Un Altro Paese – Montefino 2016
Twelve years ago I was working for an international company, travelling extensively, inhabiting bland contemporary offices, chain hotels, the latest best restaurant in town, motorways and airports communicating ceaselessly by mobile phone, conference call, email, presentations and documents. I hadn’t read Marc Augé’s (1) theories of supermodernity (here) but my life was being played out in perpetual high-speed transit through non-places, the “ubiquitous spaces of temporary dwelling” (2) that define modern Eurasia and America.
I found the antidote in Montefino, a small rural village in Abruzzo, a geographically central and culturally southern region of Italy. This was Augé’s anthropological place (here), one that is:
“a principle of meaning for the people who live in it, and also a principle of intelligibility for the person who observes it.” (1: p 42)
In essence it is not a place defined by so much by geographical borders as being the idea its inhabitants have of a place, what its inhabitants want it to be; “places of identity, of relations, of history.” (1: p.43)
In the years that followed I holidayed, then lived there, working the land, tending the ancient olive trees, slowly transitioning from twenty-first century Britain to some other, seemingly earlier time, and unconsciously making the transition from outsider to insider, from stranieri to Montefinesi (i). For a place where the shades of the ancestors reside in every corner and the indigenous population have such a clear sense of their relation to the the village their ancestors built and to each other there is a surprising flexibility to its borders. When Max Kozloff talks of the borders of subcultures being “extendable and at no great distance from each other” (2: p.211) he unknowingly describes this place and these people; a tightly knit community rooted in their own view of history that effortlessly opens its borders to absorb strangers.
Kozloff points out that photography is better equipped to describe communities than it is “to do the fuzzier job of biographical statement” (2: p.201) and in that context, and to maintain the photographs’ ambiguity, I have resisted the temptation to explain the characters depicted in this series, the outsider is unlikely to identify the drinker, the talker, the listener, the extrovert or introvert but through their appearance and attitudes it may be possible to identify the mayor, farmer, builder, barman, priest, policeman and even, perhaps, the professional photographer.
Although the direct and straight style of these portraits might hold faint echoes of August Sander (here) my intent is wholly different, the viewer can know that the mayor is included here but to label him as such is to suggest a single dimension, a local politician with all the attendant baggage of that description and to ignore the anti-corruption campaigner, the honest man who remembers and repays debts, family man, scientist, councillor and friend to a community.
These people are or were followers of a trade, skilled in farming, viniculture, building, engineering or carpentry but their roles aren’t romantically frozen in the nineteenth century, there are also teachers, dentists, pharmacists and accountants living in the village. However, the labels are meaningless within a community where one is judged against traditional social measures. First and foremost he Italian villager desires the respect of their community, not for their professional skills but for their humanness, to be called a buon uomo or buona donna, a good man or woman.
The young have mostly left; to the coast, the northern industrial cities or abroad; the population has dwindled from its peak of 2,399 in 1951 to less than 1,000 today. The school closes for ever this summer, there are only a handful of children left in the village and they can be bused to the nearest town; the doctor is old now and one wonders who will replace him. There is a priest again after many years of borrowing one from a local town but the church is only full at Easter. Many houses are empty but the foreign holiday home buyers don’t aspire to village life preferring to buy deserted farm houses or villas near the sea. The future holds little promise despite the beauty of the surroundings and the resilience of the population.
Context and Research
As previously mentioned August Sander (here) was influential in terms of an approach to portraiture but this project was never intended to be a typology or ethnological study. I wanted to bring context to the portraits, to explore the light, shadow and textures that are as much part of the village as its population, Sander tended to isolate his subjects from their backgrounds, to present them against neutral backdrops but people are part of a landscape, related it spiritually and physically. The man looks at the view from the Piazza, he has probably seen this view very day for seventy years but still he stops to look because it is his view, his landscape.
Stephen Shore’s work in Ukraine (reviewed here) and Luzzara (reviewed here) are important reference points for this series. Through his quietly observational style Shore isolates architectural or banal details that help describe the people he photographs. I wanted, within the constraints of a concise series, to bring some of Shore’s ideas to this project and layout owes much to his simple, clean book designs. So whilst, as Paul Strand did in Un Paese (reviewed here), I have opened with photographs that locate the village within its landscape I wanted to explore my relationship to the community through its people and the trivial details of the place.
This assignment is positioned within the dialogue of insiders and outsiders in documentary photography which a number of writers in the seventies and eighties were suggesting as binary measures of photography’s worth (here). Kozloff argues that the photographer must choose between being the internal diarist of “their” group, or the objective documentarist looking in “to hold back midway from either of those positions is to temporise” (2: p.210). I am unconvinced by either argument. The dividing line between subjectivity and objectivity in documentary is ambiguous and whilst it is easy enough to cite the objectivity of Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (reviewed here) or the subjectivity of Strand’s Un Paese (reviewed here) there are many more examples that rest between these points; objectivity descriptive but with strong overtones of the photographer’s opinion expressed thorough selection at both the frame and series level.
Un Altro Paese is intentionally positioned in the middle ground of insider and outsider, and of objective and subjective; John Berger said of Strand that his portraits are mostly “deliberate, frontal, (and) formal” (4) and this idea was in my ninbd but, unlike Strand my subjects are undirected, their pose and gaze is chosen by the subject and to that extent they are in control of the image; the villagers as they choose to be seen.
Notes on Text
(i) Stranieri – foreigners. Montefinesi- residents of Montefino.
(1) Augé, Mark (1995) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London:Verso.
(3) Kozloff, Max (2007) The Theatre of the Face. London & NewYork: Phaidon
(4) Berger, John (1967) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics
Stilone, Ignazio (2000) The Abruzzo Trilogy. Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press
(2) Merriman, Peter (2009) Exploring Supermodernity: Marc Augé in Context(s) (accessed at Academia 16.2.16) – https://www.academia.edu/1206011/Marc_Auge_on_Space_Place_and_Non-Places