“Dance of the Olive Trees”
From my photography book: “Dance of the Olive Trees” Silvana Editoriale, 2015 Italy.
Photography by © Massimo De Gennaro
THE TIMES OF A METAMORPHOSIS.
For Massimo De Gennaro, photography is, first and foremost, a life experience, testimony through images of his relationship
with the world, as this volume – the fruit of ten long years of research, dedication, studies – clearly shows. Ten
years of life transformed into image, to be exact – and vice versa. An exceptionally long period of time, which seems
almost to adapt to the rhythms of nature – the true protagonist of De Gennaro’s photos, both from a retinal and a conceptual
point of view. Because one of the first elements to emerge when we leaf through these pages is the presence
– fairly limited from a numerical point of view, but extensive as to the specific weight of the sequence – of photographs
dedicated to sea and sky. Though it may seem like a paradox, it is these very images that reveal the ultimate meaning of
this research, also in view of their connection to De Gennaro’s previous research.
Indeed, the sea was the key theme of the photographer’s first book, which was published exactly ten years ago: a book
equally concentrated on its key theme, and equally linked to the artist’s past experiences – almost the first chapter of a
constantly developing story, which resurfaces today as memory and fascination. But while the sea in Blue was first and
foremost a dream-like journey into the water element, then a pretext for a chromatic search, and finally a sometimes
amused look at the contemporary humanity that populates it, the sea that appears in the following pages is completely
detached from contingency – a timeless, nearly placeless sea. It is the point towards which the absolute protagonists of
the book seem to gaze, and with which they speak, sharing not only physical space – the part of reality where the events
photographed here take place – but also, and perhaps most of all, the ideal yet terribly real space of history and myth.
These premises show themselves, from an iconographic point of view, even more clearly in the skies that act as counterpart,
as true complement necessary to the definition of the mental and terrestrial coordinates within which the narration
develops. Boundaries that do not enclose seas and skies, but free them, according to a fertile paradox of these images.
Of course, as this photography does not deny its authorial nature, this position also takes on a further evocative power.
That is, a specific reference to Stieglitz’s ‘Equivalents’ series – normative in more than one aspect – which certainly does
not go unnoticed, nor can it be coincidental. In fact, it reveals itself to be one of the most significant means to approach,
at last, the core of the volume, its true corpus.
Indeed, the physicality of the sea and the dematerialisation of the clouds find their meeting place, their synthesis, in
the earth upon which plants have grown since time immemorial. These plants, in De Gennaro’s vision and in his photo
production, are, in turn, the figures that condense the endless possibilities of what is real and what is photographed.
The author clearly approached this universe with eyes aiming to capture, first and foremost, the variety of what he saw
through his lens. A variety within similarity, of course, variety within an outward homogeneity: the subject, yet again,
is also the pretext for a first statement on the nature of the chosen technique and instrument – photography as the place
of an ever-different gaze, as the place where individuality is intentionally opposed to the outward mechanicalness of
action. As every tree is different from the next, so too is every photograph different from the previous one – this is what
De Gennaro seems to say, claiming the subjectivity of his own gaze, even within a project that can also take on a documentary
value, given its scope. A unique documentation, without a doubt, yet indicative of how the malleability of
the means combines, in this case, with the author’s needs, with his search for a freedom of expression that leads him
to adopt several stylistic models, always consistent with the scope of the initial project. De Gennaro is not moved by a
cataloguing obsession, but by his search for a beauty stemming from the coexistence of the balance and lack of balance
of shapes, which also shows itself in his choice of framings – often reminiscent of a pictorial tradition, introjected and
revised from a photographic angle.
His compositions, first and foremost: alone or in groups, the trees are always placed at the centre of the scene, dominating
it whatever the portion of olive tree photographed or its physical position within natural space. It doesn’t matter
if it is the whole tree or the detail of a root, if it is a group of plants or a single shrub – in any case, space is built around
that figure, and refers to it. Signs, perhaps, or arms, it matters little. This work is truly a sort of humanization of these
olive trees, but also their transformation into natural statues, their ceaseless metamorphosis into something other than
themselves – though author and viewers never lose sight of the real nature of the subject.
This emphasises a further constitutive element of De Gennaro’s poetics, of his looking – though from afar – to the great
lessons of the masters of American nature photography, from Weston to White, and to their ability to transform their subject
by means of photographic invention. We must, however, underline how the Italian photographer also, and certainly
not by chance, looks to experiences closer to him both in time and in concept, especially as regards the use of colour
from an expressive point of view (where Franco Fontana’s example shows its importance) and as regards the post-production
intervention, which has by now become ingrained in most contemporary authors. Thus, shades of colour turn
from a nearly total adherence to reality to the visionary character of a deliberately artificial colour; thus shapes move
between proof of a minute description of details and the definition of the same shapes in the vibration of the whole
surface; thus the above-mentioned documentary atmosphere can transform, almost without solution of continuity, into
the elaboration of a parallel reality – almost a dream of a field that was imagined even before it was seen.
Light, furthermore, plays a crucial role in this process – not only in its obvious meaning of central element in the
practice of photography, but as the only recognisable temporal element: a light that spans the entire day, from dawn to
night, as if De Gennaro tried to highlight a natural cyclicity, wherein we also find the sense of the relativity of time. A
relativity which communicates, and doesn’t contrast, with the timelessness detected above, because both cases contain
references to the subject as well as to the act of photography itself.
On the other hand, to imagine a work focused on olive trees is to think of a work on time, on its duration and on the
possibility of making its presence visible, because shapes, signs in space, movements… everything we see was created
by time, and all the photographer does is capture this action – and its consequences, physical and non – from a special
point of view. This is why one of the most recurring – and most powerful – images in this work is the hollow of the tree
– an outward void through which we see what is beyond. Framing and threshold together, it is a perfect metaphor of De
Gennaro’s photographic concept. And here the dance begins, awaiting the next metamorphosis.
Text by © Walter Guadagnini