Words and Photographs
by Laura Gasparini
It was with the advent of the artistic avant-gardes of the early 20th century that the unyielding connection between image and word—a connection as old as the very beginning of both painting and photography—deepened and strengthened, sealing even further the link between photography and literature. These disciplines now shared a common impetus, as they moved away from mere representation and documentation and turned inwards, gazing at reality as it was influenced by the internal, intimate horizon of the artist. This shared impulse, voiced at different times by both writers and photographers, has been described by the Portuguese photographer Daniel Blaufuks in a recent interview for Doppiozero, as being born from a search for “a reason to experience life within ourselves without being overtaken by the reality around us”.
Some examples might throw further light onto the meaning and nature of this literary and photographic impulse, and give us the chance to observe a fil rouge that runs through all them. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974)—not by chance one of the main inspirations behind Blaukfus’ series Attempting Exhaustion— Georges Perec observed and described the more negligible and often overlooked aspects of Place Saint-Sulpice; the “infra-ordinary” that is the background to the passing of time. Years before Perec, Cesare Zavattini had formulated his poetics of qualsiasità (‘anyness’), contending that any place and any object could provide interesting material, and that such material ought to be explored in all possible ways. The theory and poetics of anyness inspired and stimulated several works, both literary and photographic. Zavattini worked directly with the American photographer Paul Strand to produce Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village (1955), which captured the essential experience of Zavattini’s birthplace Luzzara, in the Po Valley.
Starting in the 1980s, photographer Luigi Ghirri and writer Gianni Celati explored and reinterpreted Zavattini’s poetics in a personal and original way in their Minimal Journeys (viaggi minimi), such as Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1984) and Explorations on via Emilia (Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia) (1986). In Like a Song of the Earth (Come un canto della terra) (1989) Ghirri writes:
Strand and Zavattini’s territory/landscape may be catalogued only through a poetics of marginality, a poetics of simple things – solitary pitchers on tables that recall the work of Giorgio Morandi, twilit rows of poplars, light geometrics constructed in fields along bends in the river, which alternates the serenity and majesty of its slow course with never-appeased threats of floods and disasters, of destroyed and engulfed embankments, of people on the rooftops of houses, waiting for a life boat. But while all of this still feels very much alive, like a stage set, the scene is in fact much more heterogeneous and nuanced; there are many depths yet to be discovered and seen. Perhaps these were the thoughts that ran through the minds and eyes of Strand and Zavattini: to try and give the small stage of the town of Luzzara a connotation that is less obvious and familiar, one that is truer and more authentic. This is the only way to explain the intuitions, the subtle – alchemical – intersections in the geography of places and faces, actors and stage sets of the life in Luzzara. This is the only way one can understand this happy synthesis of literary text and photographic text, and likewise how the two languages come together autonomously and at the same time become free of one another – according to the intentions and desires of the audience –and how the search for a similar language becomes a storytelling mode .
It is lastly worth remembering that Blaufuks’ was also influenced by Cesare Pavese’s The Business of Living (Mestiere di vivere), which collects the diaries that Pavese wrote between 1935–50, after a Fascist tribunal sentenced him to exile (confino) in Brancaleone Calabro, in the deep Italian South. Blaufuks writes: “Pavese is a marvellous writer, his diaries are beautiful, and I am especially interested in his musings on daily life. The word mestiere, which cannot be translated into English, conveys the idea of the necessity inherent to life, and the need to reinvent one’s life on an everyday basis. This can be a hard task, one that for Pavese ended tragically with suicide. His last annotations on the diary are punctual and precise, even in a day in which he simply notes “today, nothing.” And yet this nothing—the one of Pavese, as well as the ones of Zavattini, Strand, and Perec—is one that is well worth recording in a diary, or memorialising in a photograph.
Laura Gasparini is the Head of the Photographic Archive at the Panizzi Library in Reggio Emilia, Italy. She is also a member of the Scientific Committee of the European Photography Festival in Reggio Emilia (Fotografia Europea), professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, and a member of the International Photographic Award Jury at the MAST Foundation in Bologna. She has curated many shows including the very first exhibition of Zavattini and Strand’s book Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village at Palazzo Magnani for the 2017 edition of Fotografia Europea.