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Verifications 1969-1972

In 1970 I began taking photographs whose subject matter was photography itself, a sort of analysis of the operations of photography aimed at identifying its basic elements and their intrinsic significance. For instance, what is a sensitive surface? Why using a telephoto or wide-angle lens? Why do you choose a certain format? Why making enlargements? What relation exists between a photograph and its caption? And so on. All fundamental subjects of every photography manual but seen from the opposite side, that is by a seasoned professional with twenty years of experience, while manuals are usually addressed to and read by beginners.

My digressions may spring from the typical need of self-taught people who, darkness being their starting point, want to be clear-headed about what they do, remove any doubts and they still have a sort of naivety and a great enthusiasm as to their hard-won expertise.

I have called this series of photos Verifications because they were meant to clear the meaning of those operations I have been repeating for years, hundred of times a day, without ever stopping to consider their inherent value and always seeing only their utilitarian side. I have dedicated the first of these photographs or verifications to Niepce. A single example of his photograph has survived, a picture shot from the window of his house at Le Gras. About a hundred and fifty years have passed from that time, but for a photographer that is an already mythical age when people talked about photos made by the sun, about self-delineating natural objects which do not need the artist's hand. An age when a particularly imaginative scientist, who had no faith in his drawing skills, became convinced that, apart from the pencil, there should be another, more efficient way to catch these fleeting images, and found it. And another scientist, presenting Daguerre's invention said that pictures created themselves in the dark room.

A mythical age that burns out in a few years together with the dream of having found the way to eliminate the inaccurate and tendentious hand of the artist. In a few years photography becomes a big business: factories sprout everywhere, new patents are licensed almost every day. Nadar already writes with painful irony: "Photography, this wonderful invention, product of the most extraordinary minds, which inspires the most imaginative minds, and whose practice is within the reach of the worst of imbeciles".

Long dreamed of by its inventors as evidence of truth, regarded as a way of freeing men from the responsibility of representing truth, in a short time it swiftly took the opposite direction. Because of the blind trust everyone had in its objectivity and its mechanical impartiality, photography ended up lending itself to the most ambiguous manipulations. Photography did not give man the certainty of being able to objectively reproduce himself and the world, as Niepce and Fox Talbot may have dreamed of. It ended up, instead, favouring the small élite of painters who relieved themselves of the burden of those servile operations that represented one of the constant but more frustrating aspects of their job and that became part of the photographer's profession. Indeed the worst of them turned photographers, often with success, because the new medium was more congenial to their interests and gifts while others used photography as a model for their painting. It can happen, as in Hill's case, that no trace is left of the paintings, while only the photographs remain as evidence of their value.

Nowadays photography and its by-products, television and cinema, are everywhere at any time. No longer our eyes, this magic meeting point between ourselves and the world, have to do with this world, reality, nature; we see more and more through other people's eyes.

It may be an advantage: to see through thousands of eyes instead of only two; the question, however, is not so simple. Only very few of these thousands of eyes work autonomously following their own quest, their own vision. These eyes are, even unconsciously, connected to few minds, to precise interests, to a single power. This way, unconsciously, even our eyes instead of transmitting us true information, maybe poor and scanty but authentic, submerge us with countless visual information which are twice as bewildering because their falsity is hidden behind a sort of splendour. In the end we renounce our own vision which seems so poor in comparison with the one worked out by the professionals of visual communication. Little by little the world is no longer sky, earth, fire, and water; it is printed paper, it is full of ghosts conjured up by ever more perfect and persuasive media.

I know reality is more complicated and ambiguous than that. But my remarks have only one aim: to reconstruct and understand the things I was reflecting upon some years ago when I started thinking to this photograph and non photograph which is my work dedicated to Niepce. The need to clear up to myself the reason of certain declarations and refusals such as the one concerning an idea, very popular in the 1950's when I started photographing. According to this theory a photograph is not important for its truthfulness, but for the effect, the impact it can have on the viewer's mind. I believe this idea originated from a misinterpretation of some of Cartier-Bresson's words and pictures exacerbated then by a certain kind of journalism.

