De verbeelding van het Italiaanse landschap / The imagining of the Italian landscape

The territory has not changed only in its substance. In fact it is a transformation that has affected the whole social sphere. Out of this has come a new social landscape: a system of relationships that has created an inseparable bond between the urban landscape and the human one.1 More than anywhere else, the different communities that occupy places and shape their nature have radically altered their thinking about ways of inhabiting space and using their free time. Perhaps more than ever before, the Italian landscape can be pictured as a place on which are projected the aspirations of social groups that have understood what means can be used to guarantee the self-management of the places they live in. A sort of indigenous control instead of the customary induced controls, be they ‘legal’ ones, such as subsidized housing projects, or ‘illegal’ ones, such as the destruction of the landscape wrought by the constructors of unauthorized apartment buildings. The public authorities and central government in Italy have put two strategies into effect: attempting to neutralize the disastrous effect of unauthorized building, and preserving every more or less noteworthy building as a ‘Cultural Asset’, thereby supporting a frozen form of the landscape in an attitude that sometimes verges on fundamentalism.

Unlike architecture, which has attempted to handle the urbanization of Italy through exclusive use of the means that have traditionally been considered appropriate, the Italian landscape photography of the late seventies established a dialectic relationship with the world outside. It began, that is, to perceive the new processes of modification that were working on the territory and to communicate them to the people who were operating in it. At first this led to claims that ‘city planners are bunglers’2, which criticized the use of systems of analysis like statistical indexes and geographical and cadastral maps that were themselves no longer capable of showing what was happening on the ground. This was also the consequence of an increasingly broad and varied crop of images of Italy produced in the early eighties by the ‘new landscapists’3, in particular Luigi Ghirri, Guido Guidi, Gabriele Basilico and Mimmo Jodice.4 The catalogue/manifesto Viaggio in Italia (1984), edited by Luigi Ghirri himself, had a considerable impact on architectural culture. For the first time since the end of the war the visual representation of the Italian landscape freed itself from a humanistic and ‘post-neo-realist’ culture and instead derived its form and meaning from a practical analysis that constituted a model for concrete commitment to representation of the present.
In this period the disappearance of figures from the context implied a new distance between the observer and the things of the world. This apparent remoteness from or disaffection with the human figure permitted a less ‘familiar’ analysis and therefore one free from the prejudices or clichés of vision. It is not just distance that Ghirri was seeking in his images and the object he was observing. His work, like that of Vaccari, Jodice, Guidi, Cresci and Gioli, borrowed from conceptual art the application of a ‘shift’ in perception, a particular and noticeable alteration of the point of view (in literal as well as conceptual terms) capable of bringing into question both the object and the mode of observation. The primary characteristic that links this generation of Italian photographers to subsequent ones is precisely this: a new experience that makes the gaze itself the subject of photographic analysis, focusing attention not so much on objective reality as on the preparation of a different point of view from which to encounter the things of the world. The images investigate first how to see and only afterward what to see. But it is not just a question of method: photographers like Ghirri, Guidi, Salbitani, Basilico, Jodice, Castella, Cresci, Barbieri and Chiaramonte have interpreted the city and the landscape as a projection of people’s desires. Theirs are photographs of private geographies and intimate desires that are reassembled to form an overall picture. Photographs of thoughts like the imprinting of a community’s dreams on space. They have undertaken a modern ‘Grand Tour’ in a landscape that has been greatly altered by the human hand. Unlike Goethe, Schinkel or Stendhal, they have not crossed the Alps in search of sublime inspiration to take back home. Rather they have moved through their own land like dowsers seeking a new geography to traverse, following alternative routes that they themselves have helped to trace. They have attempted at one and the same time to exorcise the suffering generated by the sight of the devastated landscape5 and to interpret the multiplicity of signs and signals in the new social landscape. A list of the titles of some of their publications suggests a whole library of gazes as the multiple viewpoints of different observers: in translation, Atlas, The Profile of the Clouds, Things that Resemble Only Themselves and View with a Room (Ghirri), Portraits of Factories, The Experience of Places and The Interrupted City (Basilico), Artificial Lighting and Cities in Miniature (Barbieri), Variants and North Rimini (Guidi), The Invaded City (Salbitani), Zones, Private Geography (Castella) and The Invisible City (Jodice). An atlas of views but above all a map of the negative, capable of representing a landscape of objects surveyed as relics left on the ground by other surveying techniques because they were overlooked or considered unimportant. The collaboration between photographers and architects, writers, geologists and sociologists that developed in those years has led to the emergence of an identity of the Italian landscape that seems to have been invisible to other systems of observation. Thus architecture has begun to borrow the language and to interpret the codes of images that have proved capable of representing the forms and anticipating the meaning of the new scenarios.
In the early nineties other photographers like Marina Ballo Charmet, Antonio Biasiucci, Paola De Pietri, Massimo Vitali, Paola di Bello, Walter Niedermayr, the younger Cristina Zamagni, Marco Calò and Peter Scupelli and the Stalker group have renewed the language by turning their attention on a series of recent and unexpected scenarios – such as the mixture of urban characteristics and wilderness in the metropolises, the telegenic dimension of the new settings and the rediscovery of social themes along with those of an inner landscape – or by shadowing the nomadic attitudes of groups and communities. A photography that is deliberately less concerned with aesthetics but which has renewed the language by utilizing sequences, multiple images, screens and installations that have close links with the imagery of the cinema, TV, strip cartoons and fashion. Photographers with a lateral view6, ready to relearn how to look since they are ready to examine and above all talk about other things. These recent practitioners of the art try out sequences of landscape with the attitude of ‘detectives of space’7, tracking down the metamorphosis of the landscape and maintaining a constant distance from it, a sort of ‘visual contact’ directed toward new ideas or dimensions of reality.
Out of this comes an imagining of the Italian landscape in which entropic locations8, which make the rite of passage9 a continuous phenomenon, are matched by images in constant movement that seek new identities and senses of belonging for space. Photographs capable of indicating some potential directions of evolution for a landscape that can no longer be comprehended from a single point of view. Meta-design photographs that through systems of relationships made up of signs, sequences, additions, omissions, leaps in scale, analogies, multiple points of view, fixities and insistences express a determination to resist the process of physical and mnemonic dissolution of the new Italian landscape.
Recently the boundaries between humanistic and conceptual photography of the territory have grown much more blurred. There has been an attempt to break down the traditional ‘genres’ of photography and at the same time to erase for good the stereotyped image of itself that Italy has always presented to the rest of the world. The recent images of Italy hold a dialogue with the mutations in imminent social landscapes rather than with the history of those images. A set of projects that investigate a molecular landscape through images that raise complex questions and concrete doubts rather than putting forward simplistic answers. In any case the complexity of the landscape and the contemporary view of it no longer admit simplifications. In an international scene wholly taken up by globalization, Italian photography is out of fashion because it remains, fortunately for it, an ‘ethnic’ photography. Less topographic than the American school and less objective than the German one, Italian photography could be described as democratic since it sees the camera as a means of representing everything equally. In its catalogue of common places, the sense of territorial intimacy and the confrontation with the monumental character of the city have come back into vogue. Unlike a global art that is turning its virtual gaze on generic places, Italian photography10 is looking at new and old urban legends, and yet doing it from the perspective of a new habit.

