Photography: flashes of light and shade, by Angelo Bertani

Photography: flashes of light and shade

Addition is an operation that is optimistic and constructive, certainly one we find reassuring. Faced with the complexity of reality, we first isolate the individual elements and then perhaps consider them in their sum total. This is the conventional way to escape the shifting sands of time and maintain the hope (or illusion) of summing one bit of knowledge to another through an infinite series of additions. A photographic sequence certainly fits this vision of things (it is even more evident when we look at the typically modernist strip of negatives on a roll of 35mm film): a vision of an interconnected chain of events, at the same reassuring and anxiety inducing. Image after image, we might be able to stop time, or at least give it a meaning. It is ephemeral, but at least it can be perceived, given a structure, it might even be comforting in a melancholic way.

Whilst his images have an appearance that is deliberately created to confound our first impressions, through photography Stefano Tubaro talks to us about photography, his own history and his dilated present. He always speaks of the original roots of the medium: light, of course, in all its variations of natural and artificial, but also the long, or very long, time need for exposures. This is precisely because photographs were not originally created just to freeze the unrepeatable moment, which has now become their functional obsession. Rather, they were a non-religious way of making time into something sacred through a perception that could guarantee the memory, and thus impart a permanence that endures in time. Whilst we may have seen some enthusiastic moments of conviction in the past, nowadays the very concept of reality has become a rather problematical question. Is it even possible to think of “objective” photographs in the age of media manipulation? This is why it is so important and useful to reflect on fundamental questions about this technique, particularly when every day we find ourselves immersed in a rhetoric that is bolstered by media images, which are anything but liberating.

In the series of works entitled Contrattempo (1997-2002) Stefano Tubaro uses derelict or abandoned buildings as the stage for his representations of photography through photography. He has carefully selected the location (isolated, or which can be isolated) and constructed the image step by step, using very long exposures and additions of light. He uses torches or flash to highlight surfaces and volumes that he feels are meaningful for each building. This is a process of progressive addition which is intended to prise out the final image. It is evident that this approach has always been based on a clear intention, which also requires the necessary technical control, but it is also clear that an element of chance plays its part too, as the artist cannot (and does not want to) pre-determine every aspect of the image. However it is precisely this infiltration of chance (controlled to some degree) that distinguishes art, and indeed photography, from a cold technological product.

As such, the title the artist has given this series of images (Contrattempo) is particularly effective as it underlines the possible intersection in the final image of unforeseen elements. It highlights the fundamental role of time in the form in which we see the subjects (often old, abandoned or derelict buildings), but also in the action of constructing the photographs, which, as we said, involves a very long exposure and the addition of elements that are highlighted by light sources that are carefully calibrated each time. These are used by the artist according to the rules of a very well-balanced chromatic counterpoint, creating a kind of fertile contamination between painting and photography.

However, there is more to consider in these artworks. For example, the photographs that were selected for the exhibition at Colonos are all images where there is the presence of human figures – silhouettes and shadows that are traces of a presence. In 1839 Fox Talbot, the inventor of the calotype, wrote: ” The most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our ‘natural magic’, and may be fixed forever in the position which seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy.” We might conclude from this that photography too, which can capture a shadow, is concerned with all that is transitory, or with all that is shadow. Stefano Tubaro is certainly well aware of this, and clearly demonstrates it in the series Contrattempo, both in terms of method and results. He uses long or very long exposures to fix the (temporally apparent) immobility of abandoned buildings, but uses a short or very short exposure to fix the image of a human presence. It is as if he were saying that the former correspond to a long duration through history, while the human presence corresponds to one that is short, fleeting and transitory. These presences are self-portraits of the artist, captured as a shadow, evoking the blurred, out of focus figures of the early days of photography. Their edges are often broken up or fragmentary, which links them in another way to the images in the series Cinque x uno (1992-1993) and Ritrattati (1996). The first series is a fragmented vision of a person’s body, and the second is the veiled portrait of a face. However they both correspond to the awareness that each has of the precariousness of one’s own image, and thus of one’s own personality as it might be perceived (or seen) by others. To evoke Pirandello, we are aware of being one, no one and one hundred thousand. As such, through the gestural language of the body, the individual seeks to give form to a coherent identity, but in fact cannot escape a fragmentary state, that (absurdly, but perhaps not surprisingly) becomes a Dadaist puzzle even in one’s own eyes.

We should consider Tubaro’s works with care, considering not so much what they present us at first glance, but what they communicate, through their modernist austerity of black and white or the acidic colours of postmodernism. These are images of scenic narration that are filled with many micro-stories. Perhaps stories which were precariously played out in the places and architectures of the series Contrattempo, and which the artist has made into small theatres of the emotion of time, through flashes and spirals of light in the dark. These photographs can truly induce us to consider our relationship with the past through the eyes of the present. Naturally free of hypocritical nostalgia, and with a new awareness of what it means to be able to see.

Angelo Bertani

(presentation text of the catalogue of the exhibit “Metamporphoses of places”, Agriturismo Colonos – Villacaccia di Lestizza e Galleria Tina Modotti – Udine 2016)