“Family car trouble,” by Gus Powell

family car trouble gus powell

by Luca Fiore

“Family Car Trouble, Gus Powell’s latest book, is a photographic novel. It is about family photos taken in the months leading up to the death of his father, Peter, in 2015. At the same time the photographer sees his daughters, Townes and Maude, as they grow up, play and learn about the world. Peter is portrayed in bed or sitting in an armchair, with the signs of a throat operation that made him dumb. The two little ones run around the house, having fun in the snow or walking in the woods. Then the family’s events intertwine with that of Jimmy, the nickname of the 1993 Volto 940 Turbo station wagon that goes in and out of the workshops for never-resolving interventions.

family car trouble gus powellThe girls sleep with their heads resting on the door, dance standing on the roof, play with a pinwheel moved by the wind coming in through the window. Peter turns off little by little, with dignity. From the pillow he seems to be looking up at the ceiling. Then, as you turn the page, his eyes seem to point to the image besides, where Townes and Maude move carefree in the living room. The light innocence of the granddaughters softens the gravity of their grandfather’s slow decline, while the red lights on the dashboard of the Volvo light up like a Christmas tree. At Lucky’s Automotive, the local garage, they do what they can with Jimmy, who has once again arrived with a tow truck.

It’s hard to linger on the funeral portrait of Peter, whose lifeless face is illuminated by the red light in the funeral parlor. Then we see the colours of a sunset from the rain-soaked windshield. Then, still through the glass, a green light. And again a road through the woods. The book closes with Powell from the driver’s seat portraying his daughters sitting on the hood looking out to sea. At a certain point the older one opens her arms and leans forward, as if she wants to embrace the world.

Powell (New York, 1973) made a name for himself in the Street Photography community in the 2010’s, participating in the In-Public collective (which included Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Kalvar, among others). His first images (collected in “The Company of Strangers”, 2003) he called them “Lunch Pictures”: he shot during his lunch break while working as photo editor for the New Yorker. Shots that fit perfectly into the genre that, par excellence, focuses on the “decisive moment”. Over the years, however, his approach to street photography has changed, becoming less narrative and more poetic, as evidenced by “The Lonely Ones”, his 2015 book.

With “Family Car Trouble” (TBW Books) Powell seems to go one step further, taking the narrative vocation out of the single image. If in Street Photography the single shot is a story in itself, here it ends up poured into the sequence of moments that take on strength as a whole. Editing, like editing in cinema, generates the story and enhances the single image by linking it to the previous and the next one.
It cannot be said that it is a photographic diary: Powell does not show his daily life. Or, at least, he doesn’t show it all: rather, he uses elements of his biography as narrative lines for an interweaving of symbolic themes (death, childhood, the unexpected). This allows the story to present itself, at the same time, as personal and universal. And Powell succeeds, inventing the image of the car that loses its shots, in a rare feat for a photographer: he knows how not to take himself too seriously.
A book, as Alec Soth described it as the best photographic volume published in 2019, “as humble, robust and adorable as his 1993 Volvo”.

Il Foglio, 6th May 2020

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“Pleasant Street,” by Judith Black

judith black pleasant street

by Luca Fiore

“Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” was the title of the exhibition with which, in 1991, Peter Galassi inaugurated the direction of the photography department of MoMA in New York. He had a heavy legacy on his shoulders: that of John Szarkowski, the most influential critic and curator of the 20th century.

