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

“Per strada,” by Guido Guidi

Per Strada Guido Guidi

By Luca Fiore

Borello, Cannuzzo, Gambellara, Forlimpopoli, Macerone, Martorano, Meldola, Montaletto, Metellica, Sorrivoli, Piavola, San Giorgio, San Martino, San Vittore. This rosary of locations along the via Emilia is comprised of villages not dissimilar to Ronta, in the municipality of Cesena, where Guido Guidi lives. Of the masters of Italian photography, notably the generation of Gabriele Basilico, Giovanni Chiaramonte, Mario Cresci, Luigi Ghirri and Olivo Barbieri, Guidi (class of 1941) has travelled the least distance to find what he has been seeking for 50 years.

It is not obvious what he is seeking, this man who speaks and photographs a little like a medieval pilgrim, or a Buddhist monk. At a 2014 retrospective exhibition at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, the curator Agnès Sire described him as an artist who wishes to “shed light on a changing reality that we do not wish to see, where we think there is nothing to be seen”. For his part, Guidi loves to quote a phrase from the Talmud whenever he can: “Wherever you look, there is something to see”. Elevating his discipline to a lay religion, he adds: “For me, taking photographs is an act of devotion”.

Per Strada Guido Guidi

His latest book, released in September by Mack and already sold out, is titled “Per Strada”, and collates the fruits of his wanderings between Rimini and Ravenna in the 80s and 90s. 285 photographs, almost all in colour, divided into three volumes. Unknown villages, worn gates, broken walls, side streets, road signs, shabby town cars, street lamps. Guidi tells us that one day, he showed these images in Bologna to a group of architects from Emilia Romagna: “The then President of the Regional Association of Architects spoke, saying that he was unsettled by seeing my images. He stated that I photographed with great care objects and buildings that he would have pulled down”.

Some photographers head out after having studied maps of the local area, like urban planners. Guidi smiles, saying that for him, the via Emilia is a road like any other: “My journey started in my own neighbourhood, near my home. The via Emilia is a road that takes you from one place to another. It was not the only road I travelled on: I also shot on the Romea and the B.1, from Russia to Santiago de Compostela. I leave my home and my map is the road itself. I follow it and see where it takes me. Even when I worked with urban planners I would happen to deviate, to go outside the set route. What is important to me is travelling, and seeing what I come across. And discovering. Discovering oneself. To get to know more, to grow richer. To learn to be less afraid of the unknown”. Guidi, to explain his attitude towards the things he sees, quotes Ezio Raimondi, the great philologist, who wrote that the experience of reading should be that of the pilgrim, not that of the tourist.

What is striking in Guidi’s choice of subjects and method of shooting is the absence of rhetoric: “This is to do with the fact that it was photography that chose me, in a sense. I did not choose; I was attracted by this discipline. As a child, I liked to draw; then, at university, I came across a book by Siegfried Kracauer, “The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality”, which analysed the difference between cinema and theatre. In cinema, as in photography, there is no need for emphasis to simulate reality. In fact, this is damaging. I do not seek rhetoric; I attempt to return to a zero degree, to what Roland Barthes called “intractable reality”.

The theologians of the High Middle Ages who dictated guidelines to painters, Guidi explains, maintained that figures of saints should not “represent” real people, but should “present” them. In Piero della Francesca, a peasant must appear as such to the viewer. Thus we find ourselves in front of the ‘peasant’, of “Sigismund Malatesta”, or the “Madonna” who is, first and foremost, a woman. They are, first and foremost, real people; then they are also metaphors. They are presented to us like concrete apparitions.

Guidi’s images may initially appear to a superficial viewer as snapshots of insignificant locations, taken without any sort of “technique”, or, to put it badly, without any “artistry”. This is not at all the case. For almost 40 years now, the photographer from Ronta has carried around a heavy large format camera which produces 20x25cm negatives, which he prints without enlarging them. It is a precise poetic choice, just as significant as focusing on locations far from historic centres, void of any “monumental dignity”, as he puts it. He seeks that free zone where man has built spontaneously, where urban language would be seen as a “peripheral, vulgar dialect”. The photographer tells of the time he attended a conference by the poet Franco Fortini: “He said that only by writing a poem in dialect can one talk about bread without falling into rhetoric. Dante used the vulgar, not Latin. Is that nothing? Thus, in contrast to painting, sculpture, or architecture, which are courtly languages, photography is a vulgar language. If I place a piece of paper with a photograph on it in front of your eyes, you will have an object in front of you which elicits far less reverence than an oil painting. Walker Evans said that for those who know, there is a particular pleasure in using a language disregarded by the majority”.

