Paola De Pietri and the Effort of Memory

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Years ago I formulated a serviceable description of the great British landscape photographer Fay Godwin as being largely interested in places that had once been more important to people than they now were.  It didn’t apply to everything she did, but it was a start.  Fay was never interested solely in what the land looked like.  She was interested, if one can put it this way, in what the land meant.  She read landscapes for their old palimpsests: the layers and layers of stories each of which had left a trace to be unearthed by an eye as sensitive as hers undoubtedly was.  It was archaeology without spades.  She photographed drovers’ roads knowing that half the population today aren’t quite sure what droving is, let alone where its roads had to go.  She photographed the great stone circles at places like Callanish, knowing that there is nobody alive who knows quite how they worked, whether as giant calendars, or as cathedrals or what.  See those things well enough, Fay felt, through her photographs, and you had a chance of reading stories there you never knew before.

There are several British photographers who have inherited some of Fay Godwin’s passion for the traces of the past on the land.  Photography always has a smell of history about it: you photograph that which you know will change faster than the picture.  That’s why, in a world where absolutely everything seems to be photographable and photographed, the odd things that escape are those which are just so familiar that it seems inconceivable that they might change.  We photograph our holidays, and have done for many generations.  But how many of us find once we move house that we have never photographed our neighbours, the nice guy who runs the corner store, the commute to work, even our own front door?  The corollary is true, too: that pictures which are stumbled upon which have a particular redolence of a past we thought had gone have a hard emotional effect like a blow.

As a small child, I used to share with my brother something we called the Whirlybird.  No idea if that was what it was really called, but it was a kind of pushme-pullyou, self-propelled roundabout or carousel.  Pull the handle, push with your feet, and it span.  We lived in Washington DC then; I assume the thing was American. I live in England now.  I’ve described this thing to many English people and they shrug. The other day, I found a picture.

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

There is the machine itself, a fact proven to be rightly remembered. But it’s a photograph, not just a datum.  I can’t resist that date-stamp on the picture margin, as much a part of my childhood as the Whirlybird itself.  And of course, any self-respecting childhood memory should have that dappled sunlight, the suggestion of great heat in the minimal clothing and soaking children.  Photographs are intimate historical things.  It’s not just that they preserve; they suggest or assert, they correct where memory was fogged or wrong. We react to them each according to the complex of our own cultural baggage.  That was not a Whirlybird; it was my Whirlybird.  You need the understanding of the past and the picture to work in tandem: the picture does not simply supply that understanding ready-made.

Fay Godwin understood that with deep conviction.  A moor, a bridge, even a peat bog were things that meant something hugely different to a person who had walked them than to one who had not. You read the landscape, at least in crowded little Britain, where every mile bears traces of man’s activity, with your feet as much as with your eye.  Fay was President of the Ramblers’ Association for a period – she started walking because a doctor had told her that her health might benefit from it, and she became a monster pedestrian, always laden with cameras, frail but indomitable.

I see the same combination of drives in the fantastic pictures from Paola de Pietri’s To Face.  These are not new: The project won the Renger Patzsch award of the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2009. Some of them were in the (brilliant) multi-artist show Topographies de la Guerre, at Le Bal in Paris in late 2011. Steidl published them last year and the book has, I believe, already sold out. But they are being shown at Milan’s Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea from 1st March 2013, as part of the Milan Triennial, and anyway, there’s no season for good photographs.

Paola de Pietri - Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 – 2012

I called these pictures fantastic not in the teenage sense of unmitigated approval, although I like them very much, but in the older sense of having to do with phantasms.  There is a haunted quality about these pictures which is what strikes me first about them.  Some of them have fog, sure enough, or at least strange effects of dense air which blot out the farther slopes to leave the nearer isolated and as if suspended.  De Pietri has rightly judged that wreaths of semi-substantial fog are the right material to describe a haunting: a thousand movies have seen to that, and plenty of books before them.

