I studied some of Stephen Shore’s Luzzara (1) photographs on line as part of my research for assignment 3 but have held off writing about them until the newly published book of the series arrived. There are only a small number of reviews of this book available but I have been struck how the writers have very much approached their criticism from an American or British perspective, one was titled “Portraits of an Italian Town That Time (Almost) Left Behind” which I find an intriguing perspective; is there an expectation that a small Italian town is somehow off the pace of modern Europe? I have never been to Luzzara, in fact my knowledge of Reggio Emilia as a region is limited to travelling through it on my way to and from the south but I know these towns, a community with a rural and agricultural heritage that has retained the fundamentals of its identity whilst finding its place in the late twentieth century.
One reviewer perceived a paradox in a baby wearing a disposable nappy; but why we should be surprised that disposal nappies were available in the nineties in Italy, the world’s ninth largest economy, completely escapes me. I see a young mother, with her fashionable haircut, carefully applied makeup and smart clothes holding her chubby baby, a photograph that could equally have been taken in Paris or London. But there is something of Italy here, the functional chairs suggest a street café and the chipped stucco and block flooring suggest the edge of a piazza. There are two beautiful details; the woman’s expression and pose as she firmly holds her baby speaks of her strength as a mother, but there is a hint of shyness or insecurity in the way she avoids eye contact with the photographer. The other detail that will speak to every parent is the baby’s firm grip on his mother’s finger, the mutual bond and confirmation of motherhood described in a tiny, ordinary but powerful gesture. This highly tuned observational skill, as I have said before, is at the heart of Shore’s work; his photographs draw the viewer in to seek out what he saw in his subject, did being in Italy bring paintings of the Madonna and Child to his mind?
But perhaps I should take s step back and look first at the wider context of this work. In 1993 Reggio Emilia commissioned a number of photographers to document the region and its inhabitants as part of the project Linea di Confine (4). As previously discussed (here) Paul Strand had photographed Luzzara, one of the region’s small towns, in 1953 and although it was a coincidence that Linea di Confine started exactly forty years later the organisers decided to invite an another American who used a large-format camera to document the same town. (2)
As a professor of photography Shore was more than aware of Un Paese, Strand’s book, but he knew that his own perspective would inevitably be quite different.
“Strand’s work tended to be limited by his political outlook: He was looking for an idealized agrarian village. While he photographed Luzzara in 1953, there wasn’t anything in his pictures that couldn’t have been made in 1913, 40 years earlier: There were no telephone lines, there were no cars. His view was, to my mind, highly idealized, and I wanted to reveal Luzzara as it was.” (2)
‘My aim, then, was to produce a companion volume to Un Paese; to produce a group of pictures, which to the limit of the subjectivity of my vision, supplement Strand’s work.’ (3)
The first surprise for students of Shore’s work is that the Luzzara series is in black and white. Shore has often commented on his burning urge to move forward, to find new problems to solve and perhaps Luzzara fits into this progression, a homage to Strand in terms of both the medium and the method of capture but otherwise very Stephen Shore. Like Strand he puts the town into the context of the River Po but now we see three generations of modern Italians, stylishly dressed, enjoying an afternoon by the river rather than the dark, brooding landscapes that introduce Un Paese. This contrast, which continues throughout the two books, defines the tone of these series. When I reviewed Un Paese I made the point that it is
“a romanticised and highly subjective view of 1950’s Italy, a town selected for its historic ties to a very Italian form of communism and people photographed to represent Strand’s notion of a communal society, a notion that brought together his perception, also romantic in nature, of small-town American values with a worker’s state” (here)
Where Strand is subjective and arguably manipulative Shore remains the quiet observer whose portraits feel timed rather than directed. Strand was photographing something he wanted to find in Luzzara, Shore is recording what he found.
Shore’s work is always subtle, his pictures have to interrogated but because his images are so clear and so many of his themes are, to some degree, consistent across his major works there are always clues available. He is interested in architecture and its relations with the moments that he is recording, he sees the sweep of history in the structures that surround people and recognises how they map the past and the present and point towards the future. But, Shore is more likely to photograph the typical and mundane than monumental structures because it is the side streets of a town that reveal its nature rather than its civic buildings. His street scenes of Luzzara show the complex history of Italian towns, few have been ravaged by the architectural abominations of the sixties and seventies that blight British towns. Buildings have been recycled, stonework rendered to create the illusion of modernity, classically influenced public buildings, small cottages and modern, but restrained, apartment blocks share the same sunlit streets.
Cars, television aerials and overhead cables provide dating evidence on street corners that have probably changed little in the forty years since Strand was in town. Neighbourhood supermarkets on the ground floor of blocky concrete structures rub shoulders with cottages that incorporate religious shrines into their design or a main street with its medieval church towering over modern colonnaded shops and cafés; these scenes describe, in parallel, historic and contemporary Italian culture.
