H.C-B, as he was known sometimes, is a photographer whose work I am well acquainted with. To describe him as the greatest photographer of the twentieth century if not of photography, would be to simplify photography as a medium and ignore it’s many approaches. Certainly H.C-B is one of the great photographers of all time yet what matters in photography is photographs as the people who made them are not always going to be around; H.C-B died in 2004. One of his early influences was the artist Andre Lhote who wrote “Treatise on Landscape and the Human Figure“, a landmark work. Lhote told H.C-B that his photographs owed much to his study of painting. H.C-B however wanted to break away from the “doctrinaire” atmosphere of the art diaspora and discover the world with his camera. For him, Kertesz the Hungarian photographer was his “poetic wellspring” yet he never lost his interest in art and continued to draw. H.C-B was not a fan of the nihilistic approach of much American photography which seems to be exploring personal neuroses and leading nowhere. A book, “Zen and the art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel is one that H.C-B has referred to often; it’s philosophy of hitting the target is one that measures up with making photographs, the ability to be totally present in what one is doing. The documentary approach can be misleading if one forgets that one also needs to “make” a photograph rather than simply “take” one. There is a need for an “objective witness” as the American MOMA director John Szarkowski pointed out. In an interview in 1991, H.C-B remarked, “Very few people who take photos are visual. They don’t look. They record but thats’ not looking! Its very hard to look, to size up proportions. Its’ a constant interrogation, an intense pleasure for the eye, a marvellous elation.” Dangers exist in way that the freedom granted to photographers by the Press who use their work can become a prison when images are predetermined by the need to satiate a public and sell newspapers. Aestheticism can become a trap which was an early experience with his colour photography. Are we what we eat or what we excrete? Many of these thoughts come from an interview H.C-B gave to La Monde in 1974 and which later appeared in translation in The Guardian newspaper of the UK. In fact, he gave a number of interviews to the French newspaper La Monde that went on to be published in the UK. Geometry plays an important part in H.C-B’s work. Of it he said, in a 1991 interview, that “Geometry is a recognition of a certain existing order. Its’ there, its’ not something you impose.” H.C-B did not believe photography could be learnt. He was also wary of being labelled in any way; as Robert Capa, a fellow photographer and founder of Magnum is reported to have remarked to him after an exhibition of H.C-B’s work “If you get labelled a photojournalist you’ll become mannered. Be a photojournalist!” Another reminder of the complex relationship between art and documentary that lies at the belly of the photographic medium. People at times tried to discourage H.C-B from continuing with photography; they thought he should return to art.
I had suggested to Eileen, leading a group of Open College of the Arts students in Paris, that I might offer an Atget walk; “Amano’s Atget Amble” was how I branded it, with the idea to visit places that Atget had featured in his photographs. One can still find them looking pretty much the same though on other occasions, development has taken over and there is little in the way of recognition between the two scenes, past and present.
Eileen agreed and I decided that Montmatre would be the best place to do this though I had not at that point found any of the locations and wondered if I would be actually able to locate more than a couple. However, Atget seems to have chosen fairly obvious locations to photograph and to my surprise I was able to find all five Montmatre locations that appear in Bernice Abbott’s collection of his photographs entitled, “ATGET: Photographer of Paris“, that was published as a photobook in 1930.
We started the walk in the early evening by which time the multitude of tourists that flock there during the day had gone and we were able to move through the streets without obstruction. It was a slow but steady climb along from the Place de Clichy and then up the hill near from the Blanche Metro.
We met Rue Lepic and soon after Moulin de la Galette after which we arrived at the first Atget location,the place where he photographed a travelling salesman. This photograph seems slightly out of place with many other Atget photographs because normaly he did not do these kind of portrait location photographs. Interestingly however, Atget’s father whom Atget never really knew since he was orphaned when young, was like the man in this photograph, a door to door salesman. This location might have been difficult if not impossibe to find but for a couple of ornate flowerpots on the columns of a house in the background of Atget’s photograph; they correspond exactly to the ones that still exist today though are there are obscured from Atget’s view owing to overhanging vegetation. The street has changed in character as one might expect and some building on the left of Atget’s image have gone.
