WORDS AND PHOTOS BY GINEVRA ROMAGNOLI.
Image: a word that contains infinite meanings, making it difficult to provide a single definition. Let’s start from the one given by the dictionary: “an image is a visual, not a solid, representation of reality; in particular, an image can represent physical reality (in a more or less realistic way) or a fictitious and abstract reality. “ So first of all image is synonymous with representation. And what is a representation? Representing means making an absent object present. In fact, image has always had to do with death, because its different names, both the Latin imago and the Greek eidon, were funerary effigies, as our family photographs often are. The image is the representation of a moment, of a detail that will never recur. It carries a code whose key is rarely given to us: it is a piece of life torn from reality, it is at the same time access to an absent reality that it symbolically evokes: “man could not have access to the world of ideas except through the shadows cast in the cave that is the world we are prisoners of. “ (1)
Before the advent of photography, the image remained primarily an object linked to the cult and for a few. The invention of photography (2) caused an immense enthusiasm in his time: suddenly reality imposed itself as a direct reference to the image. Today, in the so-called “civilization of images” this enthusiasm has been waning because we find ourselves being educated in photographs. From 1839 onwards everything has been photographed: we have an “anthology” of images, they teach us a new visual code, with photography we say what is worth looking at and what is not. “The photo” wrote Roland Barthes “adheres to reality”. (3) Or is it reality that adheres to the photo? During the short life of photography there have been many debates regarding the value of this powerful and strange tool.
OBJECTIVITY OR SUBJECTIVITY?
In the beginning there was a tendency to capture images as a new, impersonal form of notation. A striking example is Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), the first photograph illustrated book ever published. However, people soon realized that no one photographed something in the same way, and the hypothesis of impersonality had to give up. Even if it is true that a photo can only reproduce reality (the so-called abstract photos are nothing more than images of a real world made unrecognizable), the photographs attest not only what is there but also what the photographer sees. The photo does not adhere to reality, it is reality that adheres to photography: behind every lens there is always a choice and an expectation. To quote Luigi Ghirri “photography is testimony of what I experienced but also a reinvention of what I saw.” (4) Even when photos are concerned with representing reality, there is a trace of the photographer’s taste and conscience: the simple fact that taking pictures implies making a choice on what to frame and what to leave out, as in the frame of a painting.
Diane Arbus claimed she felt perverse the first time she took a picture. Obviously the camera does not rape but it can certainly intrude, distort and murder. The act of photographing has something predatory, the camera is often mistaken for a weapon. To photograph a person means to violate him, seeing him as he cannot see himself. It is like transforming it into an image, into an object. “Over time, people will learn to vent their violence with cameras, and the price will be a world full of images.” (5) Susan Sotang foretold what seems to happen every day today. Photography is a nostalgic art and reflects our nostalgic era. It is a memento mori, a device for recording what is disappearing. Pseudopresence and absence, photographs make us fantasize and give us the sense of reaching something unattainable (vips, exotic places, objects…). They are attempts to get in touch with another reality and to make claims about it. Having an experience is identified with taking a photograph of it, to take up a phrase by Mallarmè, today everything exists not to end up in a book but to end up in a photograph. (6) Photographic images anesthetize, being repeatedly exposed to them paradoxically become less real to us. The atrocity becomes almost normal: we are so bombarded with images of war and violence that we are no longer impressed.
In its early days a photograph was beautiful if it portrayed something beautiful, such as flowers, landscapes and portraits. Today it is evident that certain wonders of nature have been practically abandoned, such as sunsets: they look too much like photographs. Photographs create beauty and after a few generations of photographers they consume it. The success of the camera in beautifying the world has meant that now photographs and not the world are the model of beauty. From the 1920s onwards, more insignificant subjects began to be explored photographically, and this required everyone to partially revise what is beautiful and ugly. The act of photographing can only attach importance, everything can be made beautiful if placed in a photograph. Today it is common to much of modern art to tend to lower the threshold of the terrible. The images diminish our ability to react to horror in reality: the “monsters” (7) of Diane Arbus who at the time had so impressed today have their own legitimacy, we can now easily see them on the cover of newspapers. Since cameras were born, there has been a new form of heroism, the heroism of vision: the right moment to photograph is when you can see things in a new way. New conventions of beauty came into force: beauty becomes what the eye cannot see, what only the camera can give. Technical imperfection is appreciated today precisely because it breaks the calm equation between nature and beauty. There is an obvious struggle against beauty, but still photography continues to beautify.