For Guidi, the focus is a way of looking at the world. “We must be cultured, provided that visual culture does not make our eyes too combative. A combative gaze is negative.” It is necessary, he argues, to rediscover a simple approach to seeing things, to deconstructing an image, to reading an image. “But one cannot deconstruct without culture. I do not believe in a naïve attitude, or the presumption of those who claim they were never taught. Beato Angelico was a cultured man; he lived in the library of the San Marco Convent, which was full of ancient volumes. As well as reading, one must learn to ‘see’. Yet no one teaches this. As children, we are told that, before crossing the road, we must look left and right. But then our mother tells us: “Don’t look around, walk!”. Or: “Don’t stare, its rude.” This is all the opposite of what we should do. Barthes, in an open letter to Michelangelo Antonioni, defined the ‘insistence of the gaze’ as one of the virtues of the artist”.

Guido Guidi’s journey began long ago. At the end of the 70s, in the halls of the Industrial Design course at the University of Venice, he met masters such as Italo Zannier and Carlo Scarpa. With Zannier, he recalls, “I carried out very precise exercises with a camera on a tripod; exercises that would then have been dubbed in some way “conceptual”, or even “minimalist”, based on their methodical repetition. For instance, we photographed an object from two metres, three metres, four metres, and so on. We then mounted the photographs onto panels, creating series”. In Laguna, a few years prior, in 1964, Pop Art had arrived. His favourite artist from that time is Jasper Jones, but he admits, more or less directly, to having been influenced by many others.

In 1984 Luigi Ghirri includes Guidi, with his images from the preceding decade, into the group of artists selected for the project “Viaggio in Italia”. In the same year, they embark on a project together: “Two photographs for the Teatro Bonci”, some photos of which re-emerge in “Per Strada”. Yet his work, and that of the other photographers of his generation, offered something undeniably new, and different to what Italian photography had produced until then. It created unease. “They said to us: ‘You want to be American’. This was because we photographed ‘stuff of vagabonds’ [‘robe da barbun’], as Jannacci would say, or ‘cose da nulla’ [nothingness], as Pasolini would call them.”

“I never managed, or never wanted to, use irony”, Guidi explains, returning to the register of his lay religion: “If photographing is like praying, how can I be ironic?”. Irony is often used in photography, mocking the form of the photo card which, according to Guidi, appeals as much to the ordinary people as the intellectual. In this sense, from an editorial perspective, a book by an author toying with the form of the photo card certainly has more commercial appeal. “But the risk is that you end up mocking everything. I instead use photography like a prosthesis, like the blind man’s cane mentioned by Descartes: an instrument with which to engage in a relationship with reality, with which to touch it. For me, art is a method of getting to know the world. I am thus not able to introduce irony in the mediums which enable me in this difficult adventure”.

The images in “Per Strada” are for Guidi the training ground for embarking on this adventure, which he defines as the attempt to “render things present”. An aim which, he admits, is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out with verbal language. “It would not just be the use of the word ‘sea’, but the fact that, in the act of reading, I find myself in the presence of the sea, or a person, or a thing. Few manage this”. Here he quotes Carlo Emilia Gadda in “Il Castello di Udine [The Castle of Udine]”: “He was a maths student, and we became friends: a fragile and dry friendship, in the moral chill of despair, like those flowers, glassy feather, which dissolve with a breath”. Guidi comments: “Reading this, I find myself in the presence not only of the flowers, but also of life. It is not only the flower, but also the feather, that the breath dissolves. In photography or painting, as Leonardo said, we cannot depict wind if not through clouds in motion. Rendering a visible presence, rendering a house, the curbstone, a tree, and at the same time the wind…”

Regarding this attempt to return to reality, Guidi concludes that Susan Sontag was right when she wrote: “Between two fantasy alternatives, that of Holbein the Younger, who lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that of a prototype of the camera which had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most “Bardolators” would choose the photograph. This is not because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the hypothetical photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we would probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.”

Il Foglio, 29th December 2018

Per Strada Guido Guidi
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“The Measure of the West,” by Giovanni Chiaramonte

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte

By Luca Fiore

A Doric column in Gela, the birthplace of his parents. Magna Grecia, and all that it signifies. A symbol that is found at every stage of a long pilgrimage, all the way up to the Glienicke Palace in Berlin, and all the way back to Athens and Istanbul, or further West towards Portugal, where one might embark on the Atlantic crossing to the United States, Mexico, Panama and Cuba. The column is ubiquitous, in temples, porticos, ruined homes. It is a sign of something capable of reawakening the present from a past it cannot leave behind. This is what Giovanni Chiaramonte calls “The Measure of the West”, which is also the title of his book, edited by McGill-Queen’s University Press , which collates images of this over 30-year long journey, accompanied by travel drawings from one of the giants of world architecture, the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza.