Shore loves detail, whether it is the abstract patterns that draw him in or the meanings he sees in the trivia of life I am not always sure, perhaps it is both, but one image particularly resonates with me. Rural Italian towns are closely linked with their agriculture past and present, older residents continue to tend tiny patches of land, keep chickens or build their woodpiles inside the towns’ perimeters. The photograph at fig. 2 above sums up this tradition; the like of which would have been there for Strand to see and is probably there now. A homespun structure whose purpose remains unresolved but that has all the elements of the peasant builder, an eclectic combination of materials chosen for functionality over aesthetics purposely brought together.
It is noticeable that many of the street photographs were taken around the middle of the day, many scenes include short shadows. Small Italian towns are usually at their quietest when most people are taking lunch, it is not unusual for bars and cafés to close for an hour or two in the middle of the day so the streets are at their most deserted and it appears that this suited Shore’s subjective view of Luzzara. Bicycles appear in no less than eight of the pictures, perhaps a reference to Paul Strand’s work forty years earlier where he uses the bicycle as a symbol of the honest working man. However, I believe they play a different role in Shore’s work, I see them more as a symbol of transition, a bridge between the past and the present, the juxtaposition of traditional values and modernity which is a clear theme throughout the series.
Figure 3 brings many of the themes of this series together in one photograph; it is a picture of a nearly deserted road junction and, judging by the white sign to the Palazzo della Macina, close to the centre of town (i). Modern Europe is represented by television aerials, overhead power and telephone lines, parked cars, traffic lights and road markings; the road is well maintained. In the background there is a very typical combination of buildings; a dilapidated large building built in the Roman style, perhaps in the ninetieth century, stands in the centre, more industrial than residential and to either side much smaller residential properties that could either be old buildings that have been modernised with concrete facias and new roofs or modern developments. The echoes of Roman architecture in the oldest building and its state of abandonment represent the past, the road furniture the present, the cyclist waits between the two.
Shore was part of a project to document a place and its residents, not the first or last such project that he has been involved in. Luzzara is an incomplete record, thirty nine photographs that, in Shore’s view, summarise rather than describe a place. His skill lies in his selectivity, his ability to find a contrasting set of images that individually add to a mosaic representation of a place’s personality. I am a biased reviewer in the sense that I have photographed these quiet Italian towns for the last twelve years and can understand his choices. Like any other culture Italy is complex so his mosaic comprises many of the tiny elements that pieced together give Italian towns their unique character; an olive tree, religious statues, an agricultural hinterland being farmed in the modern way but full of reminders of the frugal lifestyle of its not too far distant peasant population, quiet daytime side streets with their shuttered and closed buildings that follow the classical style of residences looking inwards not outwards, the cafés, the tiny artisan factory hanging on in the centre of town, the lost and abandoned buildings, the cabbages and onions growing in a tiny garden.
I have not mentioned the people because they were not Shore’s focus, there are only five portraits in the series, it would take another essay to discuss those portraits in detail but in summary I sense he selected his subjects for their Italianess; the handsome boy in swimming trunks who could be an extra in The Godfather; the bold woman with her confrontational pose and gypsy looks; the young man in his garish shirt and hyper modern haircut being fashionable as he leans on a pickup truck; or, the young woman looking up to a balcony, sitting on her bicycle with its child’s chair attached, her mass of black hair tumbles across her shoulders, her strong attractive face tilted up towards who? her husband, friend, lover?
Notes on Text
(i) A little research on Google Earth Streetview revealed that this location is floe to the centre, the Municipio di Luzzara, or Town hall, is just to the right of Shore’s frame. If we need proof that small Italian towns don’t change much the screen shot below shows the same junction when Google’s Streetview was captured.
(1) Shore, Stephen (2016) Luzzara. London: Stanley / Barker
Shore, Stephen (2010) Stephen Shore in Paris (accessed at Youtube 7.7.16) – stephen shore phaidon interview
(2) Judah, Hettie (2016) Portraits of an Italian Town That Time (Almost) Left Behind (accessed at NY Times 6.7.16) – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/t-magazine/art/stephen-shore-italy-photography-book.html
(3) Klingelfuss, Jessica (2016) Village people: Stephen Shore reveals unseen photographs of Luzzara (accessed at Wallpaper 6.7.16) – http://www.wallpaper.com/art/stephen-shore-publishes-never-before-seen-photographs-from-luzzara-series-in-new-book
(4) Linea di Confine (accessed at Linea di Confine 6.7.16) – http://www.lineadiconfine.org/?p=pro&l=eng