Named as one of FOAM’s Talents in 2015, wide-ranging photographer Alessandro Calabrese bridges classical, color-film practice and innovative, (almost) post-photographic methods, Calabrese stands at the exciting intersection between present and future.
LensCulture’s Alexander Strecker spoke with Calabrese to delve into the finer points of his work process and his thoughts about the state of contemporary photography. Here is an edited transcript of their extended conversation:
LC: Let’s start by talking about “A Failed Entertainment.” How did the series begin? How did it develop? I can’t imagine this idea came out of nowhere!
This project is the result of a three-year research on the territory of the city where I live, Milan. In it, I photographed a variety of realities that, on the one hand, identify the city itself and, on the other, define my subjective experience of the place: from the outskirts to downtown, from the streets to the institutional venues, from the abandoned buildings to the construction sites of the new ones, up to the people I care about.
As a color-film photographer, I have always held close the concept of authorship. I approach reality in a “straight” way, taking on all of the responsibility that comes from such an approach. By chance, while I was obtaining a masters degree at NABA in Milan in 2012, I came across Reverse Image Search, an engine powered by Google. I was intrigued by its potential and became interested in whether our digital visual patrimony—boundless and wholly democratic—could fit within a similar attitude of authorship.
So at the beginning of 2014, I started to upload my photographs to Google images: each of them would generate dozens of images that were considered “visually similar” (at least according to the standards of similarity contained within the application’s algorithm). Once I had collected all sorts of images, I sorted them according to random criteria of quantity and type. I then set aside my original photographs—my own work would hide within the new body of work.
With the preparations complete, I began printing each of the anonymous, composite files on acetate sheets, making sure to keep their original download size. The overlapping multiple layers, backlit like some kind of multifaceted light-box, increasingly separated the visually similar images from the original ones. All in all, I scanned each group of acetates into one digital image, flattening them and seeing them merge into a new, single vision: it was so close to my work, from which it was generated, and yet also completely unfamiliar.
LC: The title of your series was intriguing—”A Failed Entertainment.” Should photographs be “entertaining?”
Besides being composed of a series of levels physically, my work is also conceptually structured in layers. The first and most outward of these is the title.
The project is based on the appropriation of images of others, so I decided to do the same thing with the title. “A Failed Entertainment” was the working title of the novel by David Foster Wallace that was eventually published as Infinite Jest (which, in turn, had been borrowed from a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
My choice to borrow from Wallace, an American author, was no accident. I studied his work for years and was greatly influenced by him both personally and in my practice of art. Thus, in my photos, I tried to translate visually, and then conceptually, many of his literary insights.
Specifically, I was interested in conveying my thoughts about the internet, much as Wallace spoke about television 20 years ago. It seemed right, because the internet today is embedded in our everyday life in the same way that television was in Wallace’s time.
And thus, we come to the problem of entertainment—a complex subject! 20 years ago, “entertainment” for Wallace referred almost exclusively to television products. The problem with television was that besides entertaining you on the surface, it allowed you to passively suffer, while your brain turned off (much like an addict’s when getting high). This was in opposition to art, which makes you work hard to understand it and thus activates your mind and makes you engage with the world.
Today, the internet offers some striking parallels to Wallace’s description of television. Of course, there are some differences: internet entertainment is more active, since you have the ability to choose what and when you want to see. Both mediums are never-ending but within the internet, you have the choice to go wherever you want—and the internet is so charming because it only ever shows you what you want to see…But, fundamentally, the internet is a form of passive addiction like any other, a wonderful way for us to lose our minds in front of a screen, endlessly entertained by what passes in front of our eyes. Indeed, the internet is perhaps the worst addiction because it is everywhere and it is undeniably a useful tool, making it near impossible to completely escape its presence.
The whole process that I followed to produce my final pictures—taking pictures with an analogue camera…using Google…printing…scanning…was meant as a sort of representation of all of this: the problem with my project was that I didn’t know when to stop it. Since it was based on internet research, the results could be essentially infinite and every time I put one of my pictures inside Google, the answer would change from day to day. My relentless curiosity piqued me to enter my photograph again, to see what might have changed. And here we are, again, facing off with the problem of addiction.
