he set out on his own in 2010 to set up his own publishing house. “The only regret I have,” he explains, “is that I didn’t have the patience or imagination to come up with a brand name other than my surname.” Known in the industry for his charm, Mack is considered a businessman who knows what he’s doing. His boldest move was his decision to break with Distributed Art Publishers, the American art publishing distribution giant. Today, a direct relationship with bookstores grants him greater profit margins on the retail price. Eleven years later, MACK has perhaps become the most significant organization in the world of photography publishing. In its catalogue, in addition to big names such as Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Michael Schmidt, it also presents now established artists such as Taryn Simon, Alec Soth, and Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jason Fulford, as well as artists not exclusively related to photography, such as Thomas Demand, Tacita Dean and Torbjørn Rødland.
One of the most surprising things is that among the bestsellers published by MACK, we find two great Italians: Luigi Ghirri, whose complete collection of essays it has published – the only one in the world –, and Guido Guidi, who has produced eight titles with the English publisher. His love affair with Italian photography began in the early 1990s. “I was in Germany and there I came into contact with the German and Swedish tradition. I realised that beyond the canon of photography, which is all American, national stories have incredible depth and richness. They are very sophisticated.” The same thing happened in his discovery of Ghirri’s work: “I had the impression that he was contributing to the definition of the photographic medium as such.” And he still remembers the impression he had the first time he went to Ronta, on the outskirts of Cesena, to Guido Guidi’s studio: “Every box of prints he opened was a finished book. Incredible. It’s a privilege to be able to collaborate with a master like him. He still has an unexplored archive and very clear ideas about how he wants to exhibit his work.” Both Ghirri and Guidi, he explains, are rooted in their world that is Italy. “Even photographers under the big name of Magnum, coming from America and passing through Italy for a few weeks, cannot do what they did.” They are two artists who, in generation and interests, are very similar. But they also have different approaches. “Ghirri is very much influenced by personalities like William Eggleston, who is an absolute genius of the single image. Guidi’s eye, on the other hand, has the ability to penetrate the fabric of his environment and works more often with sequential shots.”

Mack is always on the hunt for talent and new authors. He is also looking for them in Italy. But he doesn’t just come to Italy looking for photographers. His books, in fact, are almost all printed by Italian companies. “Your printers and bookbinders have an extraordinary sensitivity and a special ability to understand what we need. And this allows us to be more daring.” His latest news, decided upon in recent weeks, is that Mack will open an Italian office to better follow work on new projects and to respond to his own great following, including sales, in Italy. “One of our two graphic designers, after months of lockdown in London, asked us to return to Trieste. This offered us the opportunity to open our own operational headquarters.”
When asked if his intention with “But Still, It Turns” really is to contribute to the writing of a new canon of photography, he answers indirectly, but the impression given is that “the short answer” is yes. “It was Paul Graham’s proposal. It is very precise and touches upon two very contemporary issues. The first is that in our time, which is dominated by moralism, privacy laws make it very difficult to create works of art based on photographs taken of people without their consent, like the greats Robert Frank, Gerry Winograd, Lisette Model and Henri Cartier-Bresson did.” The second point, explains Mack, is that in recent years, the museum and gallery world has favoured photography shot in a studio, and has been promoting heavy image manipulation. “Graham, on the other hand, goes back to offering a model of work that takes a part of life – something that actually happened – and turns it into a work of art. Having said that, I have to admit that if you go and look at the books I’ve published so far, it’s actually the kind of photography that I also prefer. My personal taste, out of necessity, greatly influences the type of books I publish. I don’t simply cater to packaging ideas by letting the market decide what works or not. I start with the artists’ thoughts and choose based on my own tastes. Then my tastes don’t always work out.” The flop that still burns him the most dates back to 2005, when he was still collaborating with Steidl. It involved “Jens F,” by New York-based photographer Collier Schorr. “It’s still my favourite book. It had no visibility and we didn’t sell. You can console yourself with those four experts who tell you it was a masterpiece… but it remains a commercial failure.” But the life of photography books is very strange and, over time, they may not improve like wine, but often increase in price – even significantly. The remaining copies of “Jens F” can today be found for sale on the publisher’s website at a thousand pounds each.

