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Portraits in the Square - Critical essay by Roberto Mutti


by Roberto Mutti

 [translation by Chris Culy, 2021]


All the great civilizations of the past possessed,

albeit to an insignificant degree, real machines.

                                                                         Alexandre Koyré



The path that characterizes the birth of scientific discoveries is convoluted and complicated. Following a logic that is widely shared but, as we shall see, very unreliable, we should follow a linear trend: the generally felt need to have an instrument that did not yet exist pushed the inventors to create the instrument that then found immediate application. To give a significant example that seems to confirm this theory, this is how the chronometer was born in an epoch such as the 18th century in which science was beginning to demand precision and reliability while Galileo Galilei was forced to measure the time of movement on an inclined plane with a water hourglass. Completely simple? Not at all, because things change radically if we change the example: in fact, the birth of the clock was very different. Surprisingly enough, it was introduced in societies that still regulated their rhythms on the basis of natural rhythms, with men who got up at dawn, ate at noon and at dusk, went to bed in the dark, and if they looked up at the tower where a large clock stood, it was not to know the exact time. As an acute scholar of these problems, the philosopher Alexandre Koyré, has rightly noted, “the clockmakers of the Middle Ages knew how to build machines of a marvelous complication and ingenuity that could reproduce the march of the planets, set theories of human figures in motion, and make the hours sound like carillons of bells, but they were never able to make them indicate the time with precision” (1). It would therefore be much more correct to say that in the history of mankind, technique precedes science and inventions are not necessarily a mechanical and immediate response to the needs of society. Sometimes, in fact, we can be surprised that relatively simple inventions such as the harness of the draught horse do not come from ingenious solutions of the peasants who used those animals but from customs acquired from the barbarians with whom they had come into contact (2). On the other hand, it is curious to point out that the telescope, even before becoming the scientific instrument we all know in the hands of Galileo Galilei, was very popular in Holland as a curiosity and as a bizarre game. Therefore, the Italian scientist did not invent the object but modified its use (symbolically, we could imagine that the revolutionary gesture was to point the telescope towards the sky) revealing its potentialities that others had not imagined.


It is generally accepted that the invention of the photographic process began on that August 19, 1839, when the scientist and socialist member of parliament François Arago announced the technical details of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Nièpce's invention in front of the members of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux Arts in a joint meeting at the Institut de France in Paris. The enthusiasm that accompanied the announcement is surprising today: the waiting crowds were overwhelmed with enthusiasm and even the next day many rushed to the stores to buy the new devices that allowed them to make images “without having any notion of drawing” as Arago explained, while others thundered against “Daguerre, the craziest of crazies who boasts of being able to do unheard of things and would like in this way to surpass the Creator of the world", as the anonymous editorialist of the traditionalist Catholic newspaper “Leipziger Stadtanzeiger” wrote. Enthusiasts and detractors seemed to forget, however, that photography already had a history to reckon with: the most recent one, linked to the experiments of inventors who were as clever as they were unknown (3), and the much older one, linked to the process of reproducing reality. The latter had not foreseen the possibility of permanently fixing the image on a paper or metal support and had been content to consider it a useful means to guide the designer's hand or a perceptive phenomenon to be observed with attention and wonder. In both cases, use was made of an apparatus that is the forerunner of today's camera, which also inherits, in English, the name “camera". The camera obscura had the most varied forms, but the smallest and most widespread were, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wooden parallelepipeds in the front of which was inserted a biconvex lens through which passed the image which, reflected by a mirror inclined at 45° placed inside the apparatus, was projected towards the upper part consisting of a frosted glass. In this way, by placing a sheet of light paper on a plane, it was possible to draw a sketch on the surface that faithfully reproduced the perspectives and the correct dimensions. The paintings of two eighteenth-century painters, the Venetian Antonio Canal “Canaletto” and the Dutch naturalized Italian Gaspare Vanvitelli, are among the most striking examples of the use of this technique, with surprising results (4). But, if the application of lenses dates back to 1550, when the Italian Girolamo Cardano recommended it as an improvement, the existence of the simple camera obscura is very ancient. Wanting to observe eclipses of the sun but knowing that they could not do so directly in order to avoid visual problems, the ancients devised ingenious systems. Aristotle describes the half-moon image of the sun in partial eclipse projected on the ground through the holes of a sieve, but an extraordinarily detailed description of the phenomenon is reported by the great Arab philosopher Al Gazali, known for his “Descructio philosophorum” but also of a treatise on optics in which he explains the existence of a room in which observers locked themselves away observing the eclipse on the side opposite to that in which the image entered through a tiny opening: “If the image of the sun at the time of a non-total eclipse falls through a small round opening onto an opposite flat surface, it will have the shape of a crescent moon. The image of the sun reveals this property only when the hole is very small” (5).We are around 1100 A.D. and this is the first clear description of a pinhole, the first “lens” that we can consider at the origins of the photographic process.


