Fotografia Magazine now FotoRoom interviews our founding director

15 Jun 2015

In June 2015 Fotografia Magazine (now called FotoRoom) interviewed our founding director Federica Chiocchetti about her interest in the relationship between photography and literature, and the ideas behind her platform Photocaptionist that explores image-text intersections.

Fotografia Magazine’s interview with our founding director Federica Chiocchetti in 2015

How do photographs and text interact with each other? Does text – even just a caption – influence our interpretation of a photograph? And in what creative ways can these two media be used to produce works that include both text and images? The Photocaptionist is here to answer!

The Photocaptionist is a recently launched platform which focuses exactly on projects that combine photography and text in one way or another, through an online publication and a program of talks, symposiums and exhibitions.

We asked a few questions to The Photocaptionist founder Federica Chiocchetti / Candida Desideri (more about the double name in the interview…), a photography curator and critic who discovered her love for photography by way of her love for literature.

Fotografia Magazine: Hello Federica, thank you for this interview. Wait, who are we talking with – Federica or Candida? What’s the deal with your double persona? 

Federica Chiocchetti: It’s a somewhat subversive homage to my mother, whose second name is Candida and her surname is Desideri. In English it literally translates as ‘Candid Wishes’, which sounds very poetic to me. However, my mum has always disliked her second name, as it is also the name of a common fungus that causes vaginal yeast infection. Being also a quaint, extremely pragmatic woman of ‘other times’, she always laughs at intellectualisms and the likes. So for me Candida Desideri is a sort of alter ego that partly embodies the idea of how would my mum be had she been an artist and a convinced intellectual. I say partly because Candida Desideri is also my alter ego through which I explore more experimental stuff.

I love aliases and pseudonyms; they are just wonderful, as they create a pleasantly confusing cloud around the identity of people in a sort of ‘death of the author’ vein. The idea of associating my persona with the term artist for some reasons makes me laugh, as, even if I do write short stories and prose poems, mainly inspired by photography and at the moment only for myself, I never had the urge to produce my own visual art. I prefer to play with other people’s imagery. At times I enjoy exploring what I call photo-literary montages and I needed an alias to operate within a blurred photo-literary ecosystem with the necessary amount of freedom and perhaps irreverence.

FM: You recently launched The Photocaptionist, “a platform that promotes the practice of concubinage between photography and literature, images and words.” Can you tell us a little more about your project, and how did it come along? 

FC: My background is in comparative literature, particularly Latin American and Italian XX century authors. I developed my interest in photography through literature. Calvino and Cortázar played a major influence. I got fascinated by the way in which the two sister arts could interact and I started my PhD on photography and fictions. I was a bit disappointed by the somewhat rigid academic approach on the relationship between photography and literature, which is a very lively field of studies, but it sort of obliges the two arts to reciprocally engage with each other. If you pick any book on the topic it will examine either literature that is about photography, namely one of the main characters is a photographer or a particularly evocative image plays a key role in the story, or it will explore those photographic series whose subject is literary, namely a writer or elaborately staged scenes portraying a literary character, like for instance William Lake Price’s ‘Don Quixote in his Study’.

I was also spending most of my days at the British Library overwhelmed by photography theory, so I really needed a more playful and experimental way to engage with my research. The Photocaptionist appeared in a dream I had a couple of years back of a grumpy bloke whose job title was precisely Photocaptionist, and whose task was to find or produce creative texts to accompany the photographs he was sent by various institutions, artists and random individuals. I forgot about him for a while. One day I came across an empty 1940s photo album in the streets of Derby, UK, with a very peculiar typestyle on the cover. Out of curiosity I commissioned typographer and artist Rob Draper to replicate the typestyle and form the word ‘Photocaptionist’. The imaginary bloke was back, grumpier than ever, working as a matchmaker between photography and literature, texts and images.

Cover image of Bertholt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel [War Primer]

FM: The debate about the relationship between images and texts is an old yet unresolved one. Can you recap it briefly, and explain how The Photocaptionist fits in? Tough question, we know… 

On the role of text in photography the first two names that come to mind are Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht. The former with his 1934 fundamental essay ‘The Author as Producer’, where he stressed the importance of the caption to rescue the picture from ‘the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value’. The latter with his 1955 Kriegsfibel [War Primer], a unique work of art that introduced a new literary genre, the fotogramm (photo-epigram), where he combined poetry and news photography to unmask the true nature of war in a capitalist society. So text for them played an important political role of identifying and unveiling propaganda (the etymology of caption refers to the idea of ‘seizure’).

Postmodern artists such as Barbara Kruger and Victor Burgin healthily reminded us that, rather than simply seizing the meaning of an image, text can also contribute to its ambiguity, without loosing its political mission, as pointed out by Abigail Solomon-Godeau. The Photocaptionist likes ambiguity. It does not necessarily imply sheer conceptualism or unconcern, but I believe it reflects a more realistic approach to the text/image conundrum, as it acknowledges the polysemic nature of the image, ‘invention of photographic meaning’ and the diversity in the reception process of artistic practices. While the Photocaptionist is deeply interested in all the political nuances of photography and text, he/she strongly believes that it is ultimately in the viewer/reader where meaning is produced, who, no matter the political agenda of the artist/writer or messenger, will always be autonomous in his/her interpretation of the artwork. Sorry a bit academic but you prompted me ;).

FM: What is your absolute favourite project that combines photography and literature?

FC: Oh dear, this is even tougher. I could reply with a diplomatic ‘it still has to be made’ but there are a few photo-literary endeavours worth mentioning.

I am not taking into account those projects where photography only serves the purpose of illustrating text or vice versa. Beautiful as they are, and I am thinking among others about Elio Vittorini’s Conversation in Sicily 1953 illustrated edition with photographs by Luigi Crocenzi, they miss the point of equal and reciprocal interaction. Probably one of my favourites is the 1970 Chilean Versos de Salon by Nicanor Parra with photographs by Daniel Vittet and design by great Fernán Meza for its ‘anti-poetic mission’, which entails a tearing down of the ‘poetic podium’ so that the ‘anti-poet’ can practice his art on the same level as the ordinary man. Meza created a fragmented style that sees an image of Parra broken into pieces, then reconstructed only to disappear again on the odd-numbered pages of the book.

Another publication that I particularly enjoyed two years ago at the photobook festival Fiebre in Madrid was Cuadernos de ejercicios para poetas visuales by Ricardo Garrido Robles. I am a big fan of Come Eravamo [As We Used To Be] with photographs by Adriano Mordenti and Massimo Vergari of the students protests in 1970s Rome mingled with quotations from the likes of Brecht but also Ho Chi Minh etc.. And of course the aforementioned War Primer and needless to say Nadja. However, my research is still in fieri so I am probably missing out some gems, in which case please feel free to contact me and share them with us! […]

If you would like to read the full version of Federica’s interview, please contact us.