But MACK’s policy is not restricted to limited edition art books, even though there are signed Special Editions with numbered photographic prints; the ambition is to reach the general public. “Many publishers in our world today speak to a small fraternity of insiders. We, on the other hand, do produce artists’ books, but we try to do large print runs, keeping prices low and reprinting successful books, because we believe in the democracy of the publishing process.” For Mack, the photography publisher’s job is like that of any other publisher: to offer a platform that facilitates the dissemination of ideas. “We select, package, produce, promote the authors we like and try to get them out there as much as possible.” The point is that it’s not complicated to produce a book that looks good, Mack explains, “the hard thing is to find the form that best fits the content and to be able to circulate the work around the world.”
It may be the sense of challenge, but when selecting projects to produce, the publisher always tries to start from the idea. “I’m not really attracted to the famous name that hides behind its fame. The work that gives you the most stimulation is that with young people who have a fresher approach, and more direct involvement with today’s world.” His implicit reference is to the MACK First Book Award, which grants an artist the publication of their first book. “Then of course, I’ve also produced books by fishing in the archives of great photographers. Also because I end up breaking all the rules that I try to impose upon myself.” Another rule is that the design – the type of printing, the paper, the type of binding – should not overpower the artist’s work. For Mack, everything must be at the service of the idea. “I still see too many photography books that are solipsistic exercises in style. A successful book is an object that the reader holds and feels as something that was made for them. The challenge is to establish a dialogue with the audience. We try to offer content that anticipates people’s needs. In front of a great book, my consciousness meets the explosion of the author’s art. Something new is produced in my body and mind. It becomes an experience.” The success of these types of books, he explains, “is probably due to the fact that they ask you to do the opposite of what you do when you hold a mobile phone.”

The subject of print is important to Mack. “One of the characteristics of the photographic medium is its malleability. It lends itself to countless uses. But I am convinced that the book allows the artist to achieve the ideal presentation of their work. For me – but there are many others who also think so, especially among photographers – the book coincides with the work of art, more so than an exhibition.” Some books simply reproduce a series of photographs. And there would be nothing wrong with that. But the work of art is something else. This becomes clear when we ask Mack what he thinks of texts that accompany books of this genre. “There was a period in the 1980s and 1990s that I call the ‘Sontag-Berger era,’ when every photographer wanted at all costs to have text written by Susan Sontag or John Berger. They are two brilliant writers, but when they worked for photography books they wrote mediocre things.” Unless it’s for an exhibition catalogue, or in other special cases, Mack says that he flatly rejects such texts. “It’s like declaring that the work needs authentication through the name of a great writer, critic or curator telling you how the images should be read. As if they weren’t already able to speak for themselves.” From time to time he also tries to commission texts, asking authors to write about topics tangential to the content of the book, in an attempt to create connections. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but almost half of the texts I’ve commissioned, even from great writers, have turned out to be disappointments. Maybe it’s just me not being able to explain myself, but I can see that the temptation to describe the content of the photographs is too great.”
What about the future? What’s whirls around inside Michael Mack’s head? “Last year, in addition to starting to publish short essays, I began contacting many writers, particularly poets, and musicians. I would like to broaden the field in an attempt to make connections between the various artistic fields. Our field is in danger of becoming a bit of a ghetto; I’d like it to open up and create more exchange. This also means widening our public and being able to introduce authors like Ghirri and Guidi to a wider audience. After all, I’ve always conceived of myself as a publisher of art books, not necessarily only of photography.”

