When in photography one engages with a war landscape that is almost one century old, one feels almost totally sure that there is much more to it than what meets the eye: the awareness of memory plays a fundamental role – the fundamental role. It would be easy to object that in this case photography loses its “classic” role, since it no longer bears witness to anything: for it is neither on the spot during the unfolding of the event nor in its immediate aftermath, but can only evoke things – entrusting the viewer with the recollection, knowledge and emotional appreciation of events that ultimately are no longer present and cannot be seen. The idea of photography as a direct apprehension of reality, however, is a thing of the past, or at most a tiny part of its wide field of action; and the photographer’s action draws upon all the modes of perception and interpretation that are employed in art. Thus, in the case at hand, it is absolutely crucial to know in what context these photographs were taken (meaning each and every photograph), and what the underlying intention was.
These important factors, while not enough in themselves, are what has lent meaning to each photograph consciously conceived as an artistic picture at least since the early 20th century – since that revolution in the way of seeing or looking at things which may well have contributed to the outbreak of the world conflict (the Futurists – who knew what they were talking about, both during “their” war, as enthusiastic volunteers, and in its aftermath – experienced strong feelings of guilt, at any rate if Boccioni’s last letters are to be read in these terms). The fact that before accepting a commission on a larger project on war zones Luca Campigotto chose to explore some of the sites of the Great War – such as the so-called “Road of the Heroes” on Mt Pasubio – means that he was drawn to such places. Perhaps the photographer was only following what is still a common practice in the Veneto: going on a hike across areas that are both beautiful and tragic. Yet he did so by approaching these places with the mysterious empathy that no artist can avoid, if not by “exorcizing” it through his work, and that is to say: through the control provided by language, which rationalizes it the moment it is conveyed, while maintaining and indeed evoking the same empathic mystery in others – a mystery that viewers, in turn, will grow aware of by examining their own emotional reaction to the work, in a potentially endless process.
But what are these feelings, then? What empathy can be felt for a war with no surviving direct witnesses?
The Great War is a conflict both close and faraway. It is close because it was recorded and illustrated by modes of representation that are still in use and of contemporary relevance: the photographs and even more so the moving images of films, while out of focus, are not all that different from present-day reportages on conflicts around the world. Indeed, they display a certain “ethical” clarity, insofar as the witness – the cinematographer, reporter or war photographer – remains out of the picture, illustrating trench life and all that it entails with no overemphasis. In the light of this, the First World War is regarded as a “modern” war: not just because of the extension of the conflict (which distinguishes it from “postmodern” conflicts, which usually have a very limited extension) or the weapons used (more primitive versions of those still in use today), but because of the media through which it was recorded. Thus anyone wishing to explore the themes or sites of the conflict is bound to engage with these media, which are early, “clean” versions of those still to be found. And yet, it is also a distant war, because the reasons behind it have been forgotten, because it is no longer ideologically active, and because it no longer elicits any feelings of pride, revanche, revenge, redress – still less “justice” (usually coinciding with the victors’ justice). What remains is a compassionate respect, the perception of an inane conflict, a useless sacrifice, a waste of life. In this war – unlike in the Second World War – there are no victors and losers: we are all losers. The whole of humanity was defeated, yet its dignity was redeemed by another humanity, made up of all those people – men, not soldiers – who merely did their best to carry on their lives in this senseless slaughter. It is these men who elicit the empathy of the people gazing at these faded pictures or – like Campigotto – exploring those places steeped in “human warmth at any cost”.
The question is “how” to convey this compassionate respect today through places that preserve but few traces of what occurred. The subject is so present that it doesn’t have to be there. Viewers will easily understand and accept this paradox if, as previously noted, they already know the context: a readiness to see beyond the picture is crucial, but it is also demanding for the picture itself, which is confronted with a difficult task: awakening the sense of a place, the atmosphere which strongly pervades it.
Campigotto began his survey in black & white. This seemed like the only option, both because of the shared assumption that monochrome is more incisive and as a conscious analogy with existing evidence: in other words, if the Great War was recorded in black & white at the time, the use of the same device, and of images of the same quality and type, fits with this evidence as a natural mode of expression, as an explicit tribute to the millions of pictures that were taken in those years. This is a coherent and perfectly understandable intellectual process: the photographs objectively recreate that feeling of “unavoidable historicism” which effectively altered the very appearance of mountains – of Mt Pasubio in this case, through a path cut into stone that became a lasting feature of the mountain. Still, the subsequent choice of colour for this subject, which became predominant after an initial moment of likely uncertainty, proves more interesting, more problematic, and hence more conducive towards interpretative developments or indeed reflections on photography itself.
The incisiveness of black & white photography usually stands in contrast to the multifarious (and dispersive) richness of colour: to use a photographic analogy, this may be compared to the different between a close-up and a wide-angle shot, where the former brings a detail, a specific idea, into focus and the latter presents a view, an “intellectual context”. In abstract terms, therefore, a photographer will go for black&white when illustrating the Great War. Yet, Campigotto’s choice proves its superiority on the field. First off, it avoids the obviousness of black & white photography, which can easily turn into a stereotype and hence lead the viewer to a stereotypical approach to the pictures. Secondly, it entails some clever and highly effective visual expedients that are fully centred on the subject – on the idea behind each photograph – and this makes Campigotto’s work a truly uniform project. His frames, for instance, are hardly ever spectacular, even though they could easily have been – since the Marmolada, the Dolomites and the Asiago plateau are “also” extremely beautiful places. Rather, the frames are almost invariably set on a “medium scale”, so to speak, of the sort soldiers would have been forced to take into account – valleys, battlements, things that are (or place you) “within rifle shot”. And this applies to interiors as much as exteriors – meaning the heart of the mountains, carved out like high-altitude anthills, as illustrated by remains and materials that may be described as either vestiges or concretions: for it is often unclear whether these structures are man-made or geological. Through his “medium-scale” pictures, therefore, Campigotto recreates a kind of everyday “continuity” – of the sort that must have marked the daily life of the soldiers, as opposed to that made up of assaults, shootings and death – consisting of landscapes that are no longer mere landscapes but have turned into “your environment”, “your habitat.” It is certainly difficult to turn a place so prone to being envisaged as a landscape as a mountain – and a well-known mountain, at that – into something that resists the romantic notion of sublime beauty. Campigotto, however, has succeeded in this task, because not just the framing but all technical choices on his part are intended to “lower the register” of what might otherwise turn out to be merely a vaguely corrupted representation of this specific place, sacrifice and historical event. No concessions are made in this direction, and the combination of expedients employed for each photograph serves its purpose. It is impossible to tell whether these are Italian or Austrian outposts; most importantly, the question does not even arise. Likewise, the season in each shot remains indefinite, undefinable, as day after day the weather always remains the same: the sky is invariably cloudy, so that all you can see is what “is necessary” for your survival. And then there is a brilliant device that Campigotto had previously employed – but in a more emphatic way – in some of his series on American cities: the toning-down of colours through careful digital processing. We see things in colour, yet everything is dimmed: the green of the grass, the white of the snow, the rocks, the century-old wood and iron... Everything is steeped in uniform hues that first create an impression of green-grey camouflage (another subliminal analogy) and then of a nature that one can only conform to by taking on its colours and consistency – well beyond any purpose of military concealment. Human time is here replaced by the indifference of geological eras, which forced men to become part of the environment, to “merge with the mountain”, in order to survive.
Essay for the book Theatres of War, Silvana, Milan 2014