judith black pleasant street 10In contemporary photography, at least until the mid-seventies, the story of public life visible along the streets had prevailed. Galassi explained that in “The Family of Men”, the historic exhibition of 1955, which Edward Steichen had always curated for Moma, few images were taken inside the houses. Over the years, however, attention had increasingly focused on the story of domestic life, where “pleasures and terrors” intertwine, often remaining invisible to classic street and documentary photography.
That exhibition, in addition to confirming some great names such as Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston or Joel Sternfeld, consecrated authors such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. Other photographers, especially women, have struggled to stay in the spotlight. Over time, however, thanks also to the publication of quality books, artists such as Sage Sohier, Sheron Rupp, Jo Ann Walters and Mary Frey have returned to being talked about, confirming Galassi’s intuition. The last in chronological order is Judith Black who, thirty years after the MoMA exhibition and 71 years old, publishes her first monograph: “Pleasant Street” (Stanley / Barker, 2020).
Black, in the short introduction page, tells the story of the book: in 1979, a single mother of four, she moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) to enroll in the MIT photography master, founded and directed until recently by Minor White. She quickly realizes that she could not have traveled or spent much time on the street taking pictures. Her commitments as an assistant at MIT, the courses to follow, and the housework to attend to prevented her. She writes: “Our apartment was dark, but it became my studio. Sometimes the morning light was inviting. There were occasions that asked for a photo, such as a birthday, a graduation, a holiday. Sometimes we ventured to the outdoor steps when the weather got hot. The photos have become my diary, labeled with dates, places and memories.”
Pleasant Street is the name of the street overlooked by the house rented by the photographer, in which Rob also lives, who becomes the stepfather of Laura, Johanna, Erik and Dylan. The book opens with a self-portrait taken ten years earlier, in 1968, in which Black shows herself naked, pregnant with her first-born Laura. The story, if you can call it that, proceeds above all with individual and group portraits from 1979 to 2000.
Johanna in pajamas. Dylan disheveled. Erik sulking. Laura with long hair. Laura with short hair. All blond with mom’s blue eyes. Rob has a seventies mustache, even in the eighties and nineties. Judith notes that the photo of the four children sitting on the steps of the house was taken on July 9, 1982, before leaving for the holidays. On May 29, 1984 Dylan showed Laura’s haircut. On November 6, 1988 Erik is almost 18 years old. Children grow up. Parents grow old. The last shot, which gives the book a moving circular sense, shows Laura, on May 14, 2000: she has her son Malcom in her arms and is pregnant with Cadie.

Black is not so interested in telling family life in terms of “pleasures and terrors” that are consumed within the walls of the house. Yet from the faces of her loved ones both shine through. The innocence of childhood, the restlessness of adolescence, tensions, melancholy. It is, on the one hand, a common family album where we see the passage of time change the features of the faces and the shapes of the bodies. On the other hand, the sequence has the systematic nature of the documentation projects, as well as the technical skill of the professional photographer. Add to this the grace and feminine balance, which here is also a maternal gaze, which knows how to be patient, when you need to be patient, and severe, when you need severity. Speaking of these photos, when not all of them had been taken yet, Peter Galassi wrote: “Seen together they seem to say that true tenderness begins when sentimentalism ends.”

Ilfoglio.it, 3th May 2020

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“Lunario,” by Guido Guidi

by Luca Fiore

Recently, the frequency of publications (two a year) which Guido Guidi has accustomed us to, along with his publisher Michael Mack, might seem a little excessive. In the space of ten years, the photographer from Cesena has emerged from the shadows and become considered, for all intents and purposes, a master on the international stage. This is certainly, in part, thanks to the platform granted him by his English publisher. In 2018, his Per Strada was ranked in the list of the best ten books of the year by the New York Times. In 2019, it was the turn of In Sardegna, with the great exhibition at the Man in Nuoro, and of In Veneto. In the meantime, the Californian publisher Tbw Books has included Fuori Casa in its prestigious annual series, which includes stars of the photography world such as Gregory Halpern, Jason Fulford and Viviane Sassen. Such volumes collated works that Guidi created within the last fifty years, and which today are emerging from his drawers in more complete form; or even, in some cases, as unpublished series. The more time passes, the more his work is appearing in all its generous vastness and depth.

2020 has begun with Lunario, a collection of images shot between 1968 and 1999, which asserts, perhaps definitively, the impossibility of classifying Guidi as a ‘genre’ photographer, linked solely to architecture or landscape.

Guido Guidi Lunario The book moves in numerous directions. On the one hand, the moon is shown as a mysterious element of the landscape which marks the passing of time, like a clock. On the other, we see everyday objects, themselves presented as lunar metaphors: a pruning knife hanging on the wall; the projection of a semi-circular light source on a wall; a ball which Anna, his daughter, throws repeatedly against the wall. Then there are the images created through experimentation with the photographic medium; the 1967 triple portrait of Mariangela Gualtieri, whose face initially appears only lit from the left, then from behind, and then only from the right. Or the landscapes of the Po delta shot with a fish-eye lens, which, with their circular contours, appear as solitary moons comprised of land and sky.

Yet the hidden gem of this book is its final series, shot during the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999. Guidi captures his wife as she observes the darkening of the sun with 8”x10” photographic film. As he turns, he notices on the wall of his Ronta home (the same against which, in the 80s, Anna bounced her moon-ball) a phenomenon never seen before. For a moment, he is confused. It is the phenomenon Aristotle once questioned in his Book of Problems: “Why is it that during eclipses of the sun, if one views them through a sieve or a leaf – for example, that of a plane-tree or any other broad-leaved tree – or through the two hands with the fingers interlaced, the rays are crescent-shaped in the direction of the earth?”. This is what is happening on the plaster in front of Guidi: on the wall, the shadow is no longer leaf-shaped, but takes the sickle shape of the eclipse. Guido Guidi turns his tripod around and begins to shoot. Five black and white photos. Then four in colour. The sequence captures the appearance and disappearance of Aristotle’s phenomenon. It is one of the moments in which Guidi considers himself “measurer” of time and space. “I was not so interested in the atmosphere”, he explains in the interview with Antonello Frongia which concludes the book, “as with the physical-optical fact of the crescent moon”.