Il Foglio, 10th April 2021

Gregory Halpern – An Interview

by Luca Fiore

Gregory Halpern is one of the new things of American photography. New because he is young (born in Buffalo, NY, in 1977), and new because his images and his books seem to have an extra gear: an energy, vitality and capacity of touching on life’s biggest questions which are hard to find among his peers. He publishes for leading photography publisher, Mack; he was the recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014; in 2016, his penultimate book, ZZYZX, won the award for publication of the year at the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Award. From next year, he will be a Nominee Member of Magnum Photo. A few weeks ago, his new work Omaha Sketchbook came out, presented at Paris Photo in early November. It is here, at Europe’s most important photography fair, that we met him. Sitting on the steps of the Grand Palais, amid a coming and going of photographers, collectors and fans, he answers questions posed by those wishing to understand the secret of his images. “Like all my books, Omaha Sketchbook has a central through-line alongside which there are many other concepts. But the book was born with the idea of the average American Midwest male. It is a project that began during George W. Bush’s presidency, and ended in that of Donald Trump. In the meantime, I have moved, had two daughters, and begun to reflect on the idea of masculinity, gender identity, and the stereotypes of the American male, still closely linked to the image of the cowboy. Then, around this group of images, which the book is anchored in, I tried to transmit the sensation one can experience by being in a particular place. Light, landscape, animals, trees. It is in the midst of this flurry of sensations that the images of men return”.

The book looks like an anastatic copy of a sketchbook, where the photographer has posted the contact sheets of the photographs, in 6x7cm format, taken in the Nebraskan cities the author lived in for several months. The small photographs (they are each only 6×7 centimeters) are grouped into short sequences. On each page, there is one, or, at most, two photographs. The color of the paper changes, accompanying the different tones of the photographs: beige, green, red, pink. A trick which stops one yearning for the full-page photograph.

“The theme of masculinity is linked to something personal. In America, and I think in Italy too, though maybe in a different form, vulnerability and weakness are considered negative traits in men, a problem. We educate our young men to be hard, teach them not to show insecurity. I was interested in examining this hardness, to see where it fails. I think that awareness of one’s own weakness enables connections to be created between people. So I looked for the cracks in this hardness”.

Gregory Halpern
Gregory Halpern (photo Luca Fiore)

He indicates the portrait of a young prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, crouched beside the bed in his cell. He has a tattoo on his arm and another on his neck. “He is a prisoner, and may have done something very violent. But he is a kid. He wears his hair back a bit like James Dean. He is a hardman, but here he has a vulnerable expression. This is a bit of a contradiction”. Then he shows me three images of a man with a beard and a wide-brimmed hat, first with a rifle in his hands, then displaying his long hair which reaches his backside. “He’s the same: he has a gun in his hands, he is a hunter, but from behind, he looks like a woman”. Then he pauses over the portrait of an African-American football player: “American football players are men used to physical impact. But look: he seems very vulnerable. He looks like he needs a hug”.

Vulnerability, Halpern explains, is a form of force: “When we are too certain, our errors can lead to wars. We feel threatened by what is different from us, and we feel the need to respond in the same way. Like the US’ reaction to 9/11: Bush was itching to react; today, the entire world is paying the price of that haste. But I think that this totally masculine need of needing to appear tough is the origin of many other problems”.

Yet the book, by Halpern’s own admission, speaks about other themes as well. Though it is difficult to say exactly what. Yes, there is hunting, sport, automobiles, wrestling. But what is that ladder leaning against a fir tree doing there? Where does that lead? And what about those three photos of the same barn, in which the grass of the lawn in front of it appears in three different tones of green? Do they speak of the passing of time? And what about that snake moving menacingly?

Yet it is also a question of style and direction of research. Halpern appears to be completely immersed in the American documentary photography tradition, yet, at the same time, seems to distance himself from it. “It is not easy to explain what is different about my photography compared to the great masters I look up to, Walker Evans and Robert Franck above all. Maybe it’s that I wish to explore situations in which fiction and documentary can co-exist. I don’t know what to call it; maybe “’magical realism’”.

