Lyle Rexer

The Last Survivor, the First Photographer


The Austro-Hungarian/Italian front during World War One displayed all the features that marked the wider conflict: protracted and bloody engagements yielding little gain for either side, military and political attrition, and ultimately the redrawing of national boundaries. But there was one spectacular difference on this frontier, a difference driven home with overwhelming force in the photographs of Luca Campigotto: the landscape.

In a country of mountains, the Dolomites of the northeast are the most rugged, complex and forbidding range. Their passes are narrower and more treacherous than the Alps, and the mountains themselves more jagged and irregular. By now we are used to images portraying Afghanistan as the most difficult place to wage war, a landscape that has defeated foreign invaders time and again, for centuries. But Campigotto’s portrait of the northern front makes the conduct of a mechanized, modern war here seem almost incomprehensible. It’s easier to imagine a battle on the moon.

Taken strictly as representative of the classic genre of landscape photography, in the tradition of Carlton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and Ansel Adams, the photographs are evocative tours de force. More than that, they are deliberately, precisely stark, either swathed in cloud or bathed in harsh, high-altitude daylight. In a recent interview, Campigotto has mentioned how powerful an effect the landscape has on him, in terms that recall Schiller, Goethe and the German romantic poets. Nature is a realm which prompts the first and deepest sensations of difference and individual consciousness, an experience that lies at the heart of aesthetics, and for Campigotto environmentalism. Yet the landscape he shows us is hardly romantic. The world is leached of color, only gray, white, pale blue and silver – with patches of green to remind viewers that life is still possible. These images strike me as a rejoinder to Luigi Ghirri’s sweet photograph of an older couple on a walk in the meadow below the Alpe di Siusi. Campigotto’s is a landscape that cannot be domesticated by aesthetics or colonized for the picturesque. Indeed it can barely be comprehended by the senses. It is so extreme that its impact exceeds the photographic frame; viewers risk wind chill and sunburn just looking.

Campigotto seems to revel in the fact that the confrontation with nature in such a rugged setting tends toward an experience not of beauty but of the Kantian sublime: an order of experience utterly incommensurate with the human, and it stands in dramatic contrast to the more theoretical approaches of the Dusseldorf Academy and its graduates, or to the contemporary American preoccupation with the socially marked landscape. Campigotto seeks the primal, the prelinguistic, a territory beyond or before signification. “The strength·of the sublime remains beyond any rhetoric,” he has remarked. “The eye gets lost searching distance, contemplating what was made to be stronger than us.” He has even likened it to the expression of a shark: “So much brutality, the stupid perfection of a prehistoric death machine.” In Il deserto dei tartari, a great novel of fruitless waiting, Dino Buzzati gave it a more melancholic spin: “Ice and stones speaking a strange language.” The realm of the gods, if there were gods, a realm not made for us and indifferent to our joy or suffering.

Of course, one can’t help asking, how could the photographer have achieved such a vantage point, unless the gods themselves had allowed it? The photographs testify to Campigotto’s tenacity and imagination in usurping a god’s perspective. He has for years sought out difficult, remote localities and taken some hard roads to get there. He’s an adventurer willing to open himself up to the emptiness of certain quarters and the vertigo they can induce. Against all the proper protocols, he climbed at late hours of the day, on the Lagazuoi and the Passo Paradiso, to register the strange mountain light, a light that expresses not just the setting of the sun but the closing up of the world. Campigotto often found himself walking for hours without meeting a soul, and the sense of isolation this brings to the photographs can hardly be overstated. With photographs of the Arctic or the Himalayas there is always the impression that the sites have been achieved, that the photographer has enacted a conquest that repeats, ratifies and concludes a long process of exploration, even possession. In Campigotto’s case, however, it is as if the camera itself had somehow found its way into this remoteness and nature had composed its own self-portrait.

