Le verifiche 1968-1972
In 1970 I began taking photographs the subject of which was photography itself, an attempt at an analysis of the photographic process in order to identify its underlying elements and their intrinsic value. For instance, what is a sensitive surface? What does it mean to use a telephoto or a wide-angle lens? Why employ one format over another? Why enlarge an image? What ties a photograph to its caption? And so on. These are topics that you can find in any photography manual, but seen here from the opposite perspective, that is, from that of a professional with twenty years’ experience; whereas manuals are usually written for and read by complete beginners.
My digressions may spring from the need to clarify my own pursuit, perhaps rather commonplace a tendency among the self-taught.
Having started out completely in the dark the intention is to shed light on everything, to continue to have immense respect for one’s craft that was learned by hard graft, one day at a time, marked also by a certain candour and a great deal of enthusiasm. I called this series of photographs Verifiche (Verifications), because the goal was to help me to understand the meaning of the processes that for years I had repeated hundreds of times a day, without ever stopping to consider them as things in themselves, stripped of their practical function. I dedicated the first of these photos or verifications to Niépce. The only image of his that survives is a faded picture taken from the window of his home in Le Gras. Some 150 years have passed since that day, but that moment, for a photographer, is the stuff of legend: this is a time when there was talk of pictures being made by the sun, of natural objects taking shape without the aid of an artist’s pencil; a time when a rather imaginative scientist lacking in faith in the skill of his own hand convinces himself that there has to be a more efficient means than his untrustworthy pencil to capture these fleeting images, and finds that means; while another scientist, presenting Daguerre’s invention, asserts that in the camera obscura the images create themselves.
It was a mythic era that soon burned itself out and with it the dream of having finally found a means of eliminating the inaccurate or unreliable hand from the creative process. Within a few years photography became big business: industries sprang up everywhere, applications for new patents were made almost daily. Nadar observed, with painful irony: “Photography is a marvellous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that excites the most astute minds – and one that can be practised by a complete idiot”.
Long dreamed of by its inventors as the bearer of truth, and therefore as a means of freeing the human being from the responsibility of representing that truth, photography was soon transformed into its opposite. Precisely owing to the blind trust that everyone is inclined to place in its objectivity, in its mechanical impartiality, photography lends itself to giving licence to the most ambiguous manipulations. Photography did not give mankind the certainty of being able to represent itself and the world objectively, as Niépce and Fox Talbot perhaps dreamed it might. Rather, it ended up favouring an elite, that of the artists who offloaded onto photographers those humdrum tasks, virtually all of them, that until that point had remained one of the most unvarying, but frustrating aspects of their work. The worst among them improvised as photographers and often with great success, because the new medium was congenial to their interests and their natural gifts; others instead used photography as a model for their painting. Of such painting scarcely any may now remain – see Hill – but photographs have survived to give us an indication of their value.
Nowadays, photography and its by-products, television and cinema, are all around us wherever you look.
Our eyes, that magical meeting point between us and the world, no longer find themselves coming to terms with this world, with reality, with nature: increasingly we see the world through others’ eyes.
This may even be an advantage. Thousands of eyes instead of just two, but it’s not that simple. Of these thousands of eyes few, very few, follow an autonomous mental process, their own research, their own vision. Even unwittingly, the thousands of eyes are connected to only a few brains, to specific interests, to a single power. Hence, unwittingly our eyes also, rather than conveying genuine information, poor and bare, but still authentic, furnish us with endless visual stimuli, which is doubly bewildering, because often their falsity is concealed behind a sort of radiance. We end up rejecting our own vision, which appears to us so drab compared with images elaborated by countless specialists in visual communication. And little by little the world is no longer sky, earth, fire, water: it is printed paper, ghosts evoked by machines that are increasingly perfect and persuasive.
I am fully aware that reality is both more complex and more ambiguous. But this discussion has one purpose only: to reconstruct and understand what I was reflecting on a few years ago, when I began thinking about this photo and non-photo that is indeed the work dedicated to Niépce. The need to clarify for myself certain assertions, and certain things I have rejected; for instance, one idea that I could not accept was rather widespread in the 1950s when I first began taking pictures – an idea that, as far as I can see, came into being based on a misinterpretation of particular statements or photos by Cartier-Bresson, and which was then exacerbated by a certain type of journalism – the proposition according to which a photo counts less for its truth than for its effect, for how it might strike the reader’s imagination.