At some point, I had to give myself some rules. One, I would do my research only on the day when I received my scans from the lab—I could not repeat the research on later days. Two, I would delete all the saved pictures after I had printed them, in order to prevent me from updating the image constantly.
I should add that I have always been interested in the concept of fractals—an object built up from an infinite number of constituent parts that are similar to the original shape. My project pays homage to this theory by beginning with a single picture and then producing an infinite array of similar pictures. At one point, I read that David Foster Wallace had built Infinite Jest following the same fractal ideas. Once I discovered this, I finally saw the circle beginning to close…
LC: Personally, after seeing some of your images, I was drawn to learn more about your work. But perhaps some other people would be put off by their seeming abstractness. Going back to the question of entertainment and art…
My project is about addiction but it’s also about failure. The reason that Wallace’s original title never became definitive was, in part, because a product that contained within its title the word “failure” could harm its sales in the publishing market. So it’s hard to make any art that places itself wholly outside the question of entertainment.
But in terms of viewer reception, the documentary attitude does not satisfy me anymore—all that is easily readable on a visual level is not enough. I am drawn to feelings rather than rationality. I feel closer to what my eyes can hear more than what my eyes can see—the sounds of words more than the literal meanings.
I am interested especially by the painter Francis Bacon, who questioned the idea that painting could run on the edge between figuration and abstraction, without falling into one or the other.
Not an easy task at all, especially in photography, where in one way or another, you are always dealing with outside reality. To completely sever this connection, you end up with works composed of only textures and patterns. In these pieces, you are often not even able to understand which is the right orientation of the piece! If you lose the photographic connotation, you’ve lost everything.
Perhaps my work appears the same, at first? But what you see is actually not abstract: it is just a set of overlapping photographs that aim to talk about what’s happening today. In the world of the web, from a photographic point of view, we are bombarded by an endless proliferation of images. This results in a frustration in which the hundreds (thousands…) of images that pass through our eyes daily accumulate and are forgotten. The black hole created in almost all my images is the visual match of this.
To put it differently: I was interested to give a glimpse of the world from an “objective” point of view, at least as objective as possible. With all due respect, a bit like what Wolfgang Tillmans did in his Neue Welt—an effort to travel the world and “[look] at everything in a new way.” His goal was to present the world as it appears to the human eye—not just his eye, but any eye. Besides taking pictures, he also superimposed his images on to others, reminding us of the windows of our computers.
But still, Tillmans’ work inevitably was limited to his own (subjective) perspective. He remained the author/artist—I went all the way. I decided to sacrifice my body of work (a local project) to try and give a glimpse of the whole world. I stayed at home and, sitting at the computer with my starting pictures, entered my work into an interconnected system of images. While I unconsciously felt the influence of a great artist, I wanted to remind that the authorship of the individual artist is not important anymore. My final accumulation of images are, I think, more objective than any single point of view could ever be—plus, they serve as an inherent criticism of my own work.
LC: So you’re casting aside the idea of authorship, yet these images still have your name on them. How, then, does a photograph “succeed” and how does it “fail?”
I can’t give a general rule but I can tell you that I am usually attracted by art that makes you work hard to understand it—yet that rewards all the effort with a series of sensations arising from purely instinctive understanding. It’s a kind of intellectual operation which offers an emotional result for the audience.
Meanwhile, photography that I can easily read from a visual point of view bores me—especially if the work is narrative! I cannot stand stories in photography anymore—if I want to follow a story and entertain myself, I do other things that are definitely more fun than photography: I talk with a friend, watch a movie or a documentary, or stun myself in front of an attractive (addictive) streaming TV series.
In terms of investigations, I believe that written research or multimedia explorations often address the issues better and more deeply than a purely photographic series, which most of the time appears approximate to me. And artistically or conceptually, it feels that photographers are often compelled to construct a meaning for their pictures after they have been taken. We do not necessarily, always need a pretext. But perhaps I am being too severe…
To focus on my own method, I prefer to proceed in a scientific way: I keep account of the past, work on the present, improve the future. It is like I am adding a little fragment to a gargantuan, never-ending mosaic [of photography, of art, of thinking in general]. But I’m very aware that the idea (and the mosaic) could eat me alive. So after an idea comes (but before photographing), I spend a lot of time studying, to justify from a theoretical point of view what I will carry out. Once that’s done, I am calm and I can really begin the work.