Atget however seems to have had a more documentary approach to his work and went for a view that encompassed all of the Place du Tertre without the distraction of the Sacre-Coeur in the background; one wonders where he might presently place his camera as a water tower built in the 1930’s now looms in the background. Of course, with the Place du Tertre becoming part of the tourist magnet that is Montmatre, Atget would find it hard to erect his tripod anywhere let alone frame a view of this ancient square presently festooned with the marquees of restaurants to say nothing of artisans lining the pavements and forbidding one to photograph either them or their art work.
Our next stop was beyond the Place du Tertre where the water tower now stands, a colossus rising out of the Square Claude Charpentier. This area was redeveloped between the wars and so little chance of seeing the house that Atget photographed which in his time was looking dilapidated; perhaps this was the reason he made the picture since he knew the area would soon change. We were able to see where this building once stood as Atget noted it down on the original gelatin as 18, Rue de Mont Cenis; at number 18 nowadays, there is a 5 storey building on the front of which is some writing informing us that the building was erected in 1927.
“His reflections are not limited to a mere interest in capturing the appearance of the territories that he photographs, nor are they limited to a visual project in which the image is only understood as an aesthetic object. Rather, his work encompasses a way of thinking that incorporates the reality of the territory as it has been experienced, and also entails a reappraisal of perception through photography …”
Marta Daho from “Through the Empty Room”, an essay in the Veramente catalogue.
I manage to obtain the catalogue to this exhibition beforehand. Looking through the photographs which begin in 1970, the notion of a much simpler life emerges. This work is said to come under the landscape genre and while there are some landscapes of the traditional kind, buildings feature in most images giving some sense of formality (Guidi had studied architecture when younger).
There are a number of diptychs (of which more later) in which almost the same image is repeated such as water flowing under a bridge (this includes a second diptych where the water is not under the arches of the bridge but within it’s vicinity), the way the sunlight falls being the obvious difference between the two.
Seeing this collection of images blind, I wonder if this might be a location which the photographer has grown up in or just knows well; it might of course be images from many different places (which in fact is the case though I do not discover this until the end of the catalogue; neither are they just from Italy but around Europe including Russia).
One image does touch me, that of an elderly woman peering out through the shutters of an upstairs window, apparently in some kind of discourse with a grey-haired man below who turns his head to respond to her.
The series of images end with four very similar photographs of grass growing through concrete; is this Guidi’s vision of nature or landscape, one which is somehow subservient to the man made constructions around it? The photographs themselves exude a warm calm; they are not grab shots but carefully considered images.
I don’t know what the title Veramente refers to; my rough translation is “true view!” which is probably incorrect.
In my second perusal, of the catalogue I notice that the first section of images, all in black and white, is about looking also reading! Are the couple in this first group the photographer’s parents by whom the photographer stands? The photo I noticed of the elderly couple that comes later in the book, might be the same people. The sense is of a photographer making an intimate glimpse of his home village.
So what is this body of work about? I turn to the texts at the end of the book!
Marta Daho writes about the view of landscape that emerged after the War; “the concept of the landscape gradually mutated, veering towards a new focus on spaces and territories that had previously been deemed undefined or marginal, rather than more canonical sites. Vacant lots, terrain vagues, and industrial sites … ” which is what might also be referred to as Edgelands, a contemporary term. This approach was defined by the new topographist photographers from the United States and by whom Guidi was obviously influenced. Guidi is concerned with “oblique between-the-lines references to the epicentre of his research: the enigma of the intangible emptiness that embraces the spectator and draws him into the representation.” By taking Guidi to be a story-teller, I was clearly missing the premise of his work; I could see space was important and it is obvious that he is breaking from more a formalist approach which is not uncommon these days.
“It is not superfluous to emphasise that Guido Guidi belongs to a generation of artists who rebelled against monumentality and expressed their rejection of the spectacle in its myriad forms.” continues Marta Daho who says that Guidi opposes “the fossilised, static notion according to which artworks are possessed of an essence, of an eternal, untouchable truth” since what makes an image worthwhile exists not in the frame but between author, work and spectator.