From then on, it has further degenerated not only in photo-journalism but in every field where photography has become a commercial business. An example is cinema which has turned day by day more vulgar and aggressive to meet the tastes of an audience that, like a drug addict, needs always one more dose. Some films regarded as dramatic twenty years ago, today make us almost smile. A rather different case is that of photography which, after all, works with reality as Cartier-Bresson stated presenting Images à la sauvette in 1952. "A travers nos appareils, nous acceptons la vie dans toute sa réalité" (Through our cameras, we accept life in its entirety), which is an epitome of what can be said or written about photography. He is less clear when writes that you should get closer to your subject furtively and that the photographer has always to do with fleeting moments. These sentences, read out of their context and referred to certain extreme pictures by Cartier-Bresson, may have contributed to the spread of the taste for a predatory photography. The photographer, in this case, is always in search of the most unusual and unpredictable image like a predator always in ambush and ready to snatch whatever fleeting moment, as long as it is exceptional, possibly unique and unrepeatable.
This theory certainly presents some true and attracting aspects, but I could not accept the idea of a whole life spent behind a camera waiting for this rare event to happen. Or the idea of these few dozen or hundreds of privileged moments to collect in an album or book, like a hunter putting his most important trophies on the walls of his house. I refuse this theory of the fleeting moment, because I believe that all moments are equally fleeting and the one is as good as the other. Actually I think that the less significant moment may be indeed the exceptional one. Similarly I have never liked photographing far off, exotic countries, I have seen neither China, nor India, nor Japan, nor South America, nor Lapland, nor Oceania, even if my profession has sometimes forced me to set out on some long and boring journeys. I do not want to deny the usefulness of travelling both for pleasure and on business, as long as you do not stay all the time with your eye glued to the camera. For I think that a photographer can live equally exciting and interesting adventures by merely walking between Porta Romana and Porta Ticinese, maybe exploring the flats of his own neighbours of whom we often ignore even the names. The really important thing is not the privileged moment, but to determine one' s own reality; afterwards all moments have more or less equal value. Once chosen one's own territory we could again witness the miracle of the "pictures creating themselves", because at that moment the photographer has to turn into a mere operator. This means that his intervention should be limited to the instrumental operations: framing, focusing, choosing exposure time in relation to aperture, and taking the photo at last. Here, "through our cameras, we accept life in its entirety", so even in any of its "fleeting moments", and thus we come back to that mythical time I mentioned before, a time of "self-delineating natural objects which do not need the artist's hand".

The photographer's task is to identify his own reality, that of the machine to record it in its entirety. Two closely connected but also different actions which remind me of certain operations typical of some 1920's artists. I think of Marcel Duchamp's ready made, of some of Man Ray's objects. In these cases the artist's intervention was altogether insignificant from the operational point of view. It consisted in fact in a conceptual identification of a reality already materialized whose mere indication was sufficient to allow it to live in 'another' dimension. Thus the object, until that time identical to thousand of others, became part of an ideal sphere forever detached from the inert world of things.

I think it proper now to cite some words from an article Marcel Duchamp wrote in The Blind after that, in 1917, the organisers of the first New York Salon des Indépendants refused to show the Fountain, the famous urinal by Richard Mutt (a manufacturer of medical products) sent by Duchamp. "Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance; he chose it; he took an ordinary object and placed it so that its useful significance disappears under a new title and point of view; he created a new thought for that object". And what is my object dedicated to Niepce if not a ready made, with all its peculiarities? It is, as Marcel Jan writes in his book on Surrealism, "a banality which is the starting point of a series of complex developments". The unused, unexposed roll which has been only developed, fixed and printed, loses its utilitarian meaning and produces a series of reactions whose outcome is the group of photographs I gathered under the title of Verifications.