Haunting is the point.  For these are pictures of the terrain of one of the maddest wars ever fought, the trench warfare between Austria and Italy that took place in the First World War at 2000 metres in the Alps and the Prealpi and in the Carso. These are places where it is hard enough to walk a few miles, leave alone kill people in large numbers.  Even when de Pietri’s light is deep and crisp and even, like the snow in the carol, there is a haunting in the visible traces of the structures of warfare.  Here a trench, there a cavernous opening to a bunker.  The core reaction to these pictures is the same for everybody: what were they thinking of?  What madness was this? The effort of shifting rock at that altitude, to make warfare more like what people expected in the plain, may be incomprehensible to anyone who is not a ranking officer graduated from strategic school.  These pastures and escarpments, beautiful by all the standards of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, were killing fields.  Thousands and thousands of young men perished here.

No doubt a different kind of photographer would have found a different kind of evidence.  I can imagine – indeed a very moving text (published in the Steidl volume) from 1967 about these places, by the fine Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern confirms – that one could find smaller bits of evidence by lowering one’s eye to the ground.  Bullets, preserved bits of metal from uniforms or equipment, even bits of bone.  All the routine jigsaw pieces that archaeology uncovers when it is done with a spade.  I have in mind for example, the Forbidden Forest, the terrifying series made by Jonathan Olley on the theme of unexploded ordnance still cluttering the area around Verdun, another horrific First World War battlefield in another country.  Olley wandered around with his head down, finding amid foliage the bright orange painted warnings on rusty bombs that are still so numerous that they will take dozens of years to find and make safe.  The Great War is nearly a hundred years ago.  But its ghosts are still pretty active.

The only really close parallel that I know is the series of pictures of the Angolan border by Jo Ractliffe, about the territory of a much more recent war, and much more obviously personal.  If I remember, friends and acquaintances of Ractliffe’s had gone to that war as conscripts in the South African army, and part of her motivation was to understand what had damaged them so badly but that they spoke about so little. It isn’t a neutral kind of imagery, even though the gore and the horror have been removed.

Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Roger Fenton – The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Think back many years to the birth of war photography and to Roger Fenton’s (still) incredible Valley of the Shadow of Death, from Crimea.  I have seen it suggested somewhere that he may have had assistants move the cannonballs to be closer to the camera.  He may:  there are certainly suspiciously few of them at the farther reaches of focus.  But still, nobody can contemplate the density of those things on the ground without seeing that it must have been impossible to live while they were falling. It’s a picture of a hail storm of red-hot, very heavy cannonballs, each not only deadly, but deadly in peculiarly cruel and dreadful ways.  It’s as horrific as anything James Nachtwey or Susan Meiselas or Dmitri Baltermants or George Rodger or Don McCullin would produce. Yet in the whole of Fenton’s valley, there is not a corpse or a bloodstain, no writhing figures (à la Beato in the Indian Mutiny or the Opium War). It’s one of the great metaphorical photographs.  We can’t help but think of the horror, without having it thrust in our eyes.

And that is another point.  Paola de Pietri’s series is not merely a neutral chronicle of a historically disturbed patch of ground.  It is a series that will have deep personal echoes to all sorts of people, starting with herself.  For whatever reason, she must have walked those steep slopes with heavy equipment.  I don’t believe that you can do it any other way.  And in doing that, the photographer was echoing the weary trudging of the soldiers who built these crazy fortifications.  The soldiers may have had mules: de Pietri maybe had colleagues, for all I know.  Still…

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

It reminds me of those pictures one sees of Machu Picchu, always from slightly above to get a bit of valley in as well as the ruins.  As though the very act of constructing in the mountains were mad.  Do Italians feel about De Pietri’s pictures as Scotsmen feel about the valley of Glencoe?  Do these still, high places carry a burden of loathing and of guilt which we outsiders cannot grasp, looking maybe at a computer screen or a nicely produced art publication?  They do.  I’m sure they do.  But like Fay Godwin’s pictures, they are good enough that by seeing, we have a chance to understand at least some of it.