The absence of humanity in the realm is palpable and points us to Campigotto’s latent subject (and war’s inevitable theme): the confrontation with death. History tells us that 10,000 soldiers were killed in a single day in 1916 by avalanches, and more died from snow and ice during World War One than from poison gas. It sounds like a legend, a story from another age of epic deeds and monumental waste. But the modern world is such an age. Indeed, the soldiers themselves were aware of how close to extreme sport war in the mountains could be, and they constantly challenged each other to climb to impossible aeries carrying full packs, weapons and equipment. They are utterly gone now, their presence only implied by the redoubts and carved caves, tunnels, and lookouts from which all traces of occupation have vanished. A stairwell cut deep in Montfalcone winds down into darkness, a construction as fantastic as anything conceived by Piranesi. A trench constructed in the crest of a hill separates two empty slopes. Its peopling is difficult to imagine. Disbelief assaults us. In this high place of nothingness, there would have been fierce fighting contesting literally nothing, empty untraveled ground. The fortifications—testament to mechanized tools and yet seemingly as ancient as an Etruscan tomb—recall Macchu Picchu or Tihuanaco, great citadels of the Andes, remnants of a former empire, now largely ciphers. If not for Campigotto’s captions, it would be almost impossible to tell which side occupied which fortifications. One of his pictures shows the interior of a cannon emplacement whose wall is decorated with a large stone plaque depicting the symbol of an artillery brigade – almost but not quite as remote a signifier as the cave paintings of Lascaux or the petroglyphs of the Camonica Valley.

The spectacular nothingness and vacancy of these military positions undercut the photographic project as a nationalist and even a memorial enterprise—as I suspect the photographer himself is fully aware. Death, after all, is simply the avatar of time, and time renders everything heroic, futile and ultimately forgotten. The heroism (or call it foolhardiness) of construction and defense matched the vanity of a cause that expressed nothing so much as the last gasp of a world passing away, the world of dynasties linked to families, geographies, nations, borders, patches of earth. In this part of Italy, multiple languages continue to efface the administrative and territorial boundaries established by World War One. What is Italy? What is Austria, Germany, France? At a time of stress, if not crisis, for the European Economic Union, these pictures offer a sobering comment on the conventions by which human communities have sought to define themselves and conduct their affairs with—and often at the expense of—each other. If the EEU is a financial fiction, it is a fiction constructed out of prior nationalist fictions, ones that papered over profound differences rooted in local languages and histories.

“The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain...” As with Buzzati, so Campigotto, who confronts us finally with the effacing power of time. In Buzzati’s novel, an army officer posted to an obscure mountain outpost spends his life waiting for an attack that never comes. He himself (and everything man-made) becomes a thing that measures time, that time uses up, while the surrounding and distant landscape remains implacably unchanged, subject perhaps to an entirely different temporal velocity, directionless and cyclical. Of course, photography cannot capture this temporal incongruity. It captures instants, decisive and narrow slivers of time that implicate everything in the frame equally. The past is lost to the image’s instant now. Yet Campigotto is not convinced of this. He slows the process of photographing down by using large-format digital backs (as he used to use large-format film cameras) and lets his apparatus gather as much information as possible. He seeks to approach that other, older temporal velocity perhaps in the hope that a wider trace of time might be arrested in his images and that this trace can stand as a fuller testimony to what has been.

Campigotto is not alone in his preoccupation with the camera’s encounter with former events. Photographers such as Mikhal Levin, Joel Sternfeld and Jo Ratcliffe, to name only a few, have sought evidence of past trauma in the bland and unstunned surfaces of places once too cruel to name. In their work, no voices cry out and no blood stains the ground, which is precisely the point. The photographs of holocaust sites, crime scenes and Angolan killing fields cannot “remember” what they did not witness, nor serve as aids to memory in the face of change, just as Campigotto’s photographs hint at a time when there will be nothing left to identify with the war. What they can do in their blankness is to alert viewers that something happened and summon them to reflect, to fill in the gaps of knowledge that time opens up.

«Vision has the power to create our knowledge and it orients our memory,» remarks Campigotto. «As a photographer, my fate is to remain forever hostage to my own gaze. Destined to the mission of memory, to the circular motion of nostalgia.» I would suggest that nostalgia here has a special meaning, not bound up with homesickness, reminiscence and longing but rather with return. His photographs are a summons to engage the process of the historian, a collective process of returning and retelling whose goal is not to bring back the dead but to understand how, where and why they disappeared.


essay for the book Theatres of War, Silvana, Milano, 2014

copyright © 2013 Luca Campigotto

Luca Campigotto