Ever since, this idea has continued to degenerate, not only in photojournalism, but in every field where the photograph is commodified, in cinema, which each day becomes more vulgar, more aggressive if it is to satisfy the taste of the public which, like a drug addict, always craves another dose with every new day. Certain films that twenty years ago seemed dramatic to us, today at best make us smile. Photography is to a certain extent different insofar as, for better or worse, it deals with reality, just as Cartier-Bresson wrote when he presented 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 the gist of everything that may be said or written about photography. He is rather less clear when he writes that one must approach the subject as if stalking one’s prey, and that the photographer is always at the mercy of fleeting moments. Words which, if detached from their context and linked to certain extreme images taken by Cartier- Bresson himself, may have contributed to the widespread appeal of predatory photography, the hunt for the rarest and most unpredictable image; this would make the photographer a predator constantly waiting in ambush (at the time it was said – although I don’t know whether true or apocryphal – that Cartier- Bresson’s camera never left his side, not even when he sat down at the table to eat), ready to capture that fleeting instant, no matter what it was, as long as it was exceptional, possibly unique and unrepeatable.
Not that this theory may not have certain true and appealing aspects, but I struggled to accept the idea of an entire lifetime spent behind the camera waiting for that rare event, those few dozen or few hundred privileged moments that could then be collected in the form of an album or a book, the way a hunter decorates the walls of his home with his most important trophies. I reject this idea or theory of the fleeting instant, because I believe that all instants are fleeting and in a certain sense one is as worthy as the next: perhaps the least significant one is actually the exceptional moment. In this regard I have never enjoyed taking pictures of exotic, far-flung places; I have never been to China, or India, or Japan, or South America, or Lapland, or Oceania, even though my work has often forced me to undertake long, extremely tedious trips. I can’t deny that trips can be useful, such as those taken for pleasure or for study purposes, as long as your eye is not always glued to the camera lens. Because I believe that a photographer can have adventures no less exciting and educational while wandering around on foot (in Milan) between Porta Romana and Porta Ticinese, or maybe exploring within his own mansion block the apartments of his neighbours, of whose names he remains ignorant. What is important is not so much the privileged moment as identifying one’s reality; after which, all moments are more or less equal. Having circumscribed one’s territory, we can once again witness the miracle of the “images that create themselves,” because at that point the photographer must become an operator, that is, he must reduce his intervention to instrumental actions: the frame, the focus, the choice of the exposure time as it relates to the aperture, and, finally, the click of the shutter. Here, “thanks to the camera, we accept all its reality,” each of its “fleeting instants,” and we have arrived at that mythical time I mentioned at the start, where “the objects delineate themselves, without the help of the artist’s pencil.”
It is the photographer’s task to identify reality, and it is the machine’s task to record it in its totality. Two closely connected yet distinct actions, which, curiously, recall in a practical sense, processes honed by some artists in the 1920s: I am thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, of some of Man Ray’s objects, where the artist’s intervention was totally irrelevant in terms of process, which consisted in the conceptual identification of a reality that was already materialised so that it was enough to indicate it for it to come to life in an ‘other’ dimension; so that the object, until that moment identical to a thousand others, began to find a place for itself in an ideal sphere forever detached from the inert world of things.
At this point I find it useful to reproduce some of the words in the text that Marcel Duchamp published in The Blind after the organisers of the first Salon des Indépendants in New York, in 1917, refused to exhibit Fountain, the famous urinal signed Richard Mutt (the name of a manufacturer of sanitary ware), but sent to the event by Duchamp: “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.” And what is this object of mine dedicated to Niépce if not a readymade, albeit with variants? That is, “a banality,” as Marcel Jean writes in his book about Surrealism, “which is the starting point of a series of complex developments.” The unused roll of film, one without exposures, but only developed, fixed, and proofed, loses its utilitarian meaning and makes way for a series of reactions that are consolidated in an almost automatic way in a series of pictures that I collected under the title of Verifiche (Verifications).