LC: Since you are always pushing at the boundaries of photography, how do you respond when someone tells you, ?This isn’t photography! This is…[something else]??
Since your readers will be looking at my project on the internet, perhaps it would be tempting for them to consider it incorporeal, non-material work. Just the opposite! The work has an intensely physical element because I made sure to print the pictures that I found through the image search and then re-scan them. Keep in mind, these were pictures that nobody would have ever printed—a risk for our future!
Nevertheless, I asked myself this question when I reached the end of my process and had the final results in hand—was this really photography? After some reflection, I believe that this work is extremely photographic. I would not be happy to let the audience mistake it for “net art” or “new media” just because I used an internet tool. Fundamentally, the work reflects on photography—and by extension the world of images—and so it is still photographic.
Now, definitional note is in order: I always like to differentiate between the word “image” and the word “photograph.” In the case of this project, my images (the final result) are composed of several photographs. But just because I use a process of composition and also use some contemporary tools should not take this work out of the realm of photography. For example, I don’t think this work is so different from the series, “Superimposition” by Boris Mikhailov. His work was from the ’60s and he was using film (while I used a computer algorithm) but they are both photographic for me.
This all reminds me a bit of the problems surrounding postmodern literature. Realist writers criticized the postmodernists’ choice of topics and, in particular, their use of pop culture (“Advertising jingles are not literature!”). But what the realist writers did not realize was that the highways of the 80s and 90s were like the rivers of the past. Fragmented urban landscapes were like idyllic, rural ones. Even a contemporary TV show was not so different than a reference to “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Some people will alway be pushing ahead while others question from behind. That’s a natural discourse and has been happening for centuries.
LC: You have a long and varied background—architecture, landscape architecture, photography—which I feel is well represented in your bodies of work, which are similarly various. Do you have a unifying thread to your work? Is it important to have some kind of cohesion in your approach?
It is more than obvious that my body of work is not at all visually consistent. I do not know if it ever will be—and I do not know if that is necessary.
Sometimes, to be coherent means to be visually recognizable—and yet to be recognizable could also mean putting yourself in a cage of repetition. Seeking out a “visual signature” is appealing but risks a recurrence into infinity with any new job. I prefer to be as free of such traps as possible and consistent only in the rigor of my approach.
That being said, there are a lot of works that I like that I could never do myself. In Italy, I have many colleagues who feel part of an Italian wave that is very exciting to me! Some of their work runs through my mind all the time (even though it is completely different). But I know that we’re all adding to the mosaic I described above: among others, there’s The Cool Couple, Teresa Giannico and Alessandro Ligato…and Milo Montelli, of course, a gifted publisher and close collaborator.
LC: The cover of the FOAM Talent issue said, “21 artists definite the future of contemporary photography.” I know this is a big question, but from what you’ve seen in the Talent issue, what are your thoughts on the future of the medium? Are we in an exciting place?
This is a hard question! FOAM is always very good putting together a lot of different approaches and uses of photography every year. Of course, we are all aware that the situation of contemporary photography does not end with us 21 selected artists—we are only symptoms of more extensive and complex processes.
I do not have any certainty about the future of photography, just differing opinions. The more I study it, the less I understand it—which makes it extremely interesting! On the one hand, photography is more and more everything and everywhere so perhaps it will end up in the purpose for which it was born: a mere technical tool useful to everything except itself. That’s possible but a shame, there are still so many questions the medium has to explore!
On the other hand, I hope photography will continue to exist as a means of expression in and of itself: the medium needs to retain its independence. Much as we can appreciate great writers both for what they say but also how they are saying it, I hope photography can be accepted for the how in addition to the what.
Often times these days, I see a lot of hybridization. Although it makes us believe that photography is in the center, it is really only serving other mediums and other thought processes. Photography is in the midst of other media but without reflecting on its own specificities.
In the end, I find myself believing each of these different variants. The contemporary part of me agrees with the more radical thoughts and I am willing to embrace anything that comes. Meanwhile, the romantic part of me drifts towards a more conservative strain, hoping we can keep photography separate and “pure.” The former laughs at the latter, the latter dismisses the former. I guess I’ll always live with this conflict…—Alessandro Calabrese, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Discover the work of many other 2015 FOAM Talents in our overview feature article in LensCulture.