My process of storytelling is usually surreal and linear. I approach an assignment with as few preconceptions as possible and let my mind do the work of making visual sense of what I discover. When it's time to develop the images, there's usually a natural progression from the grand to the subtle and the story my mind saw becomes apparent to my consciousness. Once each image is developed, its place in the timeline is obvious.
Thus my surprise in returning from Italy. Two weeks and 5+ locations yielded a volume of images. Upon reviewing them, though, I couldn't make sense of them. There were great images, to be sure. Complex images. Indeed, they were suspiciously too complex. Strong backlight, dark nights, juxtapositions—these were images that take time to make, and weren’t the kind of thing I would have expected from the kind of street photography in which I had been engaged. My mind was clearly up to something that it wasn’t interested in sharing with my consciousness.
To be sure, I had several vignettes: Fabrizio Ruggiero, Santa Maddelena, Street Fashion in Florence, even a piece on Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Glass Tea House Mondrian.” But I didn’t have what I expected—a story on Italy.
I did my best to be patient. I’ve learned that sometimes my mind gets up to things that take awhile to become obvious to my consciousness. Sometimes it’s best just to let things sit until the patterns emerge and the answers come. And so I waited. For weeks, which turned to months. With the passage of time, the Italy images became a source of significant frustration. Eventually, the frustration turned to desperation.
I attempted to bridge the gap between my mind and consciousness in a variety of ways: by printing out various images, by mocking up possible stories, by putting collections up on a magnetic wall. Nothing worked. The pattern remained hidden, and the story silent.
The problem with Italy was that it wasn’t like other stories. My thoughts of Italy (so I believed) were much like my thoughts going into Iran—a location about which I’ve heard many things and from which I’ve met many people, but as a place I had no preconceptions. In Iran, it was this sense of abstraction and lostness that made my story obvious when I began developing the images, and I expected something similar from Italy. It wasn’t so.
The answer was that I did have a preconception of Italy. It was just deeper than I'd realized, and took longer to emerge. Moreover, the preconceptions were on an abstract level, from indirect sources, making the patterns even harder to discern. Once I’d gotten a glimmer of the answer, the rest of the story was a short one.
It all started back a long time ago, researching the origins of the surrealist approach to art and working on tying that together with the practice of being a flaneur. One of the most useful pieces I’d read was Julio Cortazar’s Blow Up. Cortazar’s story was picked up by Michelangelo Antonioni, and became a classic movie.
Antonioni’s Blow Up is an unusual movie in many ways, but for me it was about his (excellent) use of color. I’ve long appreciated Antonioni as a filmmaker, and he most often worked in lush black and white. His scenes are like slow motion, gorgeous fashion shoots, and his use of light and shadow is worthy of copious notes scribbled in the dark while watching his films.
Although a fascinating writer, my interest in Antonioni has always been about his imagery. The plot lines of Antonioni’s best black and white movies concern his very particular approach to a particular segment of Italian society in a very particular time period. I don’t understand Italian, and I shamefully admit that in the battle between keeping up with the subtitles and paying attention to the cinematography, the visuals always won.
Or so it seemed until I experienced my own existential Italian drama in the form of a Lightroom library of images. It was through the happenstance of an email discussion that tugging on the thread of Cortazar pulled on Antonioni and unraveled the mystery of my mind. As the tale turns out, Antonioni’s message wasn’t in the dialog but in the imagery.
Which nicely explained the dilemma: Antonioni’s vision of Italy wasn’t the articulation of dialog, but the impressions of vision. I had no hope of realizing the preconceptions because they weren’t from the Italians I’d met or the articles I’d read about Italy. Instead, Antonioni had done for me what I always hope my photography will do for others: he saw it for me, and the impression he left wasn’t just a lasting one, it was *the* one.
And then the puzzle was laid bare. Mumbling “Antonioni,” the images found their place and a book was born. Through a progression of subjects in single, couple, triplet, quadruple, and then as groups, the images illustrate a view of disaffectedness that either confirms or imposes Antonioni’s. I know not which. But that’s kind of Antonioni’s point: we never quite can tell how much we’re actually in control of ourselves. And to a surrealist, it doesn’t really matter.
(You can purchase the book on Amazon.)