Guidi uses a larger format cameras (6by7cm, 13by18cm, 20by25cm, 40by45cm), as well as the smaller 35mm( 24by36mm) earler on, and was inspired by Walker Evans whose “qualitative dimension and stylistic restraint” he grasped. Guidi also studied drawing and architecture and for whom photography is “where two entities meet: a kind of threshold that triggers encounters and identification between one side of the lens and the other …”
When one actually sees photographs as photographs in a gallery rather than as reproductions in a book, one starts to see them differently; it is not as though they are imbued with aura but they are now open to examination, inspection rather than perusal. Guidi’s images are presented as art objects and live up to that notion as they are fine objects.
Guidi’s photographs are placed around the gallery in the order they appear in the book; however, here there is not so much compulsion to view them in a linear way since some are placed above the other, some appear in groups and so on.
One certainly feels the craftmanship that has gone into the making and printing here yet I can not help but see that some of the images (e.g. Kalingrad, Russia, 08.1994) seem to lack the fine detail one expects from this kind of work.
The colours show the restrained palette of faster films such as 200 and 400 ISO; this helps to reduce the impact of the images while enhancing their delicacy.
I enjoy Guidi’s use of the diptych. It enables him to comment on the image; the same scene can be rendered differently as in the case of Venezia, Italie, 1984 where identical images reveal an underpass in both black and white and then in colour. In “Chatillon, Italie, 15.09.1982” one sees two identical black and white images but for the objects they contain and the degree of contrast used. Guido was influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, a conceptual approach.
Sometimes the diptych is extended and multiple images are used alongside each other. In the case of “Cesena, Italie, 19.06.2007” showing a shadow falling on water beneath a bridge and “Cesena, Italie, 12.07.2007” showing a clump of grass growing out of concrete with a shdaow moving across it, we are treated to four images of each. In “Preganziol, Italie, 02.1983” a shadow moves across a room (a diagram tells us about the way the images were made) shown in 10 images.
Daho writes, “The ideas of repetition and the importance of the interval as expressed in both space and time were present from his very first images and did not dissappear when he shifted to using a large format camera … trying to surprise the very act of seeing at the instant that preceedes recognition, of capturing it before there is a chance for connection with pre-existing knowledge.” An impossible task!
What makes Guidi an outstanding photographer is his ability to question the medium of photography. Daho writes, “… photographically speaking he takes a step back, reveals the device, and invites the spectator to engage in an act of self-awareness through the contemplative experience, in an attempt to rethink photographic practice from a dailogical and intercommunicative perspective.”
In one photograph, “Ronta, Italie, 09.09.1981”, we see him reflected in a mirror, standing beside a large camera behind which is an open window; it takes a little time for us to adjust to the space the photographer has created. The next three images, all from the same location, are perhaps the hardest to take in as they are largely abstract black and white images. These four images occupy the far wall at the end of the first gallery.
Much of the work might be described as documentary as well as landscape yet using composition in a less obvious way gives them an artistic feel; there is no obvious message here.
There is another gallery above the first. This room contains no black and white and more portraiture. Is there a thread to the sequence of images which is not chronological. Guidi seems to be probing the medium, playing with it and sharing his discoveries with us.
The writing on the wall at the exhibition’s entry certainly makes one warm to Guidi as a human photographer; “Guido Guidi has no desire to be a dominant figure. He does not seek to control a space; he does not impose himself on what he photographs. He takes part in it, identifies with it.”
I can not help but remember Cartier-Bresson’s work when considering this work which is being shown in the Foundation Cartier-Bresson; Cartier-Bresson’s work is artistic yet immediately recognisable as such. With Guidi one needs to be a bit more contemplative and he does not reward one as much as Cartier-Bresson yet Guidi does encourage one to question the nature of the image, to stand back a little from the “society of the spectacle” and this is surely something worthwhile.