We are increasingly dependent on images. Our heads are full of relationships, 500 years ago a person saw perhaps 500 images in life, today we see them in a day. And in more images of all kinds. Ours is an accelerated view. We seem to have already seen everything, like a dejavù that circulates in all artistic languages. Photography is an extension of the object represented, it is a powerful tool of acquiring it. Once that object is photographed it becomes an integral part of an information system. While in non-industrialized countries there is the fear of being photographed because one feels violated, in industrialized countries it is the opposite: the individual tries to be photographed, feeling that he is an image and can become real thanks to photography. A capitalist society requires a culture based on images, to stimulate purchases and to acquire an unlimited amount of information. Instrument of entertainment (for the masses) and surveillance (for the rulers). The need to photograph everything is in the very logic of consumption: to consume means to burn, to run out. As we make and consume images we need more images and more. Our sense of transience in everything has become even more acute since cameras have given us the opportunity to stare at the fleeting moment. Plato was contemptuous of images, comparing them to shadows, powerless compared to real things. But the strength of photographic images derives from the fact that they are actually material in themselves, powerful means of overturning reality and transforming it into shadow.
Currently, what is easy to perceive is how simple and accessible it is to all to photograph. In a very interesting essay by Ando Giliardi, “Stupidità Fotografica”, the Italian historian and photographer often takes up a famous quote from Nadar: “photography is that means that allows even an idiot to obtain something for which genius was previously needed.” (8) The idiot is the one who does not understand things, and it is precisely what often happens in photography today, that is, a widespread lack of understanding of what it represents. Now, given that our time is affected by an unprecedented visual bulimia, the real question to ask is: does this hunger for images really correspond to a hunger for reality? Today everything is bits, files, pixels, everything can be easily modified with some filter or photomontage: the expectation of finding reality in the photographic image seems to have definitively disappeared, as it happened in the past for painting or other visual arts. However, if digital means the loss of any duty towards the representation of reality, what to look for now through the photographic lens? Ando affirms that today more than ever the “one click is enough”, therefore the simple objective registration of reality, gives way to the free creativity that photography implies. Personally, I see in photography, of all kinds, an art of seeing and creating: each image embodies a mysterious charm that goes beyond the pure registration of reality.
(1) Plato’s cave allegory is one of the best known of the myths or metaphors of the Athenian philosopher. The myth is told at the beginning of the seventh book of La Repubblica (514 b – 520 a); is the narrative description of the cognitive path of the philosopher, who, in his search for truth, detaches himself from the sensible world to reach ideas and the Good, and then return among other men to govern the city in the best way.
(2) Photography was born in 1839 (precisely on January 7, the date of the official announcement), when the scholar and politician François Jean Dominique Arago, elected deputy in 1830, explained in detail to the French Academy the invention of Louis Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype.
(3) Barthes R, La camera chiara. Nota sulla fotografia (La chambre claire, Paris 1980)
(4) Ghirri L., Lezioni di fotografia (Quodlibet, 2009)
(5) Sontag S, Stéphane Mallarmé Sulla fotografia. Realtà e immagine nella nostra società (Torino, Giulio Einaudi, 1978)
(6) “Il mondo è fatto per finire in un bel libro” citazione di Stéphane Mallarmé.
(7) Diane Arbus, an American photographer of the Sixties with Russian origin, with her work shocked her contemporary public to the point of being contemptuously called a “photographer of monsters”. In reality, in her shots an unforgettable talent is expressed, capable of penetrating the intimate emotionality of her subjects.
(8) The citation originates from a lawsuit filed by Nadar at the Imperial Court of Paris, hearing of 12 December 1857, entitled Revendication de la propriété exclusive du pseudonyme Nadar. Félix Tournachon-Nadar contre A. Tournachon jeune et Cie. The memo was presented by Nadar in the context of his claim to the exclusive right to use the pseudonym “Nadar” against his half-brother Adrien Alban Tournachon. The text is articulated and addresses various considerations in relation to the exercise of the profession of photographer. The passage that interests us reads exactly: “The Photographie est une découverte merveilleuse, une science qui occupe les intelligences les plus élevées, an art qui aiguise les esprits les plus sagaces – et dont l’application est à la portée du dernier des imbéciles”.
Benjamin W., L’opera d’arte all’epoca della sua riproducibilità tecnica. Arte e società di massa.
Torino, Einaudi, 1991
Ghirri L., Lezioni di fotografia. Quodlibet, 2009
Giliardi A., La stupidità fotografica. Johan & Levi Editore, 2013
Gunthert A., L’immagine condivisa. La fotografia digitale. Roma, Ag. Contrasto srl, 2016
Melot M., Breve storia dell’immagine. Lugano, Pagine d’Arte, 2009
Mirzoeff N., Come vedere il mondo. Un’introduzione alle immagini: dall’autoritratto al selfie dalle mappe ai film (e altro ancora). Londra, Penguin Books Ltd, 2015
Platone, La Repubblica. Torino, Utet, 1988.
Sontag S., Sulla fotografia. Realtà e immagine nella nostra società. Torino, Giulio Einaudi, 1978