Fotoromanzo Italiano in conversation with photo novel guru Jan Baetens

22 Sep 2018
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While the eccentric collective Fotoromanzo Italiano of explosive duo Andrea Botto and Giorgio Barrera with their extravagant booth is conquering Coop, a terrific initiative dedicated to artist-run projects and collectives worldwide, curated by Lars Willumeit within the must attend photography fair Unseen in Amsterdam, we asked the renown photo novel expert professor Jan Baetens to interview them.

‘Become a Photo Novel Star’, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

Jan Baetens: The photo novel, which emerged in 1947, is a medium that seems very old-fashioned, but that continues to inspire new variations and appropriations. However, one may have the impression that the attempts to reinvent and appropriate the genre never succeed in reinventing it as a popular format. There are many examples of ‘artistic’ or ‘political’ reuses of the photo novel, but it seems very difficult to make the photo novel ‘popular’ again, that is: attractive to a very broad audience. How can one explain that difficulty? Does it mean that something is lacking in the contemporary forms of the photo novel? Have we, as readers but also as makers of photo novels, lost a kind of naiveté that is necessary to enjoy what made the original photo novels so successful? Or are we making a mistake by burdening the photo novel with a kind of cultural sophistication that proves incompatible with the core business of the genre, which is romance?

‘Innamorati a Milano’ (‘In Love in Milan’), ‘Colpo di fulmine totale’ (‘Total Love at First Sight’, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

Fotoromanzo Italiano: The golden years of the photo novel are really far away, not only those of the so-called (Italian) economic boom after World War II but especially the 1970s in which the photo-novels, at that time weekly, were published in hundreds of thousands of copies, sometimes up to a million, numbers to make any contemporary publisher turn pale. The reasons for the slow decline of the photo novel are different. The photo novel was born in an era when there were not many means to escape from reality. At the time, however, there was a great ability to dream, to imagine a future that certainly had to be better than the present one was experiencing. Then came commercial television, the 1980s – which in Italy are remembered as those of the ‘Milano da bere’ (‘Milan to drink’) – and the photo novel was replaced by a new imaginary, consumeristic, hedonistic, optimistic and narcissistic.

The stories told in the photo novels, became telenovelas and got more intricate, familiar and above all the characters were successful protagonists. The big American soap operas, the forerunner of what we know today as ‘serials’, reached the small screen: Dallas, Dynasty and then Beautiful. In the meantime, the home video also arrived. So it is very true: it sounds difficult to make the photo novel become popular again and probably impossible. Nowadays it seems to be a sort of fashionable rediscover. We don’t think there’s something lacking in its contemporary forms: society has changed and so has the way we entertain ourselves. Somehow, we think we have lost that kind of naiveté that makes us be imaginative. About the last question, the photo novel has always been seen as something minor or even loser. Probably too mushy to be considered culturally relevant, but in our opinion it doesn’t need cultural sophistication. Since the beginning of our experience we dealt with it as a medium and we took advantage of his limits by playing with its characteristics and by treating it ironically.

‘Forget it’, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

JB: What is the idea of the photo novel that Fotoromanzo Italiano is actually using when it produces photo novel-like works, and does that model function as an anti-model or a source of inspiration? Some productions seem extremely close to the traditional model – Milano ti guardo, (Milan, I’m Looking at You) for instance. Other works strongly break the genre rules, from a formal as well as a thematic point of view (the Italians Need Food project has a collage structure which to a certain extent reminds the work by a conceptual artist such as Barbara Kruger). What are in the history of the photo novel the examples you are reworking or criticizing?

courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

FI: Fotoromanzo Italiano was born to create a world of realistic images of Italianity seen from within and the image of Italianity seen from abroad. They are not (only) the clichés: pizza, mafia and mandolino, if anything, a study on the linguistic and cultural mixtures absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon world starting from the post WW II period. The photo novel was one of the first popular expressions in this regard. Guy Debord asserts in the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) that a mutual complementarity is established between flow of communication and spectacle. It can be said that the ‘integrated spectacle’ has come true: a model dominated by representations in which the spectacle is totally merged with the social culture and the experience of reality is filtered by the media. Italy is a place where the ‘integrated spectacle’ has begun very early: the political plot, gossip, business and crime have always been shown and were also presented abroad as melodrama, as if they were a caricature. This is a very interesting field of research for us. Milano ti guardo (Milan, I’m Looking at You) was a commission for the first Milan photo week and we were asked to create a ‘real’ photo novel. Italians Need Food was a project proposal for EXPO 2015. So in both cases they were adaptations of ideas and screenplays. The idea we are using both for the photo novel we are starting at Coop-Unseen Amsterdam as well as the one we submitted for the Meijburg Art Commission is to create a fragmentary novelisation. It’s a sort of augmented editing where the dialogue between text and image is very synthetic, pointy and kind of feisty.

