“The British Isles” by Jamie Hawkesworth

Jamie Hawkesworth The British Isles

by Luca Fiore

Jamie Hawkesworth is a photographer born in Suffolk, South East England in 1987. In the last decade he has established himself in the world of fashion. He photographed Kate Moss for Vogue, Gisele Bündchen just woken up and without makeup, but also David Hockney for the New York Times Magazine. Mack is about to release a book on his non-commercial work, entitled “The British Isles”. It is, perhaps, the British publisher’s most ambitious release this 2021 and is poised to become a best seller.

Hawkesworth is, without a doubt, a great portraitist. He proved this in 2014 with his first book, “Preston Bus Station,” a volume that featured work done visiting the bus station of the small town in the north of England each day for a month. Teenagers, office workers, laborers, the elderly. The faces of the people of Preston are illuminated by a golden light that enhances their beauty and dignity. That station, a Brutalist giant that recently escaped demolition, as the photographer recounted, “Was the first place where I really looked at light. I began to see, feel and understand its effect, I was becoming sensitive to light. Being patient in such a transitional space began to amplify every detail. Everything became significant. In the continuous motion of people’s days, light became a magnifying glass – a tool to study and appreciate life. A cold circular space became heaven.”

“The British Isles ” appears as a bit of a development, of that extraordinary book, which is now impossible to find; it takes Hawkesworth’s poetics from the limited spaces of a “non-place” to the undefined spaces of the entire country. Here too we find the faces of men and women of different ages, ethnicities and social groups, but the setting is now that of the English landscape. The portraits, all shot in urban contexts, alternate with images of coasts, moors, and the English countryside. The same light rests on the human figure and on nature: warm and golden. And the wild spaces, with large horizons, caress the idea of the sublime and, perhaps, would like to evoke the boundless expanses of feelings and emotional patterns that dwell within the bodies of the protagonists of the portraits.

The photographer’s investigation is not systematic and does not aim to offer a social cross-section of contemporary England, although its title seems to suggest this. What is striking, and that could even be found annoying, is the general feeling of positivity that this overview of faces conveys. No account is given of the deep fractures in the social fabric. The multicultural dimension seems peacefully resolved. Political divergences do not appear. The knot of Brexit is not touched upon. But, as said, it is perhaps the connection between the human and interminable spaces and superhuman silences that develops in the sequence of images. And, if we look closely, another theme that arises, in various forms, and that intersperses the gallery of faces: the enigmatic theme of the house.

This is an important volume also in terms of its size; with its 304 pages, the book constitutes a very demanding sequence of images. And here lies the Achilles’ heel of a work of great charm. The sequence of images, which could have been more selective, presents some lapses; at times it lingers and is more explicit than it should be (too many smiles, for example) or slips into an aesthetic that is more suited to the pages of Vogue than to those of a song about beauty in life.

Il Foglio, 2nd July 2021

“Nothing ancient under the sun” by Luigi Ghirri

Luigi Ghirri niente di antico sotto il sole

The event of the year in the world of Italian photography publishing is the release of a book that does not contain a single image: “Niente di antico sotto il sole – scritti e interviste”[Nothing ancient under the sun – Writings and interviews], by Luigi Ghirri (Quodlibet, €22). What is remarkable is that, despite the fact that the photographer from Modena, who died in 1992, was recognized internationally as one of the masters of the second half of the twentieth century and that this collection is one of the most fascinating books one can read on the subject of photography, the volume had long since become unavailable in Italian. Those who wanted to study Ghirri’s thought had to get the English version published by MACK.

            The original edition, published in 1997 by SEI, which today’s Italian and English editions followed, was edited by Paolo Costantini, who collected and edited the texts, and by Giovanni Chiaramonte, who put forward an anthology of images. The original title, in fact, was: “Niente di antico sotto il sole – Scritti e immagini per un’autobiografia” [Nothing ancient under the sun – Writings and images for an autobiography], in the conviction that Ghirri had written his own story with both words and photographs in equal measure. Instead of having notes to the edition by Chiaramonte and the foreword by Costantini, the Quodlibet volume now proposes the essay that Francesco Zanot has written for MACK.

            This operation attempts to fill a serious gap in the literary landscape and will allow Ghirri’s book to permanently be added to the list of essential texts for those who want to read and understand photography, even if the advice given to booksellers is to insert the volume in the “art essays” section. It belongs there.

            Ghirri’s trajectory, in fact, did not begin in photographic circles, as it did for some of the greats who had preceded him such as Paolo Monti or Mario Giacomelli, but in the contemporary art sphere. And the reflection that emerges from his pages is the result of a debate animated by instances in conceptual art that often questioned, on a theoretical level, the possibility of the image as such. Ghirri himself conceived the practice begun by Daguerre in a problematic way, which he defined as “the enigma of photography”. Since its discovery, “an interminable sequence of questions have come down to our days without a single one of the problems and questions that accompany photography having been answered.” According to Ghirri, Daguerre, “being the first to approach the frontier of the ‘already seen’ and at the same time of the ‘never seen’, sensed that from that moment on the life of the person would be accompanied by this double gaze, by a gap, a sort of halo that would inhabit people and places.” Hence his reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Nothing ancient under the sun”.

            It is an enigma that runs through the photographers he loved, especially American ones: Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Robert Adams. But also young people then still unknown like Vincenzo Castella. It is prose that cites masters of painting, greats of literature, philosophers, and “his” Bob Dylan. But above all there is the question of the meaning of art and life. “What we are given to know, to tell, to represent is but a small stretch mark on the surface of things,” he wrote in 1988. “This awareness is also the desire, perhaps naive, for a return to a state of purity, zero degree vision.” Elsewhere Ghirri uses the expression, “return to the lost original.” Because, he explains, “this feeling of the origin of things is the point from which I start to look into the landscape, knowing that there are no definitive answers, but continuing to question myself, because the answer is contained in the act of continually asking myself the question.”

Il Foglio, 8th June 2021