With this paper I would like to reflect on my artistic practice and on how it has developed over time. I would like to point out how some theoretical notions, far from being useful only for criticism purposes, can help to legitimate my practice and give it a structure. But also to try to show how the rigour and rigidity of some theoretical notions fail to capture the complexity of a work; a complexity that can only be located in the actual experience of the work of art itself. I would like to start with two basic notions of icon and index in photography. These two concepts were introduced (together with the notion of “symbol”) by Pierce in his semiotic writings and are used to define the relationship between an object and a sign. The index defines a physical relation between the object and the sign (smoke and fire, footprint and foot, ...). The icon defines a relation based on resemblance (there is no physical contact between the object and the sign), while the symbol is based on convention and abstraction.
Given the nature of photography, based since its origin on the contact of reflected lights on a film, it is easy to understand why it has been defined as a mechanical art whose nature is highly indexical. With this, different critics have not only underlined the physical relationship between the image and its referent, but have also supported the idea of an image that can’t lie because it is based on the very existence at a certain moment in time of “something” in front of the camera.
According to André Bazin, an intellectual who wrote extensively on cinema, photography can even be said to be like a death mask, because it is moulded against the object it depicts. Like the moulded cast, the film is the negative of the object it represents. Due to this inextricable link between the image and the object, as I’ve already mentioned, photography has always been considered as an art that “truly” represent the world. It is sufficient to read some quotations of intellectuals to see how deeply this has always been felt. John Berger, for example, maintained that “unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does”; while Susan Sontag in her seminal work On Photography wrote “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.
Yet, despite this common perception, the very same year after photography was invented, Hyppolite Bayard, in protest against the fact he had not been recognized as the inventor of photography, decided to take a picture of himself as a drowned man and to accompany it with a letter where he admitted that the suicide depended exactly on the fact that he had not been recognized. It was 1840, he had painted his face and hands in order to “resemble” a decaying drowned man and had written “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life....! ... He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognized or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you'd better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”
This was a photograph and it was lie. Yet, none recognized the importance of what he did: he proved that photographs could not tell the truth. So he went unrecognized again, not just as the inventor of the photographic process, but also for having shown photography’s paradoxical nature.
This photograph is radical and it exposes some of the main issues photography will be associated with in the following decades: photographic fiction, staged photography, lying photograph, photography as in icon, the relationship between photography and text, the suspicious nature of photography, the role of the caption, just to mention a few. The paradox at the heart of Bayard’s photograph lies exactly in the fact that he could lie to the public thanks to the indexical nature of photography. Exploiting and taking advantage of the notion that photography is an index, he could let people believe that he was dead. While declaring his photograph to be an index, a true representation, he eventually provided his audience with an icon, a resemblance and a lie.
It is necessary to wait till the ‘50s to see this paradox acknowledged in theory. Rosalind Krauss in The Originality of the Avant-garde and other Modernist Myth writes “every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface. The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object”. Here we are: an INDEX and an ICON. Real and fictional at the same time. This is the principle on which all my pictures stand on. I’ve always struggled to define myself a photographer: due to the way I conceive my photographs, I see them more akin paintings then photographs. They are icons, still they detain an undeniable and purposeful link with the referent they represent. Still this referent is mise en scène, created for the purpose of the shot, true as long as it takes to impress the light on the sensor. They exploit the indexical nature of photography and take advantage of the witnessing role of the camera, but are created slowly and carefully, step by step, as if they were paintings.
Susan Sontag declared “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses”. With this she meant that taking a shot, we frame and choose deliberately what we want to exclude from the frame and what to include. We can get rid of the annoying people that appear next to the object we want to photograph simply changing the way we frame the picture. With painting this is not necessary: we’ve got a blank space and we can decide what to put inside, without necessarily think of “cutting” something out.
In my work I tend to think about the photographic frame as the blank canvas on which I can include whatever I want through a careful plan and a mise en scene. The camera becomes a brush and my body is the stroke that assumes different shapes and is surrounded by different objects, colours, symbols.
I usually plan my photographs in advance. As a painter, I create a preparatory drawing where I decide the place of every element, the colour and the position. Most of the time it follows an iconographic research: fleeting through pages of old catalogues, art history books and archives or sitting in front of the paintings that capture my attention in the museums I come up with an intention. I look at paintings as we look at photographs, searching their punctum, the element that capture my attention, whether it a posture, a gesture, an expression, a particular colour or association of colours.
I then expand this punctum in my imaginary. I re-stage feelings, gestures and postures as if they naturally belonged to my photographs. As if they were born in front of the camera. And then I offer the image to the spectator, who’s in charge of discerning whether the picture is real or fictional, linked to other previous images or unrelated to the history of art. The photographs become palimpsests, whose shape is defined by the observer experience and cultural background.
My grammar is based on the exploitation of the paradoxical nature of photography and it is aimed at creating images that unsettle and challenge. It is exactly the possibility of playing with the spectator, hiding and disclosing the true and fictional nature of what is in front of him that I’ve deliberately decided not to paint. Still, the process through which I generate these images is as akin to that of a painting that I can’t stop thinking that I’m somehow painting.
The images that appear in front of the camera are rooted neither in the real world, nor in the imaginary one: they are suspended in-between, between the icon and the index, and they require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the spectator to be taken as real. Yet, they are real, because the referent was in front of the camera and because it existed, even if only for a fragment of time.There is a passage in Godard’s Notre Musique where a professor of history of art is teaching a lesson on images and on the way we look at them. He ends his lessons declaring “Try to see something. Try to imagine something. In the first case, you can say: look at that. In the second you say: close your eyes.” This is the principle that I think connects index and icon in my photographs, a principle that can exist only because there is a spectator in front of the picture. You can look at the picture and see it, acknowledging its indexical nature, then you can close your eyes and imagine the icon. The “true” image exists exactly in that space between what can be seen and what can be imagined, it exists in the beholder’s eyes.