Photography is one of those inventions that has been rapidly modified by virtue of the extraordinary evolution of technology: optical studies have allowed the construction of more and more sophisticated lenses correcting aberrations and distortions, mechanical studies have allowed the application of iris diaphragms to modify the aperture of the focus, chemical studies have allowed the realization of more and more sensitive films capable of obtaining sharp images of excellent quality. Only the camera has remained conceptually very similar to that of the past and even, while SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses have different shapes, medium and large format view cameras also externally resemble those used in the nineteenth century.


If we mentioned at the beginning of our discourse that the birth of scientific discoveries is complicated and not at all linear because it is often dictated by curiosity more than by needs, by chance more than by calculation, it is equally true that even the development and evolution of research obeys this irregular path and the field of photography does not escape the norm. While, in fact, all energies are concentrated on making images as sharp as possible (but the details reproduced by daguerreotypes were already perfectly visible), while researchers challenge each other to make the brightest lenses (6), there are those who insist on using the pinhole technique which, as is well known, produces images that are not excessively sharp and requires, due to its modest brightness, particularly long exposure times. In the nineteenth century there were splendid machines of this kind, characterized by a particularly attentive aesthetics with well-polished wooden bodies and brass finishes. Contemporary pinhole photographers are divided, however, in groups that obey the dictates of two genuine schools of thought. Some focus on the poverty of the medium, on the idea that anyone can, with little expense and few means, build an effective camera using a cardboard shoebox or a candy tin. There is a vein of anti-consumerist polemic in this emphasis, even if in other cases the aim is to teach the photographic process in primary schools. An subgroup of this group consists of those who resort to simple materials (7) and totally different, even in appearance, from the camera (a sandwich with a film hidden inside, or a tube, or a shell) in order to achieve a result - the image - that is artistic because it is the fruit of creativity more than of technique.   


Another group is made up of those who consider the camera a scientific instrument that therefore deserves all the care and necessary attention. They make well-made cameras, often taking up the aesthetics cherished by those in the past, they consider the construction of pinhole cameras an extremely complex process that uses the most advanced technologies.


