A desert, a sea; in colour, in black & white; a stretch of land, a stretch of water, the clouds high above; images marked by the line of the horizon, low in the first case, high in the second, never central and – most importantly – never perfectly horizontal. This is the opening to the collection of images by Luca Campigotto, an Italian photographer who has now fully come of age, a lover of photography, travel and reading in equal measure. Two images captured far from his own homeland, on the other side of the world, just like the majority – but not all – of these wild places that the artist considers his “own” places, right from the title. A tiny yet highly precise and telling slant, that ever-so-slightly diagonal line which stands out like a declaration of poetic intent, or at least a key with which to gain access to this universe, one based on both rules and their breaking, of operational rigour and emotional adhesion. That not perfectly horizontal line – unlike the others that may be found in several photographs in the volume – in fact marks that crucial passage from the view to the vision, a fundamental element in the reading of Campigotto’s entire opus right from his earliest works, which date back to the beginning of the ‘90s.
Venetian-born, a history graduate, Campigotto is fully aware of the documentary value of the photographic experience, avalue taken on primarily by virtue of cultural heritage, a medium by which to interpret a reality which simultaneously overwhelms both the eye and the mind. This is the same artist who on more than one occasion has declared himself indebted to the age-old tradition of great American landscape photography, from Carleton Watkins to Timothy O’Sullivan, in which the relationship with natural spaces acts at the same time as a testimony to reality and the invention of a form of collective imagery; the root of a genealogy which may be traced (with the obvious changes due to alterations in operational contexts) right up to Robert Adams: both the most rigorous and the most sentimental of the “new topographers”, and not by chance the author of an essay entitled On Beauty in Photography. Yet let us stress the biographical aspect of this story just enough to remember how landscape painting played a fundamental role in the figurative culture of the city where Campigotto was born and lived for many years, and to which he dedicated several of his most intense images, produced between 1991 and 1999 and published together in 2006 in the volume entitled Venicexposed. Views à la Canaletto or Bellotto, expressions of a civilisation that attributed a primary role to reason in its interpretation of the world, whose gaze was always at such a distance as to let reality into their field of vision with sufficient clarity, while at the same time underlining that detachment, almost as though it were more an instrument of emotional rather than rational control. But even Guardi’s views, in which that miraculous equilibrium is set askew, and the vestiges of the world are rendered less clearly, less well-defined, in which the subjective drive starts to get the better of the objective, in which – to borrow the title of an admirable text by Svetlana Alpers dedicated to 17th century Dutch art – “the art of describing” starts to turn into the art of feeling, already at the threshold of the Romantic era. One which was to manage to turn the decline of society and architecture into a further source of inspiration, thus creating new imagery and new mythologies of loss.
In brief, these are the initial coordinates of the momentum. But Venice is anything but wild, and in the meantime Yosemite Park has become a tourist attraction. Campigotto is aware of this, and chooses other itineraries, other distances. Obviously, this is not without all the risks inherent in travel photography, from the Orientalisms, exoticisms and primitivisms that in one way or another left their mark on 19th and 20th-century culture. It’s a question of different risks, the first and perhaps more imposing of which was described by a reviewer of Du Camp’s album of Egypt in the mid-19th century, when he wrote: “You soon forget the print. Objects are assimilated by the imagination, and one catches oneself dreaming. What is this country, after all, but a vision, a mute tableau, an inert image of the past?” Only a few years after its invention and photography’s presumption of reality is already cornered; the image transferred onto paper, despite all the hard work done to capture it and print it, is outdone by its own evocative power, one perhaps even greater than its documentary power. It is from this doubt, from this questioning, that I believe Campigotto’s research in his distant lands starts out through an immediate upturning of the issue, made possible, as well as by the artist’s sensitivity and the wealth of the above-mentioned homeland in which his roots lie, by the 150 years that have passed since those words were written, years in which photographers and their audience have reflected on these themes almost obsessively. What might have appeared as an aut aut, for Campigotto becomes an et et. The extreme care with which his photographs are created and printed – and even manipulated perhaps many years later – is the essential condition not only of their legibility or of their artistic worth, but also of their evocative strength and capacity, the potential – as mentioned earlier – to turn the view into a vision. The artist is also aware that this attitude entails discarding certain elements: the sociological reading of the landscape, for example, an essential part of so much of the photography that Campigotto’s work drew on, from “new topography” to the “new Italian landscape”. But at the same time, these renunciations force one not to “forget the print” (unlike what happens, for example, when faced with books put together around thematically well-defined projects right from the start, in which it is often the statement demonstrative of a thesis at all costs which ends up detracting from the single images, for the sake of the conceptual coherence of the project as a whole). Before these images, the eye returns continually, on one hand because it is not distracted by other messages than the visual ones, on the other because it is driven to seek out the very reason why it feels the need to see once more, the need to identify the element, the detail that gives rise to that reverie set off by these landscapes.
Suffice to browse through this book a few times in order to understand the strategy behind Campigotto’s gaze: conceived without chronological order and without geographical sectioning, it responds to a primarily visual logic, one made up of fragments linked in a non-narrative sequence, or rather that follow their own inner narrative sense, following the exceptional model of Walker Evans’ American Photographs (in this regard, a clear example of this is the series of images from page 65 to page 73, or the more complex one from page 111 to page 121). A sequencing which in turn is continually questioned by images placed in contrast, both in terms of the subject chosen, and for the sudden switching from black & white to colour or vice versa. Once more, the very choice of shuffling the cards on a geographical level, meaning that a photo shot a few miles from his own home dialogues with one taken on another continent (fine examples of this are the images on pages 55 and 56), gives rise to more than a passing reflection. First of all, it highlights how wild need not necessarily be a synonym of faraway, thus sidestepping the shackles of exoticism which such a juxtaposition of terms would give rise to (what’s more, the unexpected presence of a number of rare but imposing signs of contemporary civilisation acts similarly, in turn avoiding the unquestioning juxtaposition of the wild and the natural). Furthermore, it suggests a constant sense of disorientation, of uncertainty which in an extraordinarily synthetic way – and purely visual, we might again underline – leads back to one of the sentiments that characterise the figure of the traveller, just as it has been handed down to us in travel literature, from the Odyssey onwards. Lastly, it is important as a reaffirmation of the individuality of this gaze, like a sort of appropriation of the place, one which is no longer defined by its real characteristics, but rather by its positioning within the artist’s imagination.
This last part is an important element in ultimately grasping the sense of the two images drawn on for this reading. All these images are taken before a subject that – for reasons which are at times clear, at other times more intimate – the artist has held to be important, and they all rapidly slide into another dimension, that of the imaginary. An imaginary dimension which, in the face of the natural spectacle does not seek out the Other, nor does it seek confirmation of its own certainties, but rather the ways in which¬ to make the overstepping of emotion visible (an emotion not necessarily rooted in the spectacular nature of the subject, but rather in the intuition of the potential of that image once rendered through a particular photographic language, of which Campigotto has a fluent command).
And so the two crooked horizons, the land and the sea and the sky, the real and imaginary space of the visible natural, shift only a little, by a few degrees; the loss of balance, the waves, the fields, the clouds all there, yet the mind already elsewhere. Many years ago, Braque sought for la règle qui corrige l'emotion. Perhaps the opposite applies to Campigotto: it is the emotion that corrects the rule.
from the book My Wild Places, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2010