Yet, looking at that plot of light and shadow animated mysteriously on the wall at Ronta, it is difficult not to think of the sky, the solar system, the universe, and the immensity our small eyes find themselves in. An immensity of which we cannot help but ask ourselves the meaning. These are topics which, in a more or less explicit manner, emerge in the interview with Frongia. It is a text which presents the scope of the cultural horizon Guidi is capable of, and has the power of a lectio magistralis.

Il Foglio, 22th January 2020

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“01:20,” by Bastiaan van Aarle

Bastiaan Van Arle 1:20

by Luca Fiore

Ólafsfjörður is a fishing village in northern Iceland, at the mouth of the Eyjafjörður fjord. It is home to 800 souls. In summer, in this region, the sun does not set: it approaches the horizon, but never disappears fully. This phenomenon reaches its peak on July 1; then, gradually, darkness reconquers the night. In summer 2017, the Belgian photographer Bastiaan van Aarle – class of 1988 – went to Ólafsfjörður and took 31 photos; one of each day in July, all taken at the same time: 01.20 at night, the least lit moment of the day. With these images, he composed his first book, published a few weeks ago by the German publisher Hatje Cantz, entitled “01:20”. The minimalist but elegant design, with a paperback cover, befits the profile of the newcomer van Aarle, who required an online crowdfunding campaign to help cover publication costs. The book’s subjects include typical Icelandic houses with corrugated sheet roofs, a church by the port, the village’s shops, a gas station, a fish processing factory, a swimming pool and a school. Next to the homes are parked cars; all around are mountains with the last snow of the season, and rivers running through the valleys. The streetlights, needlessly lit, are the only hint of the nocturnal hour. There is not a single soul on the streets. At that time, even in Iceland, the world is asleep. Everything seems to resound with a complete silence, perhaps broken only by the wind.

Bastiaan Van Arle 1:20Leafing through the book, one sees days pass, and the sky darkening continuously: it is as if we are complicit in a sunset which, in reality, never happened. In the first photos, one perceives an unreal atmosphere; yet this is fruit of the mind’s short-circuiting, informed in advance as we are of the time of shooting. As light progressively leaves the images, page after page, so too does the village itself, with the collection closing with shots of almost night-time countryside.

This collection calls to mind the series of photographs of white nights shot by Joel Meyerowitz in Saint Petersburg at the start of the 90s. Images which cannot help but recall us to Dostoevsky: “It was a wonderful night, such a night as is only possible when we are young, dear reader. The sky was so starry, so bright that, looking at it, one could not help asking oneself whether ill-humoured and capricious people could live under such a sky”. The American photographer lingered upon the decadent beauty of the mansions along the Neva river, the classical columns, the reddening clouds, the reflections of monuments in the fountains. The white night was a place of dreams. Unlike the story Van Aarle is telling in Ólafsfjörður.

The melancholy of the Icelandic nights appears more bitter. Symbols of daily life – the simple geometry of the houses, the small and austere Nordic settlements, the odd crumbling wall, rust attacking the sheets of metal on the roofs – this all suggests a shadow of solitude. Any road, seen at night and void of any human presence, offers a similar impression. Yet here, the light gives a definitive note to this sense of abandon.

In a passage in the volume, the Belgian poet Bob Vanden Broeck writes: “The power of this artist lies in uniting two contrasting elements in a single photograph: beauty and sadness. This is poetry, and is what makes Ólafsfjörður a fascinating place. Here, in a single day, one can weep both from seeing a stunning landscape, and for a future void of hope, resting here like a rusty shed”.

Yet this book also offers something else. A white night – the surprise of light which, by all accounts, should not be there. Where we expect darkness, light fights back. Each of us can contemplate our own darkness and shadows. Those which we might prefer to keep hidden. It is a small yet great lesson. To learn it, someone needed to take the trouble of travelling to Ólafsfjörður. To take 31 photographs.