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte

In the year of his 70th birthday, the Milanese artist, a friend of Luigi Ghirri and pioneer of photographic publishing in Italy, publishes another book of a seemingly contrasting nature: “Salvare l’ora” [“Saving the Hour”]. It is a collection of polaroids that Chiaramonte began taking in 2011. Theirs is no longer the infinite horizon of the countryside; rather, the dimensions are domestic, intimate. From landscape, which betrays the image of the destiny of an entire civilization, Chiaramonte has moved, borrowing the expression from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, to inscape, where personal destiny appears. Yet, Chiaramonte assures us, they are both spectacular movements; one orientated outwards, the other inwards, both moved by the same propulsive energy, triggered by the same certainty: the world is image. “The Bible tells us that man is created in the image and likeness of God. This means that the eternal, the infinite, chose to create me as image. Thus the world, creation presenting itself to us as reality, suggests the existence of a “giver”. I can comprehend what I am in the moment in which I become conscious of this mysterious likeness. As a photographer, a producer of images, I am given the task of revealing the destiny of man and of the world”.

Chiaramonte’s language betrays his widespread reading: from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Oliver Clement, from Romano Guardini to father Luigi Giussani. His reflections are intertwined with those on the history of photography, which, for him, emerges not by chance in England and France. It was there, after all, that the stained-glass windows of gothic cathedrals emerged for the first time; images created with light. Yet his maddened, desperate studies also incorporate the works of the greats of American photography–Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Joel Meyerowitz–and the Europeans André Kertész, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau. Yet it is from cinema that he learns his use of colour. At the end of the 70s, the technology of colour photography was beginning to provide the materials necessary for artistic works that could stand the test of time. Before then, it had been filmmakers who had concerned themselves with the transition from black and white to colour: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrej Tarkovskij. From them Chiaramonte learnt the poetic potential of chromatic scales. At the start of the 80s, with this cultural and technical burden, he faced the open sea in a magical moment which would see the beginnings of those individuals nowadays considered masters of Italian photography.

The story of “The Measure of the West” began in 1983, when Chiaramonte followed the advice of the great German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers, who told him “Go to Berlin, to the Glienicke Palace, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for Prince Charles of Prussia”. The idea, Chiaramonte explains, was that of returning to a location where the progress of the West was visible, where the reasons for building a new European city corresponding to man’s nature could be perceived. “Ungers, a Catholic, felt a profound need to find and sustain the value of man. For him, finite nature, represented by the symbolic figure of the square, was capable of opening the heart of anyone living in the world to the infinite nature of God, which, in Christ, is present in history thanks to the experience of the sacraments. In other words, there is a method for understanding the existence of a path linking the infinite to the present day, the places we live in; a path in which all of time coexists”.

It is no coincidence that it was precisely during that journey to Berlin that Chiaramonte’s work met that of Álvaro Siza. “I had gone to photograph his building renamed Bonjour Tristesse, built in Schlesische Straße, in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, not far from the Berlin Wall. My images, published by Lotus, had travelled the world, making his first piece of work outside of Portugal very well known.” For Siza, the photographer explains, modern dimensions do not stem from the tradition of Le Corbusier, which attempts to break away from history. “For him, the modern is what is essential from what is handed to us from the past. He stems from Milanese rationalism–let us not forget that it was Giovanni Muzio who developed Porto’s urban plan–for which the new is what realizes the presence of what has been inherited from history”. Siza was a Catholic who embraced the left-wing cause under Salazar; Chiaramonte loved his social inspiration. A commitment to social housing, for example: “For him, the job of the architect was to “serve the people”, which is what I wish to do with my photography; to contribute to the common good. When I went to visit him for the first time, I was struck by his very essential way of life. He was a successful architect who had managed to find a way of life untouched by the idols of modernity. He came to pick me up in person at the bus station in Evora and helped me carry my luggage…”.

Art does not belong to us, Chiaramonte declares; it is a gift that we receive when we listen to the world. “In Siza, this is the greatest theme; wherever he goes, he is listening. Everything is graced by his gaze. His architecture is born from this gaze which becomes drawing. Yet this relationship with things does not precipitate into the utopia of the “great architect”; he is not building the Tower of Babel. His buildings respect the stature of the human, which, we know, means not only height, but also depth. Not only light, but darkness too”.

