You’re making this work around the time of the most recent economic downturn and the beginning of the Eurozone crisis …
It’s part of the same crisis. Anyway, I feel that in Italy one has a clear and stereotypical image of the past, one that inspires pride: beautiful ruins, Renaissance paintings, bountiful landscapes. But what about the present? Or the future? The present feels frustrating and ridiculous and it’s difficult to imagine a bright future.
These disconnects seem to me like struggles for power over a narrative.
I think that’s true. Are we able to find a strong enough narrative for what we believe in, and does that help us assess the past correctly? If not, narratives we dislike might gain the upper hand. In a bleak way, my work also engages with that. As an Italian citizen, making that book had a sense of urgency. It was about finding meaning and a balance between the personal, the historical, and the political. That’s one reason why many things are doubled in the book. There is the “official” image of the country, which can seem like a simulation laid atop reality. But I don’t want my gestures, and the book, to be seen as ironic—which leads again to the more lyrical and poetic elements.
You have described this book as your first mature work. Was there something about making sense of the past of the country you were raised in that gave you an opportunity to find, for lack of a better phrase, your photographic voice? Is there a connection between this subject matter and how you’ve learned to structure photographic narratives?
It is probably something I haven’t given enough thought to. On the other hand, my proximity to the subject matter, plus what I was going through as an immigrant, perhaps meant that I could be more effective. I had more emotional investment in that work than in anything I had done previously. On the other hand, in the beginning everything was very open-ended. I was just going back and walking around.
In the beginning it wasn’t conceived as a project?
Not in the beginning; it was more a need. Things always start a little bit more like adventures than projects. When you can give structure and purpose to what you feel as urgent or necessary, that’s when it becomes a project.
One interesting thing about analogue photography is that it has a weird relationship with memory. It is retrospective: you only see things after some time. While you live things and shoot, you’re thinking. Then you develop the film, look at the photographs, and notice things you hadn’t previously seen. There are new connections between what you were thinking, what you saw, and what ended up in the photographs. The cycle then repeats, and each cycle is suffused with a little more intention.
I am fascinated, in a long project, by the constant dialogue between research and practice. A lot of my ideas emerge from what appears in the film. The ideas get “developed” further by thinking and reading.
Let’s tease that out while discussing The Castle, your subsequent book, which includes writing. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in theoretical research, historical discourse, even fiction and poetry? How do those things create the feedback loops you describe?
I spend a lot of time reading. The Castle is a direct reference to Kafka’s unfinished novel of the same name. Though the inspiration was not direct: I’d read The Castle years before, and the idea to work with it arrived perhaps halfway through the project. But even how I thought my pictures related to that book changed as I made progress. I was travelling around often for different reasons—
Yeah. I would take a lot of notes; I write a lot. Some is text, some is notes toward specific images. At other times I see something that connects to something else I thought or read, so I’d draw it and then try to tease out those connections later. There are goose-bump moments of connection, that’s when you feel you’re on to something. It’s a loose, associative process, but one I approach with rigor.
The closed format of the book helps muster a certain degree of both complexity and closure.
On the subject of openness or looseness, can you talk about your preference for the photobook as a structure? Does it help you to give structure to what is otherwise a seemingly open, porous, and iterative process?
I think Marshall McLuhan said, “The more the world tends to break apart, the more desperately we try to put it together.” If your work is composed of bits and pieces and fragments, then you need to weave them together very well. The connections between them must seem inevitable. As you surf that kind of openness there is a kind of paranoia behind it, about how it will come together.
In The Castle or more generally?
More generally. You’re not in full control, at least not until you have the intuition that it’s all linked together. Then you have to work on those links to make them intelligible. The closed format of the book helps muster a certain degree of both complexity and closure. I like working with books because you can read them the first time with the feeling that something connects it all—that paranoia again. You know you can’t get all of it, so you go back and read again. That’s the ideal.
Is the particular structure of The Castle, in which each chapter concludes with notes, a microcosm of what you’re describing? Is it meant to encourage the reader to reconsider the photographic sequences she’s presented with?
Yes, and at the same time it provides context: you read those images in the context of those words. Our cultures privilege text. So, if you play it smartly, a text can broaden or redirect the reader’s understanding of images. It makes possible other interpretations.
I want to invite people to go on the same kind of adventure I went on. Start here and you’re prompted to go elsewhere. I like the feeling that The Castle is not complete. It’s controlled, it’s finished, it’s a book—but it’s not complete in itself. You can profit from reading it more than once.
Image and text create something like a parallax view that gives depth, a third dimension.
Exactly, something like a third dimension.
Can you speak more about how The Castle uses different layouts, different pacing, in its chapters?
That, too, was the result of a long process. I remember one weekend I went to a friend’s country house. I went to the garage and spent a few days mapping out images on the wall. I really needed to see them all together, so I could map the images onto panels. Which is a bit like that Mnemosyne Atlas way of working, where you try to find and map connections in two dimensions.
You mentioned paranoia earlier. It’s like the investigator in a police procedural trying to chart the sequence of crimes to discover who committed them.
Exactly! I love detective stories. I think the third season of True Detective has a lot to do with my work. There are many things you don’t know, you don’t notice. A crime scene can leave a lot unsaid. So, too, does photography. My projects are collections of evidence or fragments. I have to try to fill in some gaps—and encourage you to do the same. Only it’s not crime and murder, it’s history and ideas.
I have never before made the connection between sequencing events to solve a crime and sequencing a photobook.