< Litterality of photography

by Elio Grazioli

in Giacomo Manzoni (curated by), Benedetta Alfieri. Evidenti, Galleria Manzoni, Bergamo 2011

The background is usually white, or monochrome, the object is placed in the middle: this type of composition has its own story, actually two. After a modernist postulate, where is a reduction there is also precision and a request for attention on those aspects that overwise might be overlooked by the viewer; but that white of the background, once a symbol of isolation, de-contextualization, abstraction and suspension, now highlights instead the hyper-realism of a reality turned into image.
If on one side this points to the avant-garde, and to a type operation which only photography can render, a background which can be conceived only in a studio or with the use of a computer, and by ficusing in the style of the “new objectivity”, in which the image shows more than the eyes can see, on the other side it points to advertising, to the object that has become the protagonist of the world of merchandise. All this is reinforced by Benedetta Alfieri’s choice as the subject for these series, one of her most famous, the one regarding the clothes.
If we look at the series concerning shoes, here the reference becomes even more explicit, because shoes have been at the centre of one of the most important aesthetical and philosophical debates of the last century, from Martin Heidegger, to Jacques Derrida and Fredric Jameson, and from Van Gogh’s shoes to those of Magritte and Warhol and others, which reminds us that the definitions of object, reality and of artwork have been repeatedly debated through the ages.
Alfieri seems to want to add photography to this debate: what media, better than photography has changed the representation and the questioning of reality? Much more than a simple representation, photography, is actually a luminous footprint, and hence a direct derivation from the real object as many seem to assert today. Alfieri underlines this aspect, portraying the objects in their original dimension as footprints in a one to one scale. As it is even more evident in another series, regarding gloves, which maybe even more the shoes can be perceived as moulds, this time of hands.
To return to the clothes, as the shoes and the gloves, these are first of all empty, without a body inside. To be true, a substitute of the body and another key to interpret this work, is present in the form of the common metal hanger, which appears somehow weird, if perceived as a substitute to the body: the hook that stands in place of the head, looks a bit perturbing, as can be one of those dummies proposed by the surrealists or by De Chirico.
On the other hand empty dresses can awaken memories of a set of clothes or to peculiar characters such as the bachelors of Duchamp (here in a female version) and to clothes hanged by several artists such as Joseph Beuys, Jannis Kounellis, Maurizio Cattelan and others.
The hanger is also the device used to display a dress, just like as we can say in regards to an artwork, or a product or when concerning photography, an image.
In most cases the hanger is not there, and the dress seems as suspended or leaning against the background, probably photographed horizontally and then turned vertically, motionless, flat, emptied. The absence of the body is the absence of its own content, the shapes persists, the dress is represented in its essence. The whole appears real and unreal at the same time. The time: how old are these dresses? One series is called Generazioni (generations), as to say that these are clothes from different generations. Another series its called Sorelle (sisters) underlying bonds and analogies. But to whom they belong to? As the author is a woman, we could think that they belong to her. The clothes always remind to a direct and intimate bond, personal: some are called Ritratto (portrait). Who is portrayed? Maybe somebody specific or whoever, but in all circumstances these dresses provide character. The dresses can tell many things of who wears them, or has worn them – the tense is in the past -, they reflect the personal taste, and keep its traces. They are already photographs themselves, they are the shape of their own content.
If we say that looks can be deceiving, this proverb warns us only on our automatisms and not on the correctness of the shape. Alfieri has called this series Bianche apparenze (white appearances). And on what is apparent is photography is founded: we assign them a feelinf of reality, swapping the represented reality with the reality of the image.
This is what the expression 1:1 means. This is what photography has to say: not only the actual 1:1 scale, but also the capacity to consider a thing one at a time, everything in detail and for its own. Alfieri’s images insist on the perfect definition of each detail, almost as if each detail was of vital importance. As a matter of fact, each details tells the history of the objects and confirms that each detail of the image depicts the history of the image.
In her catalogues, Alfieri, always replicates also some details of the dresses, inviting us to look carefully. This could lead us to wander into folds, laces, seams, embroideries, with all the historical and metaphorical allusions which derive, but most all Alfieri is inviting us to witness the comparison to the 1:1 scale, as they really are, instead the reproduction of the entire image are always scaled1. We would want to say that the dresses’ texture matches the grainy texture of the photograph.
This means the perfect “objectivity” of the image, or we would like to say instead its “literality”, to take the object literally – and to take photography literally. And fashion, advertising, the “contents” are taken literally as well.
Here then, we have everything that has to be and that is exactly what from fashion, advertising and contents is charged of meanings to mean something different from what it is, to evoke a world, to invite to an identification an to buy2. Here we have the dress for what it is, as the affirmation that it represents, with a series of questions that it raises as being an image.
Without a body, without a background, the dress is concrete and abstract at the same time, hyper real for how it has been photographed. Everything is completely focused in way that the eye is unable to, dazing the viewer as if the image appeared even more real than the real thing, more a substitute than a representation, or to say it in Jean Baudrillard’s words as if the real instead of appearing became the image. Alfieri’s clothes are neither the global project of August Sander, nor the collection of “anonymous sculptures” by Bernd and Hilla Becher. The difference is strictly photographic: putting together progresses in the technology and composition in photography, Alfieri’s images appear more real than reality, “hyper” as to say that difference that its kept in the excessive, suspicious, over detailed likeness of its double. That this is happening with the empty dresses as a subject is a perfect idea, not only because the dress is already a photograph in itself but mostly because it becomes such thanks to its emptiness, around which move around all the sign and characters which make it up. Because of this is possible to measure the effectiveness of her photographs, more than any other aspect here described, by the feeling of silence that these subjects emanate, the suspension from any device, absence of any subjective point of view. We can ask, what kind of gaze can do as much? A view that from mechanical has become “hyper-human”.

Bergamo, on February 2011
© Elio Grazioli