Paola de Pietri - Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 – 2012

‘Traditional’ mountaineering photographs go long on two things.  They emphasize the sublime grandeur and wilderness of the mountains.  And they concentrate on the athleticism and daring of the climbers.  Other things – including the increasing negative effect that climbing has on the environment, not least in the appalling litter climbers think nothing of leaving behind on the very mountains they wax so eloquent about – are not part of the canon.  Here, Paola de Pietri has made a vocabulary peculiarly well suited to her very different tale of the mountains.  It’s in part of vocabulary based on looking for clarity and finding it not so easy to grasp. No long views anywhere, even though we are 2000 metres up.  Absolutely no wilderness, if wilderness means untouched by man. Odd patches of snow sit in dips like the temporary cloths men put on new graves or even like the marble of grave stones.  Physically quite small alterations to the landscape carry large suggestions: an embrasure big enough to poke a machine gun through is not a very big hole. I find myself asking: does every soldier digging a foxhole know that he is digging his grave? Always she shows that haunting, by shrouding vegetation or by the closing in of the clouds.

Paola de Pietri - Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

In some of them, I admit that I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at.  Some of the little constructions could be the work of shepherds, sheep cotes or shelter.  Some could be natural, the result of frost and water, normal erosion. Are those rocks shattered by shellfire?  Is that more level platform a former camp? I don’t need to know every detail to get the message.  You could imagine a film maker putting a classical Agnus Dei – maybe the great distressing one from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – over these pictures.  They reek of the cruel idiocy of man to man, and nearly a hundred years later, they speak gently of the long, slow recovery as memory fades imperceptibly into history.

Paola de Pietri - Monte Ermada, @009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Monte Ermada, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

An English king’s body was identified the other day, Richard III’s, lying under a car park in Leicester.  There was a certain amount of civic pride, a little talk of how wonderful archaeology was, with its high-tech comparisons of mitochondrial DNA and its super accurate carbon dating.  A few, a very few voices were raised in the media shouting “Hold on, stop !  This man very probably murdered two young potential threats to his power, and he died a hideous death in battle. ”  He died in 1485, shortly before Columbus sailed to America.  Many of Fay Godwin’s scratches and markings on the land are as old as we can reasonably go back, Neolithic things, among the earliest traces on our country of all. Those traces, high in Paola de Pietri’s mountains will slowly become even fainter.  But we have the pictures, and they are great monuments.  We have the invitation to understand.  We don’t necessarily have understanding itself.

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Ottolenghi’s Plenty, by Jonathan Lovekin

Nobody thinks of those profusely illustrated mid-lavish recipe books as photobooks.  Yet perhaps we should. They contain as many pictures reproduced just as prominently as many a photographer’s monograph. Here’s one: Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Published by Ebury Press in 2010 at £25.00.  Not only a hardback, but a hardback padded in squidgy white plastic, intended I think to be kitchen proof, and also to carry the overtones of a precious album. It makes me think rather the other way, I must say, of a catalogue of swatches of motorcar upholstery, perhaps, or a mid-market range of bathroom fittings: horribly tasteless pursuit of ‘good taste’.  But, hey, sales figures don’t lie in the modern publishing world, and this thing has sold gazillions.

Let’s see inside…  Not all but most spreads conform to the pattern: text on the left, full-size picture bled to edges of the paper on the right. Double-page pictures, bled to the edges all around, punctuate that rhythm.  Smaller pictures are occasionally used, one, two or three to a page.  Text is surrounded by acres of white space and is obviously tied to each picture.  If the pictures haven’t sold this thing on their own, they’ve certainly carried their share. This is self-evidently a book of photographs.  Yet we are somehow invited not to think so.  To call such a book a photobook is a sin against marketing. I don’t see why.