Salvare l'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte

Darkness. An image of pain, the incapacity to see. It is from this experience that, mysteriously, Chiaramonte’s other book is born: “Salvare l’ora” [Saving the Hour]. “In 2011, the Diocese of Milan asked me to be involved in the creation of the new Ambrosian Evangeliary. Photography had never been used for such a liturgical function, and I did not know where to start.”. He goes on: “It was a difficult time. Due to an intense depression, my doctors had forbidden me from shooting with professional equipment: medium format cameras on a tripod requiring a physical and emotional effort which, at that time, I would not have been able to endure.” Yet the call of art proved too great, and the photographer armed himself with a simple instrument: an instant camera that does not allow any sort of edit before or after the shot. A €100 Fuji Instax. “One morning, returning from mass, which had been a source of light in my darkness, I entered my dining room. The winter sun was crossing the curtains, tracing a line across the table. The ray of sunlight was striking a crystal seal that refracted it into a rainbow of different colours”. This was an epiphany. He grabbed his camera, got close, and shot. “That small image, 6x10cm, captured all the power of what I felt in that moment. I realised that, to respond to the Diocese’s commission, I could only capture images of my relationship with God, as it appeared in domestic settings in which I pray every day. What I could offer was a testimony of my experience of faith, showing its small traces”.

Thus emerged the photographs which introduce the liturgical periods in the Ambrosian Evangeliary. Yet this also entailed a new, tiringly dispossessing type of work for Chiaramonte; the new medium forced him to set aside the techniques acquired across an entire career, and begin learning from scratch. “I had to take measurements of colour quality, and of the optimum position and distance at which to place myself in relation to the subject, to that it would acquire significance in this rectangular format I was not used to.” The “measure of the West” was shot with a medium format camera (with 6x6cm negatives), with the focus set to infinity, very long shutter speeds, and a shift lens to make vertical lines parallel. Then there was the lengthy work in the dark room; on tones, colours and masking. In “Saving the Hour”, all of this is replaced by a simple click. “I had to adjust my perception of the colour scale that the camera offered automatically, and thus relate to the world I was seeing within this new measure. Aside from the choice of subject and the chosen distance to situate myself from it, the rest was an obedience to what I had in front of me. Obedience to the world.” Within this simultaneously technical and poetic new dimension, Chiaramonte found himself facing up to his own darkness. “Erich Auerbach puts it well: the pagan world is unable to deal with the scandal of man’s sin. Oedipus’ self-blinding is a clear example. The Greek world was unable to give reasons for evil. Meanwhile, the Western artist, after the coming of Christ, is called to an extraordinary adventure: that of crossing the darkness, like light. This book gives an account of what this means for me.”

There is thus no longer an infinite horizon to face, the ocean, or the great American prairie. What remains are impoverished, restricted spaces, reduced by the limits of illness. “I told myself: these small images can be a testimony of the poverty of man, which, despite everything, is consoled by the light. I can see a corner of my house and it can be filled with a reason for life; one that all humans can encounter”. A white feather on a green field, a dry leaf on a deposit of coal, a line of salads on a vegetable garden, fake flowers on the graves of children in a Berlin cemetery. “If one is at prayer, these things that are far from the glory of the world become light. I learnt this from “Andrej Rublev” by Tarkovskij. The road of Eastern monasticism opened to me the path of the Prayer of Jesus; that is, the intertwining of the breath with invocation: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Chiaramonte recalls that, in his studies as a very young man, he had encountered the art of Minor White, a key figure in American photography as critic and theorist, and long-time director of Aperture magazine. He too, engaging with the Hindu religion, had had a similar experience: that of mantra. “The recitation of a short phrase that enables those who repeat it to eliminate worries and fears. It allows you to remove yourself from your lost, fragmentary condition and listen to reality. Listen to the mystery. Prayer is like the cancellation of inner turmoil, because the interior is not only intelligence or acumen, which moves outwards. The interior is also an abyss, into which you can fall”.
Chiaramonte has long walked on the ridge of this abyss, not least due to a serious illness which struck him in recent months, and impeded him from taking up even his light Fuji Instax. Thus, his own inner turmoil has been expressed instead in brief poetic compositions; haikus. Few words, placed on three lines, which he sometimes would message to his friends. Among these is friend and poet Umberto Fiori, whose lines have followed on from and accompanied many of Chiaramonte’s books. It was Fiori who insisted that the photographer should publish these haiku phrases in the book alongside the polaroids. The last two haikus on the book are the following: “Beyond death/preserving time/saving the hour” and “The day begins/the heart awakes and looks/the world commences”.

Il Foglio, 26th December 2018

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte 2
The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte 3
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte 2
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte 2
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte
Salvare L'ora Giovanni Chiaramonte