Paolo Aldi belongs to this last category and he declares it with pride when he talks about HAL, the camera he designed and built himself, explaining that he felt the need to use a machine created in his own “figure and likeness” to underline the importance of a direct, almost physical relationship that brings him close to the entire process of taking photographs. As important as it is, however, the technical aspect is not, in itself, significant if not because it allows the photographer to work in complete tranquility and to concentrate totally on the project he is creating. When the theme is a landscape - and this is very often the case because long exposure times are well suited to a subject that is not in motion - the same problems that the first Daguerreotypists had to face recur, such as the “disappearance” of everything that moves and cannot leave a trace of its passage, resulting in a vaguely dreamlike atmosphere. But even when the subject is portraits, it is as if time had stopped because the people have to accept the situation, new to them, of having to wait motionless in front of the camera for a period ranging, depending on the case, from twenty seconds to a minute and a half. “Portraits in the Square” is therefore a work that already starts from a displacement because Paolo Aldi asks the people he photographs to accept a direct relationship, to pose interpreting themselves and, ultimately, to share his project as protagonists. Everything is seemingly very simple: a large wooden camera placed on a tripod, a simple backdrop supported by stands for those who prefer a neutral background, a town square in which to set everything and the request to the local people as well as tourists to pose. There doesn't seem to be much difference from the end of the nineteenth century when itinerant photographers reached a place and offered their services to those who, in exchange for a few liras, could obtain a portrait on ferrotype (the economic version of the daguerreotype) or on paper. Obviously things change quite a bit if we examine the psychological dynamics more closely: our ancestors often appeared rather awkward in front of the lens, since they were certainly not used to being photographed, while we contemporaries, who have to deal with photography on a daily basis, have lost that sort of rigidity, acquiring, however, the habit of posing, sacrificing spontaneity to a conventional theatricality. The need to relate to a time, so to speak, dilated, on the other hand, makes it possible for the people portrayed to choose more comfortable postures, to practice intense self-control, to acquire that awareness of their bodies in front of the lens that the habit of using cameras has generally made most people lose. Now, precisely because of this awareness, the scene changes: there are those who approach with curiosity, those who inquire to understand the mechanism, those who are attracted by the idea of being able to have an unusual portrait, those who wait for the photograph to dry, those who ask questions. Paolo Aldi has already achieved what he wanted, that is, to make people understand that a photograph that is not a snapshot is capable of arousing interest, of fostering an interpersonal relationship, of creating an atmosphere. But when we observe his results, we understand that what we have before us are images of great quality, capable of transmitting a sense of strong dynamism. The most striking aspect - but, curiously, it is the one that is not immediately perceptible and is realized only later - concerns the enormous depth of field that a minimum aperture is able to ensure and that allows focussing perfectly on the subject and the house that is far behind him, the group of friends and the fountain around which they have placed themselves, the pavement in the foreground with a policeman who is at the center of the image surrounded by houses. The images taken inside of MART [the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto] are particularly spectacular because the structure, luminous and geometrically marked, seems to underline the sense of a depth that widens in every direction. There are cases in which the children, who rarely know how to restrain their dynamism, appear more or less blurred, but this, far from constituting a limitation, gives the photograph a pleasant spontaneity. Sometimes the backdrop is used and Paolo Aldi intelligently chooses not to hide the structure that supports it in order to obtain a very effective alienating effect because it gives the sense of cutting out a specific space within the larger one in which it is inserted. The estrangement is also present in the print itself, which shows the marks of the film used - a polaroid positive-negative - especially in the area delimiting the upper part, as well as in the faint dark marks indicating the fall of light at the outer edges. These are interesting elements because they concern the photographic medium, its language, its detachment from a totally faithful reproduction of reality. But the most striking images are those dominated by a strong sense of geometry: a young couple at Riva del Garda, a man reading a newspaper at the edge of a beautiful fountain, a woman sitting on the steps of a churchyard, but above all the portrait of an old actor is particularly striking. Perfectly at ease in front of the lens, he assumes a collected position - his knees close together, his hands resting on the handle of a closed umbrella - and, hiding the stool on which he is sitting, he dominates the center of a scene where the designs on the marble floor look like those of a stage and the houses in the background like painted scenery. Once again a camera, imprisoning time and space, remembering that photography is above all the result of the work of light, reveals itself for what it is, a magic box.




(1) Alexandre Koyré “I filosofi e la macchina” [“The philosophers and the machine” , original “Les philosophes et la machine”] published in the magazine “Critique” in 1948, reprinted in “Dal mondo del pressappoco all'universo della precisione” [“From the world of the approximate to the universe of precision”], Einaudi, 1967.


(2) The horse was once tied, just like the ox, to a yoke that compressed the jugular and prevented it from using all its strength. The new harness, a sort of large leather ring that passed from the head, rested instead on the shoulders of the animal so that it could move freely.


 (3) It is really difficult to remember them all, but among the most famous it is fair to mention the French official Hippolyte Bayard who had already invented in 1837 the positive/negative process on paper (but was beaten by the competition of Daguerre, much more skilled in finding political support for his invention); the Swiss Friedrich Gerber who in 1836 had already made photographs on sheets of paper covered with silver salts; the Englishman Thomas Wedgwood, who in the early 1800s contact-printed images that he was however unable to fix; and his compatriot Henry Fox Talbot, who in 1835 made the first known negative on paper and who understood the potential of positive reproduction, which he patented in 1941 under the name of “calotype".


(4) We must remember that as early as the sixteenth century Giovanni Battista Della Porta used this device.


(5) The quote is quoted from Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in their “A Concise History of Photography,” Thames & Hudson, 1965.


 (6) During the Second World War Leitz succeeded in making a lens for night reconnaissance with the extraordinary aperture of f/0.85, but it was in 1966 that he put into mass production his Noctilux 50mm f/1.2, which ten years later was further improved, bringing it to the unparalleled f/1 brightness.


(7) This category includes Paolo Gioli, an author who can be compared for many reasons to the Arte Povera movement. His idea of using as “cameras” not only sandwiches, shells and tubes, but also a flute, a grater, two crackers, a button, a rubber cone normally used on the streets and even a clenched fist. A detailed list of these choices appears in the appendix to Paolo Gioli “Gran Positivo nel crudele spazio stenopeico” [“Great Positive in the cruel pinhole space”], Alinari, 1991.

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