Il Foglio, 5th November 2019

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“Rooted,” by Henk Wildschut

Rooted Henk Wildschut

By Luca Fiore

The Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut, 52, has been photographing refugee camps for 15 years. His latest book is the final instalment in what he defines an “unintentional trilogy.” He began in 2005 by depicting the makeshift living conditions of those who had fled their home countries (“Shelter,” 2010). He then focused on the history and social dynamics of the settlement that has emerged on the coast of the English Channel, baptized The Jungle (“Ville de Calais, 2017–awarded the Arles Prix du Livre). “Rooted,” published a few weeks ago and–like the other works–produced by Wildschut himself, depicts plants sown and cared for by refugees next to tents and makeshift homes in France, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.

rooted henk wildschutIn plastic bottles, tin jars, makeshift containers, or flower beds protected by improvised fences, spaces are made for small plants, colourful flowers, bunches of spices, and entire allotments. The book opens with a quote from a young Syrian boy: “When I see green, I remember home.” It continues by alternating between colour photos and something approximating the pages of a diary, kept by the Dutch photographer in order not to forget the circumstances he found, the conversations he overheard, and the changes witnessed in these strange dwellings over the course of time.

The photographs depict only the plants themselves, never the people who planted them. Great attention is paid to this, adding a particular potency to the images; as if to show, if ever it were needed, that the humanist photographer is not necessarily he or she who always includes humans as subjects–a woman in tears, or a child with a dirty face. Here, in its simplicity, the photographic language is more sophisticated. It moves the viewer, but does so in an honest manner, appealing to various stages of thought. Thus, a deeper, more visceral reaction is solicited; but one that is more stable and less prone to manipulation.

This is the power of true documentary photography, shot in large format with a tripod, which requires different shutter speeds–and speeds of thought–to those necessitated by the snapshot. At first glance, as in “Rooted,” one feels faced with mute images. The framing is rather ordinary; the colours and tones are flat; there is no momentarily arrested action. The photographer’s hand is here at work to remove any artifice; yet artifice is nevertheless there. Every effort is made to render, on the film, the scene as it is. What is sought is a naturalism which, far from scientific, suggests that the world, in the way it presents itself, speaks to the viewer already.

In “Rooted,” an ancestral gesture is portrayed; human beings themselves sown into the earth. It is a metaphor not only of the historical plight of these individuals uprooted by the storm of destiny–often families and entire villages–but of mankind as a whole. It foregrounds the need for stability that was already felt at the beginning of modern civilization, by the first nomads who settled as farmers. A shift from nomadic to sedentary which set the preconditions for the development of civilization. It is a metaphor of roots, of the earth itself that is both mother and father; the homeland. Yet the images of roots in these photographs are contrasted with what resides beyond the frame: the refugee, the fugitive. These are themes which even we, despite our modern comfort in peaceful Western democracies, can empathise with. Some years ago, Father Mauro Lepori, General Abbot of the Cistercian order, said: “This miserable humanity arrives with the tide to show us our own situation, as if in a mirror. Refugees, ultimately, reveal to us the very lack of stability that does not allow us to offer them a home.”

Il Foglio, 5th September 2019

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“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad Zellar

Drifless Jason Vaughn

by Luca Fiore

The opening of Driftless, a photobook created by Jason Vaughn with the journalist and writer Brad Zellar, seems lifted from a Raymond Carver novel. Zellar tells us “I once set my GPS to take me to a trout stream that bubbled up out of a series of springs back in one of the valleys. Instead it led me up to a flat, treeless plateau, where the road dead-ended at the trailer of an old man who told me his family had been up there for 75 years. I told him I was looking for the stream, and he said he had a handful of confused people end up at his trailer every year. ‘Even the fancy machines get mixed up when they get off the State highway and onto these gravel roads’, he said.” The man then led the disappointed fisherman to the fence line at the edge of his property. Zellar continues, “the land suddenly plunged several hundred feet down into a hidden and heavily-forested valley. ‘It’s down there’, he said, ‘but there are easier ways to get to it’. Back at my car, after he gave me a complicated series of directions to get down to the stream, he said, ‘Ain’t nobody know where I am but people who don’t know where the hell they are’.”

“Driftless,” by Jason Vaughn and Brad ZellarThe book, published by the independent American publishers TBW Books, includes images shot by Vaughn in a very peculiar period of his life. Having just overcome the nightmare of cancer, and awaiting the birth of his second child, the photographer rented an apartment next to the Mississippi river, going on to live there for a year. The location is called the “Driftless area,” a region in south west Wisconsin, seemingly preserved from the last ice age, and characterized by particularly rugged terrain, void of any residue from glacial retreat (in English, “drift”). The verb “to drift”, however, can also mean “to wander”. The photographs taken during daily walks in this small area of the Midwest attempt to capture “the process by which people wander in a space, sometimes deciding to stop, perhaps forever, sometimes disengaging and moving elsewhere.”