1. The expression was coined by the American photographer Lee Friedlander. In his 1966 book Social Landscape Friedlander defined the human landscape and linked it indissolubly to the urban one.

2. The description (‘l’Urbanistica si fa coi piedi’ in the original Italian) was used by Bernardo Secchi in 1995.

3. This is how the photographers defined themselves in the catalogue Viaggio in Italia, Il quadrante, Verona, 1984. They included Luigi Ghirri, Mimmo Jodice, Gabriele Basilico, Guido Guidi, Roberto Salbitani, Mario Cresci, Olivo Barbieri, Vincenzo Castella and Giovanni Chiaramonte.

4. For these photographers the indissoluble relationship with their native surroundings translated into a stylistic characteristic: the ‘watercolour’ tints and frontal vision of the Emilian Ghirri, which recall the illusory perspectives of Giulio Romano; the grammar of space in the Milanese Gabriele Basilico’s endless archive of urban locations, closer to a Northern European tradition of representation; the porous materials of the baroque, dramatic lighting of Caravaggio and the tangental perspectives of Enlightenment architecture in the photos of the Neapolitan Mimmo Jodice; the scientific, molecular (20 x 25 optical bench, always printed by contact) and yet ‘lateral’ vision in the work of Guido Guidi, another Emilian.

5. In his essay ‘Truth and beauty’, the Americam Robert Adams wrote that ‘primordial space disturbs us because it is no longer genuinely characteristic … primordial places sadden us because, when all is said and done, they are no longer true.’

6. ‘Sguardo laterale’. The definition is Stefano Boeri’s.

9. In Genesis the rite of passage from one universe to another entails a metamorphosis of vision.

10. From the eighties to the present day, the individual lines of research of many photographers have frequently been brought together in joint and wide-ranging projects that have promoted an interdisciplinary approach, involving architectural culture as well. Among these projects it is worth mentioning:
L’archivio dello spazio (‘The Archive of Space’), Udine (Artand) 1997, an immense catalogue that documents the province of Milan in an analytical way and from an avowedly intermediate viewpoint;
Linea di confine (‘Borderline’), province of Reggio Emilia, 1999, an interdisciplinary workshop exploring the objects and modes of seeing;
Dintorni dello sguardo (‘Environs of the Gaze’), Udine (Artand) 1997, a travelling project (Naples, Genoa, Milan) that compares various metropolises and presents itself as an observatory for new photographers;
Lotus, Electa, Milan, a magazine that has always been characterized by the conscious use of photographs as a ‘hypertext’ for words and drawings.

De diffuse stad / The diffuse city