‘Uno scarabeo d’oro!’, ‘Dio,’ courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

JB: Fotoromanzo Italiano has a transmedial approach of the photo novel, which covers a wide gamut, ranging from ‘actions’ in the public domain to book or magazine publications. But the traditional photo novel has moved from print to screen, it has shifted from magazines to telenovelas – and more recently to blogs and social media such as Instagram. What is the position or policy of Fotoromanzo Italiano in this regard? Why does the group continue to publish photo novels in print – and how are they distributed?

courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

FI: In 2011 it was common interest and practice of the initial members of the group to work with material taken from the web. In fact, the first action of Fotoromanzo Italiano was the creation of a website designed as an archive that took into account this trend. Our first interest was, and in a certain sense remains, the crossroads of politics, gossip, crime, economy, customs, that caudal soup typical of contemporary Italianity, whose analysis could take us to the roots of our present or simply reveal illusions. The presence and contemporary vision of all these factors represent that imaginary that we have called ‘neoreality’. In effect, we try to use the most suitable medium for the topics we are dealing with, web, paper, public actions, workshops, without placing any ideological limitations. Fotoromanzo Italiano was born as a very free, experimental and liberating form of collaboration for its members. We like to print because paper gives us the possibility to have a sort of intimate relationship with the reader, as a matter of fact, most of our publications are sold at our events. Also, printing is a way for us to experiment with different kinds of graphic design.

JB: The photo novel is a radically hybrid genre, combining photography, dialogue, and storytelling – the special mix of these elements becoming very clear in the particular page layout of the genre (which only superficially resembles the layout of a comics). Here as well, Fotoromanzo italiano seems to adopt very different strategies, shifting from productions that stick to a very traditional aesthetic to way more experimental work. What are the reasons that determine the layout choices that are made, and which are the models for the less traditional productions?

‘Orologio’, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

FI: Even when we use traditional aesthetic we insert peculiar or extravagant stratagems to confuse our readers. Why confuse? Because reality is a system of things but it’s not yet an algorithm, let’s say that we use glitches to light up people who meet our works. In other words we are very interested in the linguistic and graphic structure of the photo novel. We use its classic and recognizable grid to create a sort of camouflage. We can say that we do the make up to the grid with the aim to look for alternative narrative forms and temporal leaps that can lead us into new imaginary worlds. For sure Fototeca by Ando Gilardi and Permanent food by Maurizio Cattelan and Paola Manfrin have inspired us as well as pop art and visual studies. We refer especially to Benjamin, Žižek, Warburg, Vaccari, Moholy-Nagy, Deleuze and many others. In our works we also like to quote the Italian Comedy, a kind of comic-satirical cinema of neorealist origin.

'Bianca by car', courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

‘And yet they are such strange days…I feel like this freaky river, I look at it and it appears different than ususal’, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

JB: A work like Quei giorni del diluvio (Those Days of the Deluge), which mixes past and present, personal life and collective memory, romance and politics, seems very close to a work such as Ricordami per sempre (Remember Me Forever), commissioned by the organizers of an exhibit at the Museo Fotografia Contemporanea of Cinisello-Balsamo. In that case, the take was definitely neo-realist, and the same applies to Nessuna colpa, the modern remake of a photo novel written – but not signed! – by Cesare Zavattini, La colpa (The Guilt), in the context of a recent exhibit in Spazio Gerra in Reggio Emilia. What strikes in these productions is the absence of irony and parody: the photo novel is taken seriously and taken at face value and it works very well, while it is often tacitly assumed that irony and parody are necessary or inevitable when one wants to revivify or modernize the photo novel. What are the experiences of Fotoromanzo italiano in this regard? How does the group analyze the reactions of its readers and audiences?