Black and white colours are alternated in a poetic and unrhetorical style, itself contrasted with Zellar’s non-didactic captions. A nest amid branches. Different types of reflection on the surface of a stream, webs of branches, a hydrangea bush at different times of the year. A child walking. An adult walking. An old man walking. A waterfall of ice. Flocks of black birds. Photographs that, very slowly–requiring patience–become metaphors, and improvised thoughts. They open and close like the action of an accordion, alternating epiphany with riddle.

Next to an image of a section of frozen lake, its rippled surface illuminated by a ray of light, Zellar writes: “Some people would just as soon leave the jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on the table.” Next to a night shot of some branches lit by the camera’s flash: “The voice of one more exhausted foreigner: ‘There are so many reasons’.” Or elsewhere: “Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt. Oh, the cold stone panic of never…”

The last photograph is of a sheet of ice floating on water, a large stone on top of it, seemingly suspended on the surface of the water. On the page to the left of the image is the quote: “We are alive. We are burning. We are libraries one fire.” Under the photo, meanwhile, the Italian of a music score: “Con fuoco. Con brio. Deciso.”

The book concludes with three quotations; one from the American poet Robert Hass, one from Samuel Beckett and one from Sophie Scholl, the German dissident murdered by the Nazis in 1943, aged 22. This last quotation reads: “A little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does.”

Il Foglio, 18th July 2019

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“Slant,” by Aaron Schuman

Slant Aaron Schuman

By Luca Fiore

Amherst is a New England city with a population of 38,000, in the state of Massachusetts. It is the birthplace of Aaron Schuman, photographer, writer, curator; a man with a CV befitting his 42 years. The city is known above all for being the home of Emily Dickinson. Schuman now lives in Bristol, England, and every now and then returns to visit his parents. It was during one of these visits that he developed an interest in reading police reports from the local “Amherst Bulletin”. “CITIZEN ASSISTANCE: 4.14am–A man shovelling snow on State Street told police he saw a strange orange glow coming from the eastern sky that might have been something on fire. Police determined the glow was probably the sun coming up for the day. Or: “SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY: 5.53pm–A woman called police after being approached by a photographer in downtown who asked if he could take pictures of her feet. The photographer was not located”. And so on: “NOISE COMPLAINTS: 7.19pm–Residents at The Boulders reported a loud argument between a man and a woman and banging on the walls that caused a painting in their apartment to fall to the floor. Police determined that the neighbours were engaged in what was described as “overzealous copulation”, and were not arguing”.

Slant Aaron SchumanSchuman was, at first, struck by the comic quality of these short snippets, and decided to collect more Police reports. However, the more he read, the more he became fascinated by the contrast between the bureaucratic style of the reporting, and the mundanity and irrelevance of the events described. The clippings began to evoke images in the style of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander or Diane Arbus: “ANIMAL COMPLAINTS: 6.30pm–Police took a report that four dogs were sitting on top of a vehicle parked on Pray Street. Police were unable to find the dogs or the vehicle”. Two years later, Schuman returned to Amherst with his Yamiya Rz67, but left his clippings in Bristol, on purpose; he did not want his images to be solely their faithful visual projections.

The book generated by this work (Slant, Mack, €35), collates 46 photographs and 50 clippings, and opens with an Emily Dickinson poem which says: “Tell all the Truth/but tell it slant”. For Dickinson, “slant”–also the title of Schuman’s book–is the term for half rhymes which lack a perfect coherency between sounds, and toy with assonance or consonance. In English prosody, the term is generally considered to offer an effect of disharmony. Similarly, Schuman’s images of Amherst become a black-and-white poetic account of a city afeared, where neat whitewashed villas harbour an underlying tension–of which the police reports are but one manifestation.

A barn on which someone has scribbled “In Border Patrol we trust”; a child’s slide erected on the roof of a house overlooking a street; dark skid marks on an asphalt road in the middle of a wood; a giant spider’s web among trees illuminated by sunlight. These are all oblique references to the text of the police reports, and the relationships between the images offer an outlook which is, by turns, ironic, concerned, sarcastic or empathetic. Why is that child dressed as a policeman? What are we to make of two gravestones in a cemetery, one engraved with “Helen” and the other with “Helen’s Mother”? The book concludes with a police report about people sleeping in their cars, pretending to look at the stars, and with a photograph of a “drive-in” sign surrounded by stars. The very final image looks like a starry sky, but cannot be; perhaps, it shows the last remnants of light from a firework.

Il Foglio, 7th June 2019

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“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 GuidiHis 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

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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 Graecia, 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 ChiaramonteIn 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 ChiaramonteDarkness. 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

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The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte 3

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