On the last day in Arles, we are to join one of 3 groups to see certain exhibitions. The one I am opting for is the nature group with Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA rather than a tutor. He has invited debate on the subject of nature in a We Are OCA post entitled Tweet.
One of the photographer’s work we are due to see in relation to this is Alessandro Imbriaco; I decided to purchase his book The Garden as an introduction. It is an award winning photographic book (Winner of the 2012 European Publishers Award for Photography) now in it’s 19’th edition. It is not too big a book (27.4 x 20.6 x 1.6 cm) like some art books and handles nicely in the hands with it’s soft slightly textured cover. The photograph on the outside is panoramic of a wilderness area with housing blocks behind. Like all the images in this book, the image is low key with muted colours and occasional areas of solid black that give a slightly sombre air to the body of work. Although no story is evident, there is a sequence to the images with the garden being described into which a character is slowly introduced in the second image as a figure, as a nymphlike figure in image 5, as a young girl in image 11 and as a person in image 31. There are in all 32 images and they develop the nature of the garden, an ironic title perhaps since there is nothing ordered here or any sign of flowers rather it is an urban wasteland. Another character emerges, first as someone carrying wood then as a man whom we also see naked; there is one photo of an adult woman. Could these be the parents of the child and is this wasteland their garden? There is also an image of a dog surrounded by undergrowth which further suggests family yet the overall feeling of this body of work is about urban gloom and the way people survive in it although there is still the potential presence of nature.
After reading accompanying text by Bill Kouwenhoven that comes after rather than before the photographs, I have a more informed idea of what the work is about. Firstly, the photographer Imbriaco is put in the context of western landscape photography with references to the New Topography movement and also the work of Simon Norfolk. One learns that the photographs were made on the outskirts of Rome in “Temporary Autonomous Zones” where there is a problem with abusivismo, the illegal occupation of land largely by migrant workers. The photographer considers himself influenced by American photographers of the Farm Security Administration such as Walker Evans and Dorothy Lange from the years of the Great Depression.
As I gathered, the individuals are indeed a family. The girl is Angela and she has grown up in this “garden” while the man pictured is Piero and the woman his wife, Lupa a Russian. They actually live under a bridge of which there are also some pictures. The girl Angela has grown up very close to nature but has now left the place to attend school. It is an interesting social document yet it is also an aesthetic work which has the power to inspire.
There appear to be mistakes by the reviewer. He describes the photo of Piero carried wood as Angela yet one can see by the hair on the arms that this is not the case. One does not really need to know the story behind this series of images or what they might imply, paradise as the idea of a walled garden is mentioned, since they seem to speak for themselves in a variety of ways.
Sean O’Hagan has also commented on this book pointing out that “The Garden foregoes a straight documentary style for an atmospheric one in which the sense of place is almost magical, even mythical. It is a dark book only in its use of colour … ” and Imbriaco is “jettisoning his usual documentary style for one that draws unabashedly on the Romantic tradition, Imbriaco challenges our preconceptions about this exiled family and their surroundings. He highlights the dignity, and great beauty, of such an uncertain existence.” The photographs “possess a quiet, cumulative power that attests to Imbriaco’s intimacy with his subjects and his admiration for their undoubted resilience.”
Walking around this exhibition, I discover little new but feel more part of what is happening even though only half the photographs are reproduced here. There is the idea and the feeling of a Paradise lost and regained, an Eden and yet a rather desolate place. The women, wife and child, have since left since the girl is required by law to be educated. Gareth Dent of the OCA likes this exhibition considering it one of the best in the show; it is a wonderful evocation yet also a critique of Italian society that reveals people living in deprived circumstances.
The other two exhibitions that Gareth thought related to nature. One was by Craig J. Barber who has “chosen to work with the wet plate collodion/tintype process for its timelessness and its aesthetic connection that resonates to an era when we were all closer to the land. All plates are 20 cm x 25 cm …” and here represented people who work close to the land (I did not see the exhibition but Gareth found it was advertising nature rather than conveying a sense of it).
The other choice was Pierre Jamet who photographed holidays in the countryside shortly before the war. There is something poignant here in the photographs of people enjoying themselves innocently, since the war was soon to follow; one photograph shows a young woman listening to a gramophone player who was to die a few years later in Auschwitz concentration camp. Nature does not feature here except as countryside, a pleasant backdrop for photographs that served a political purpose; at this time the first paid leave was being introduced by the new Socialist government and the happy vacations depicted supported the cause. There are one or two insights such as the couple Diana and Sacha Vierny who watch a small bird. The images themselves are well made and even if they do construct an idealistic view of rural life, they show people having fun and enjoying themselves. One can not wonder what might have happened to them all in the war that was soon to follow.
An excellent representation of nature at Arles was the Mars exhibition which I have described elsewhere.