FI: We did like the work Ricordami per sempre (Remember Me Forever) the plot was written by Giulio Mozzi a great writer and teacher and the photos taken by Marco Signorini. Marco was part of the first working group that gave birth to Fotoromanzo Italiano. He likes to say that our partnership broke up for aesthetic matters because for him aesthetic comes first. The show exhibited in Reggio Emilia sounded instead superficial to us. The show had all the ingredients to make the whole thing nothing more than nice. Basically, we could not see a real research. We have made of irony and self-irony our emblem. The reaction of our audiences has always surprised us. First because at the beginning we took this adventure as a challange, as a game and secondly because people were kind of unconsciously attracted by our productions. As if what we do belongs to their imaginary but because it is a sort of remake (up). Quoting Franco Vaccari probably what happens it’s the effect of the technological unconscious of the medium: something that is beyond, independent of the will of those who use it.

‘Meanwhile, nearby the orbital road of Milan’, courtesy Fototromanzo Italiano

Jan Baetens is professor of cultural studies at the University of Leuven. He has published widely on word and image studies (with Hugo Frey and Steve Tabachnick he coedited in 2018 The Cambridge History of the Graphic Novel, for Cambridge University Press). He has a weak spot for the photo novel, on which he published an essay ‘Pour le roman-photo’ (Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2017). He currently supervises a project on the history of the photo novel in Belgium. In 2019 Texas University Press will publish his book The Film Photo Novel.

Giorgio Barrera has been the assistant of Joel Meyerowitz’s works of photography and video. Based in Milan, he is a teacher and lecturer who studied at the Marangoni Foundation in Florence. Since 1996 he approached documentary photography by staging his photographs. Barrera now works on the creation of imaginaries in relation to specific historical events. His works have won many awards. His images have been published in various books, catalogues and magazines internationally. He has recently published an essay entitled The Battle of Images. The text investigates the relationships of photography with sociality and reality and pushes us to introduce a creative form of media activism to be produced mainly with images.

Andrea Botto is an Italian photographer who studied photography at IED in Turin, where he graduated in 1997. Interested in the cross-pollination of various contemporary art mediums, he uses photography as a means of dissecting the world in order to express its complexity and to expose its stratifications. Among his publications: the acclaimed 19.06_26.08.1945 (Danilo Montanari, 2014), third prize at Fotobookfestival Kassel Dummy Award and shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture First Book Award, and KA-BOOM: The Explosion of Landscape (Editions Bessard, 2017), a fictional blasting manual.

'Please tell me, do you really want to hurt me?', The End, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

‘Please tell me, do you really want to hurt me?’, The End, courtesy Fotoromanzo Italiano

Fotoromanzo Italiano is an art collective, founded in 2011 by Giorgio Barrera, Andrea Botto and Marco Citron. The Fotoromanzo – the English term for photo novel – appeared in Italy in 1947 and it is still a practice marginally employed. Since we started our work what has sounded interesting to us was to explore and to push the linguistic traits of the photo novel to make it a more complex dispositif. So now we produce and make original and innovative photo novels by applying the language of the medium to different themes and contexts such as events, communities, architecture, art, but also commercial, corporate and business activities. All our practices are open to external contributions, participated and shared. We work in fact through laboratory forms (workshops, motivational and relational art) and online. Our main exhibitions: Andria, Festival della Disperazione (2018), 49th Suzzara Award (2016), ‘Laboratorio Italia’, SiFest #23, Savignano sul Rubicone (2014), ‘Milan and beyond’ by A. Detheridge, Triennale di Milano (2013), Gran Touristas, Venice Architecture Biennale (2012), ‘Beyond Memory’ edited by M. Paderni, Fondazione Marangoni Firenze (2012), ‘Prospettive Variabili’, Bari (2012). After the experience of Innamorati a Milano (In Love in Milan), a politically self-produced romance magazine created through the contents of our facebook page, in 2016 we won an artist residency at Le Murate Pac in Florence and produced Quei giorni del diluvio (Those Days of the Deluge) a photo novel that revives amorous weaves on the banks of the Arno river to talk about the Florence flood 50th anniversary. The photo novel became a book published by Skinnerboox in 2017. In the same year we made, for the first Milanese Photoweek, a social photo novel entitled Milano Ti Guardo, (Milan, I’m Looking at You) with the production of ArtsFor. The photo story, printed in twenty thousand copies, investigates the problems of work of young Milanese people through the eyes of an aspiring photographer.