Let’s keep going. The pictures also conform to a series of types.  Most are direct plunging views straight down, either onto pans purportedly ready for serving, or onto plates of food purporting to be just served and ready to eat.  These are given a stylistic identity of a sort by a recurring trick that I might call acceptable grubbiness.  A number of them are photographed on a background representing a Country Kitchen Table (or is it an Inner Urban Regenerated Industrial District Kitchen Table?) which has spots of paint on it.

These spots are important.  They speak of energetic creativity, of people so concerned with the eternal verities of ingredients each more achingly authentic than the next that a little errant paint is neither here nor there. The vine leaf, herb and yogurt pie is shown on a lightly chipped plate itself on a surface of lightly chipped paint. There are carefully indicative minor spillages in many pictures (designed to convey the artistic and creative nature of a process not entirely controllable to the last degree). Utensils have a degree of visible wear. This is photography by allusion. Comfortable use is to be applauded; shining newness is just ever so slightly…nouveau.

Acceptable grubbiness is an art of innuendo and sometimes the photographer has overplayed his hand. (Acceptable grubbiness was perfected by Irving Penn, by the way, in the food pictures he made for Vogue, who deployed it with a touch which ran more to a few genteel crumbs and the occasional joke mouse: a far lighter sprinkling than this out-and-out mugging). Ottolenghi’s ‘smoky frittata’ is shown in a pan that has clearly been allowed to accumulate highly carcinogenic carbonized deposits for a number of years.  A dishcloth (with an oily stain) is artfully disposed to protect the imaginary hand of the imaginary cook from the imaginary heat of the pan which was no doubt stone cold by the time the picture came to be taken. And beyond all of that?  A surface, which might conceivably be Corian or some similar fancy worktop, but which I suspect of being a roll of wallpaper lining paper disposed for its neutral texture and colour, shows oily stains of its own.

The picture has been open at my elbow for the two or three minutes it has taken to write these words, and let me tell you, I would no more eat the depicted smoky frittata than I would lick the linoleum in my local A&E.  I have seen cleaner burger vans in lay-bys on the long slow drive down to Cornwall.  This is grubbiness pushed too far.  On the double spread pp.118-119 (in a section entitled without hint of either irony or wit The Mighty Aubergine) is a picture which looks at first sight, and at second, and at third, exactly like a horrified, peering, too-close-for-comfort view of road kill.  It is actually an aubergine.

And then there’s the oil.  My god !  The oil !  I am told that Plenty is quite a good cookbook.  But there is a chasm between cooking food and photographing it.  Pictures which glisten and gleam and shine are attractive in a porny way.  These certainly have the wet thing going on. I can’t believe that the food stylists and the photographer followed the recipes with due restraint when it came to the oil.  Or if they did, the food is simply inedible.

The pictures in this book are competent in a dreary sort of way.  The man who made them is a craftsman, of considerable standing in his speciality. They do a job.  But as illustrations of a light modern imaginative new style of multicultural cooking, they simply aren’t credible.  It’s as though the publishers failed to see that they were using Rubens to illustrate a Pilates manual.

Yet this is not a hopeless outfit well down the Isthmian League.  This sold as one of the great exemplars of words and pictures working together.  And nobody seems to have minded that the photography is of a standard only just above poor.  It’s an endless accumulation of coded ‘lifestyle’ hints masquerading as an attempt to communicate enthusiasm for the subject.  The pictures are full of dotty non-sequiturs, of which the acceptable grubbiness is only an example.  On page 45, a dish (of black pepper tofu) looks for all the world like a grisly something Susan Meiselas might have uncovered in Nicaragua.  It’s dished up on a table which has inscribed plainly upon it, and plainly left there for us to read, the single word ‘JURY’.  What on earth this means, I have no idea at all.  Was this revolting-looking dish served up in some contest, to be judged?  It cannot have been.  Was it adduced in evidence in a war crimes’ tribunal?  It looks like it ought to have been.  What kind of demented picture editor allows the single word JURY to make a mad mystery out of a perfectly simple picture, even of tofu?  What on earth possessed the photographer to allow such a thing to go forward?