In the summer of 2017 he spent a month between North and South Carolina, during which time there was a total solar eclipse. Explaining that project, Halpern said: “I was fascinated by the idea that the entire nation was looking at the sun, enjoying the apocalyptic excitement of seeing the moon temporarily extinguish our source of life, all of us together”. Those images were published in 2018 in a book titled Confederate Moon. “The eclipse is a phenomenon often studied by photography lovers who, usually, take pretty basic photos. I tried to consider not only what people were seeing in the sky, but also what was happening behind them. I finished the project in little over a month, and I was interested to see what would happen if I put together a series of such contradictory photos. Ultimately, we photographers say that we document reality, but all we do is freeze whatever enters our frame. If you think about it, that is a fiction. So, I tried to include what may not usually be in the frame”.

Made with images taken over a five-year period in Southern California, ZZYXZ (this is not a typo, the title is the name of a village between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, on the border of the Mojave) presents not only landscapes and still lifes, but also portraits of people encountered on the road, and images posed by actors: “it is a mix of documentary and science-fiction”. The book was initially going to be entitled Babylon or Kingdom. It attempts to be, the photographer explains, a journey into a post-apocalyptic future, and, simultaneously, into a biblical past. It opens with the photo of an arm stretched out towards the sky: the hand is open and there are seven stars tattooed on the palm. It is a present-day image of the Apocalypse of St. John: “In his right hand, he held seven stars, a sharp double-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face resembled the sun shining in all its glory”. Halpern does not consider himself religious; he read the Bible as a work of literature. He explains: “It is a text which I loved. It is such a strange form of story: crazy, apocalyptic, sci-fi. It is strange that this type of narrative, so modern, should be the source of such conservative values. For me, religious art is surprising. I don’t know much about it, but when I went to Italy, I understood that I was more interested in it than in contemporary art. It contains both magic and horror. It is dark. But the beauty of the sun is very important: it points towards heaven. I like the light of magical things, shining in the darkness. Literally and metaphorically”.

Thinking that an image can truly become a metaphor, and speak of the biggest things in life, requires belief in the language of photography. “Yes, life and death. Hope and desperation. And light serves to trigger a certain type of feeling. The light of the sun…it sounds a bit stupid to say it like this, but it is so beautiful…it is so simple, but it is what keeps me going. Seeing the sun balancing in the lens is something magical. I am not religious, but that is the closest thing I can think of to spiritual feeling”.

Before sending ZZYXZ to print, Halpern sent a draft to Robert Adams, one of the fathers of American photography, author of the essential Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. In response, Adams wrote: “Beauty, and its implied promise, are the metaphor which gives art its value. It helps us to rediscover some of our best intuitions, those which encourage us to care”. For Adams, Halpern explains, the search for beauty is not a pursuit of the past. “In the American art schools, its considered something for losers. Adams hates people like Jeff Koons, who bases everything on irony and on business. In that type of art, there is no hope. For him, finding beauty in the world is a form of home and spirituality”. What about for Halpern, a forty-year old liberal? Does beauty still have a value? “Nowadays, it is so easy to have no hope. Ugliness is everywhere. We all know how evil the world, and people, can be. Finding beauty is important. But Adams says that we have to do it without lying. Because some photos of a sunset or a flower lie, and don’t say much”. The next project in the pipeline is a book on Buffalo, his birthplace. It is a project that has been ongoing now for twenty years. It is a difficult piece, because speaking of places where one grew up is to speak of oneself. There is a real risk of working on it for one’s whole life.

“But I decided that I want to finish it. I’ll give myself another year, then I want to publish it in 2021”. It is a project he has been speaking about for a long time. As early as 2010, in a conference in New York, he was dropping hints about the project. Describing it, he said he wished to show the extent to which ruin is “inextricably linked to grace”. Much time has now passed, and today, he says, he cannot recall what he meant on that occasion. It is another theme linked to hope? Why, despite ruin, can there still be hope? “Because if we don’t think like this, all that is left is desperation. I don’t know, maybe that’s the reason for getting up in the morning and carrying on. We all need a reason to start our day. Many feel they are on a precipice, overlooking a disaster. But we must keep believing, even if hope is so fragile. We need it, otherwise we are just animals. Maybe what distinguishes us from animals is the faith that there might be, I don’t know, something greater out there”.

Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern conderate moon
gregory halpern conderate moon