The truths between instants

Jorge Luis Borges, Palermo, Sicily, 1984

‘The camera cannot lie’ is a phrase that has had currency since the last years of the nineteenth century, although it may well struggle to retain any utility in our present era of  the digitally constructed image. It was always founded on a stark misunderstanding of visual experience. The camera, rather, can never speak truthfully, because the truth is never that people and objects are frozen rigidly between moments. Any facial expression presented in a photograph is a fugitive state, stolen from the transition between one movement and another: there was never a time when ‘that was the expression on their face’, because no observer ever read the meaning of a face from outwith the geometry of events that we perceive as the sequential flow of time. The truth is a moving target, which every still photograph is fated to miss. The camera presents us with images from which two of the four physical dimensions have been excised, and attempts to convince us that they can be readily reconstructed from the two that remain.

This is not to say that photographs cannot be truthful, simply that their defining characteristic of optical verisimilitude does not give them a greater claim on veracity than paintings, poems, pebbles, peaches, or parkour. Truth is not quantum, not a matter of discrete immutable facts, visual or otherwise; it is not digital, but analogue. Truth was abundantly present in Journey, Story, Memory, a career retrospective of the Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna, into which we stepped, as though through a portal between worlds, from the demoralised, sun-bleached quadrangle of the former Franciscan friary that houses Palermo’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna Sant’Anna. Initially, a truth of Sicily; or beneath that even, a truth of Bagheria, a small town ten miles to the east of Palermo in which Scianna grew up. In these black and white images (as far as I know, all of Scianna’s work is monochrome) the contingency of a motionless optical impression is clear: a man balances on a pole over water, with rowing boats in front of him; a child runs along a street; a child is upside down, springing over a railing and down a terrace, one hand on each; two men are diving from a high rock, with no water visible beneath them. In none of these images is there a complete physical context, or sufficient narrative clues for the viewer to be certain of their prosaic ‘truth’; instead they must imagine, that the men are diving into water, that the end of the pole that is out of shot is anchored to the land or to a boat, that the child has risen early from bed and will later devour a bowl of pasta alla Norma provided by a weathered grandmother who has seen his like before and knows his tricks.

Truth arises in what the photographs direct us to outside themselves, and it arises between the images, in the connections that appear when they are viewed as a body of work. Scianna is both visually insightful and theoretically informed, and so he responds to the fleeting truths of visual experience neither with the heavy-handed objectivism of documentary photography, nor with self-expressive subjectivist formalism. In this show he chooses to group his work thematically, and it is only in the first exhibition space that the theme is geographically defined – and there it is also defined by the youth of the photographer, who did not leave his native town until he was twenty-three. In that context it is easy for him to let us know what truths have concerned him, but the individual works also read very clearly in that interzone between subject and object: Scianna aims to let the images speak for themselves, but he has clearly chosen carefully what kinds of image to construct, and knows very well what they are likely to say.

The subjects and genres that Scianna chooses are extremely varied, ranging from the intimate to the detached, the domestic to the public, the local to the cosmopolitan, the social to the aesthetic. There are still-lives, street scenes, portraits, fashion shots, landscapes and objets trouves. It would clearly be difficult to take one image in isolation, an aerial photograph of an island, say, or a piece of bent wire on a beach, and say ‘this is by Ferdinando Scianna’, but group enough of them together and his eye emerges unmistakably. He is an accomplished technician, manipulating depth of field and sharpness of focus in ways that emerge as characteristic once the viewer has taken in enough of his work, but what left the most striking after-images on my retina was his dramatic and geometric deployment of chiaroscuro, which reminded me at times of the work of the great American comic artist Jaime Hernandez. The two creators share some insights about visual grammar, and both marshal the affective power of geometric and graphic elements to comment on pictorial and narrative denotations.

Scianna’s fashion work, to which he came later in his career, is represented here by a series of photos he took for Dolce e Gabbana of the Dutch model Marpessa Hennink. In these, he engages critically with the absurdities and artificiality of the genre, often attempting to subvert its dominant tropes. At the same time he is clearly infatuated with the image of Hennink herself, which is extremely striking, but when that image is permitted to ‘speak for itself’ all of its specificities are swamped by the morphologically prescriptive fetish-commodity that images of women’s bodies become in contemporary visual culture. Huge prints of her face and her naked torso can only be read in the same way as any other hyperreal image of a beautiful, slender young woman. Much better is the image that positions her next to a homely, dirty butcher’s boy with a huge side of pork over his shoulders. In a way these pictures define the limit condition of Scianna’s critical insight, which usually leads him to endow his portraits with some context, but which also permits him to frame Hennink’s image as an autonomous aesthetic object.

The portraits in the show include images of some cultural figures of personal significance to me, such as Martin Scorsese, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Roland Barthes, and most interestingly Jorge Luis Borges. Each portrait, most of which position their subject alongside some significant object, or in some meaningful place, is accompanied by an essay by Scianna on his relationship with them, or on the circumstances of the shoot. Borges was apparently amused, in a very Borgesian way, as Scianna notes, ‘to become the object of images he would never see’. This seems an interesting commentary on the observation that photographs preserve an optical impression that has no counterpart in visual experience, other than the experience of looking at a photograph.  Nobody else ever saw those images of Borges, except in the photographs that Scianna took; the visual truth of Borges was and remains unavailable, to him and to us, except in the moment of seeing him.

The broad sweep of this extensive and almost overwhelmingly varied exhibition enables the entire oeuvre of more than fifty years’ work to emerge as geographically situated in relation to the artist’s roots in Sicily. I haven’t mentioned Scianna’s travelling, or the images he captured in far-flung places, but they are a significant part of his body of work, and in the short, insightful essays with which he introduces each section of the show, he demonstrates unequivocally how grounded he is in his native soil. This awareness of a relationship with his point of origin enables Scianna to grasp truths about other places, about the world, that can be elusive in the absence of a solid frame of reference.  Like the exact rectilinear boundaries of his photographs, Sicily provides Scianna with such a frame. I forget who it was that said in something I recently read, that to be a citizen of the world it is necessary to know where you come from; I would struggle to justify such a claim with any evidence relating to the island’s aesthetics, or artistic or photographic traditions, but I am left by the exhibition with a very powerful impression that this is definitively Sicilian photography. This is the mutable, emergent truth that seeps out between these transient monochrome flashes of the imagery that Scianna traversed on his journey away from and towards his home.

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