A self-defined misanthrope, nihilist, and a bit of a social phobic, I found myself involved in a collaboration with Massimo Vitali and his two cohorts (Giovanni Romboni and Andrea dalle Luche) for a shoot recently published in the New York Times Magazine in their annual Voyages issue. From the middle of July through the end of August we explored some of the rivers of Tuscany, taking photographs (them) and interviewing (me) the summer visitors to these destinations, an alternative to the popular and crowded summer beaches. Despite my social idiosyncracies at being placed in a crowd of strangers, it was a chance to leave my comfort zone and immerse myself in a rather surreal sea of people. Naturally, I was the person least suited for the job, and I’m convinced Massimo guessed at my inadequacy, intuiting the catastrophic potential. In one of our first meetings he asked me: “You know what you’re doing right?”, and my eloquent response: “I don’t have the slightest idea.” With my reply, I think I earned the title of official interviewer. I am not a photography expert, and I am instinctively drawn to images of fragility, awkwardness, and desolation. I love ferocious subtraction and an almost ascetic sense of the essential: the complete opposite of Massimo’s images, which are completely devoted to the depiction of landscapes populated by humans at leisure.

There were all the prerequisites to treat my assignment with carelessness, and yet during our excursions something began to happen. Watching Massimo at work, I was suddenly reminded of a short story by Michel Tournier, Veronica’s Shrouds, which I had read many years ago. The reason for this powerful reminiscence was not so clear to me: what qualities could possible be shared by Massimo’s open air shots and an oppressive vampire story in the form of a photographic narrative? In the story, which is part of the collection The Fetishist and Other Stories (1978), Tournier creates his character Veronica, a photographer who is literally obsessed with the truth to be found in death: a “marmoreal truth”, to use her words. In her necrophilia permeated delirium, Veronica undertakes a journey of photographs “taken from death” starting from “photogenesis” (“the possibility of producing photos that go beyond the real object”) to “direct photography” (a photography without camera and film) of her model Hector dipped in developing fluid and then laid on paper, and finally pushing the limits to the stripping “dermography” on linen cloth. In her endeavor to create authentic images of Hector, Veronica reaches the point of physically peeling away his skin: wrapping Hector in linen which has been made photosensitive after having been impregnated in silver bromide (“Like a corpse in a shroud”), she obtains dermic impressions which peel away at his body to the point of skinning him, inevitably killing him.

But, aside from the overused literary cliché of a continued portraiture which weakens the represented model up to the point of killing him (think of The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe), why was Tournier’s short story tormenting me with such insistence? Thinking about Massimo’s photographs, which are always slightly veiled by a whitish layer which covers the image, I can finally see the shroud of Veronica. This is what I observe in the veiled television (literally “vision from a distance, from afar”) of Massimo: a glance of detached imperturbability which extends a funereal sheet over the body of the reality depicted. The whiteness of a shroud. A sort of deadly candid camera which, nevertheless, doesn’t radiate anything violent or caricatural nor, on the other hand, benevolent or indulgent. I can perceive neutrality in his shots, even a certain indifference. But it is exactly that, I have come to understand, the power of his frames: the intrinsic possibility for the point of view to be changed, even its ability to be reversed, the shot susceptible of being shifted to reverse shot. The crystal clarity and the almost cadaver-like white of the image petrify the subjects, establishing an obvious equivalence between the human figures and the mineral formations. These images are not slices of life as it might seem at first glance, rather proof of death, post-apocalyptic visions. Taken from death. The height and impassible distance attest to a disaster which has already happened. Before. Elsewhere. Nothing remains but to accept what has happened, to record the destruction. To observe and shoot, without Weltschmerz or disdainful sarcasm.

First Part of the Specially Written Contribution by Alessandro Baratti, translated by Kate Collins, September 2017.