This is one of the top-selling picture books of this year or last.  The photographs (all plunging and oily as they are) are an essential component of that success. It is a hugely successful photobook. It begs to be judged as a book of pictures. Yet nobody has applied even the slightest suggestion of informed thought to the pictures, either during the production process or since.  The chef-author is feted as a poet in tofu, but the photographer is just a good name in the trade.  I have not seen more than a word of serious criticism of these pictures since the book came out (and that word has, more often than not,  been ‘luscious’).  It seems the pictures are assumed to be OK because they couldn’t be expected to be better than OK. No wonder photography is still treated as marginal.

The photographer, in fact, is Jonathan Lovekin, who has been the photographic servant of a food writer, Nigel Slater, established longer than Yotam Ottolenghi. Slater particularly asked for Lovekin when Slater was working for Marie Claire, and Lovekin had some stuff published in Elle DecoObserver, Observer Food Monthly, Appetite, Real Food…Where Slater has gone, Lovekin has followed, can of oil always at the ready, like an Indian railway man or a San Fernando Valley deputy assistant director in the adult film business.  Success breeding success as it does, it must have been obvious that Lovekin was the right man for the Ottolenghi job.  The publisher probably didn’t even ask if the imagery was appropriate in feeling, or tone or skill.  Just get the guy to do the gig.  If it’s good enough for Slater….

Lovekin has on his website a showreel (he makes food films, too) which is beyond parody. Spermy liquids and metaphorically exhausted foodstuffs (such as figs), all soused in a soundtrack of Alison Goldfrapp shouting about sex in Ooh La La.  There are several separate credibility gaps here.  Jonathan Lovekin’s film clients include Bird’s Eye and Macdonald’s.  Blow the genteel multicultural sensibilities of the Tel Aviv beaches as lauded by Ottolenghi.  It’s just a job. It’s far from clear that even the photographer takes his pictures seriously.

The big appreciation of food has become a substitute for culture.  Who needs to read books or even newspapers about complicated places abroad when all you need to do is go shopping more sensitively than your neighbours?  Who needs to think through complex matrices of history and economy to understand elsewhere, at least as messy as home?  So much easier to enjoy the one-upmanship of food.  Bet you don’t know what Shakshuka is.  I do, now. Ottolenghi, Plenty, p. 87 (illustrated on a double page following).  It’s a North African dish with many variations, of course; I’m surprised you’d forgotten.  “In a tiny alley in old Jaffa there’s a little restaurant serving food to customers sitting outside at shared shabby tables….”  Abroad, safely wrapped up.  The pretension of culture with none of the work, the risks, or the long slow accumulation. That packaging of culture calls for a particular kind of photography, apparently.

Photography in some of its forms has a long tradition of showing things as they really are.  In other forms it has a long tradition of showing what somebody wants us to buy. Either way, it used to be the very minimum that the words and pictures worked harmoniously, pulling the reader in the same direction.  This food stuff seems to have been put together by people who don’t even consider that pictures carry complex meanings.  They can’t be bothered.  They use photography as the lowest kind of space filler, capable of bright colours and that awful gloopy sheen and nothing remotely more subtle than that. We need perhaps to sharpen our eyes as readers.  If the most successful food book of the moment can get away with pictures which are craftsmanlike but nothing more than that, it is because in that market we have come to accept that we need not really look at the pictures at all.  All that glistens isn’t gold.  It really isn’t. As viewers we are entitled to pictures which reward careful seeing, whatever the work they are doing.  We shouldn’t have to run to “photobooks” to see proper photography. We shouldn’t be fed on slop, even in a cookbook.