Taking photographs has always reminded me of translating. In both cases there is an original (the source text/observed scene) which, for the purposes of communicating to others, undergoes an inevitable change (the target text/ photographed scene). There are also affinities in the practical choices: just as translation can be literal, free or even creative, so photography also has varying degrees of fidelity to the world represented, ranging from a documentary attitude to completely reworking the image, with all the intermediate degrees of touching up. The result obviously always depends on the skill and sensibility of the translator/photographer, but the quality of the original plays a key role: insignificant texts or scenes may produce less satisfying results. The parallel between the two activities can even be extended to the possibility of improving on the original or making it worse: according to their greater or lesser flair compared to the poets, translators make versions which can be more or less beautiful than the source texts, just as more or less skilful photographers deliver images which can be more or less beautiful than the observed scenes. Over and above the final outcome, the set of these common features, however, rests on the presupposition that the translations and photographs are generally acknowledged as two operations capable of reproducing and conveying a copy of an original and represents it.
But there is a substantial difference. While a translation can render the entire starting model, a photograph is necessarily limited to cutting out only a partial rectangle of it. Rather than to the translation of a complete text, a photograph, therefore, can be compared to the translation of an anthology of a text. This inevitable structural limitation (for Susan Sontag, “the photograph is a thin slice of space, as well as time”: On Photography, New York, 1977, p. 22) immediately connotes photography as the result of a selective activity. This notion is confirmed and extended by the ways a photographic shot is conceived and organised: it involves, in fact, a series of further obligatory steps.
Some are usually made before beginning to shoot. Initially, for example, you must decide if you want to work with digital or analog technology, color or black-and-white photographs, and low or high definition supports. The focal length of the lens, the exposure methods, and the type of framing are normally chosen just before clicking. Once you have clicked, a series of decisions must be made concerning editing/developing and printing before reaching the final stage, which is the presentation of the photographs.
This list of choices (all obligatory, and we could add others) highlights how making a photograph inevitably involves interpretation and ideology. To illustrate this, we could think of two extreme situations for the same scene. In one case a photographer might use analog technology, a low sensitive black-and-white film, a telephoto lens, fast time, an open diaphragm, by framing top down and printing on a large sheet of paper with a mat finish for a final photograph that will be exhibited on its own. In the second case, we could think of a photographer faced with the same scene using digital camera with high resolution, a wide-angle lens, slow time and closed diaphragm with a frontal frame, for a color photograph printed on gloss paper in a small format to be exhibited with others. Obviously the two final outcomes will provide two very different intepretations of that same scene.
And this is true of all types of photography: from photojournalism to abstract expressions, from family albums to explorations of landscapes, from animal pictures to wedding albums, and so on. In other words, the photograph necessarily expresses the idea that the author has had of the scene, obviously within the limits set by the technical choices. Having said this, we can hardly leave out of this interpretative and ideological process a further stage which modern technology now makes available: the electronic editing of the image. We would like to think of this process as a kind of second click after the initial shot, a second click modifying the first one and creating a new relationship with the scene in question. We might say a kind of “armchair second thoughts” about a series of choices already made about reality. The author can thus calmly revise his photography (at times taken in a great hurry) and create a version much nearer his own sensibility. This is not a question of having a special eye for reality, but having a special eye for an image of reality. The actions involved reflect different attitudes. The operations made possible by electronic editing range from minimal adjustments right up to large-scale changes that can completely transform the original image. As at the time of taking the photograph, here too the various solutions inevitably reflect different plans. Yet again it is a question of making a personal interpretation of the image. But in this case it is an option and no longer an obligatory choice.
Given the wide range of possibilities, it is firstly essential to decide on the degree of intervention. In my idea of photography, this intervention must be limited: all the resultant effects may go so far as to reconstruct the plausible but should not go beyond its limits. Within these confines, the changes introduced must not be subject to any kind of censure and they may lead, for example, to the elimination or addition of certain elements as well as color adjustments. Examples of this are the correction to some “faulty” forms (mountains, stones, lakes, roads, etc.), the removal of undesirable elements (electricity lines, branches, reflections, pebbles, etc.), the introduction of some suggestive components (shrubs, clouds, birds, shadows, etc.), and the choice of the best colors (for flowers, the sky, ground, water, etc.). These alterations take nothing away from the reality of the places. They are variations of the same scene – possible at other times and from other viewpoints – to the benefit of the power of the proposed images.
Doing so I attempt to realize a presumptuous aspiration: give a helping hand to nature to make the best of its potential landscapes when it seems “to neglect” the quintessence of those places as I perceive it.
We might define this possibility of integrating photos as an extreme variation of the process of visualization theorized by Ansel Adams in the wake of Edward Weston’s thinking: “The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and, as such, it is one of the most important concepts in photography. It includes the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure, so that the procedures employed will contribute to achieving the desired result. Much of this creative process can be practiced and learned, beyond lies the domain of personal vision and insight, the creative ‘eye’ of the individual, which cannot be taught, only recognized and encouraged” (A. Adams, The Camera, New York-Boston, 1980, p.1). To my mind this is a valid theory, but requires updating in the light of the new “procedures” possible in postproduction photography. A modern concept of visualization – i.e. still the capacity to envisage the final image in the initial frame – must also include those “creative” reflections which, whether made on the spot or later, may then be used on the computer, possibly after further revision and honing. At this point the relationship, as already stated, will no longer be between the photographer and reality but between the photographer and photographed reality, with a consequent shift in sensibility.
In short, the new technologies offer today’s photographer that opportunity for reflection which authoritative artists once considered as significantly absent in photography. On this subject Henri Cartier-Bresson comments: “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, it’s impossible to bring them back to life. We certainly can’t touch up the subject: the most we can do is choose from a series of images shot on a reportage. Writers can reflect before words take shape, before putting thoughts on paper; they can thus bring together several elements. There is also a period when their minds ‘forget’ and their unconscious works on classifying their thoughts. For us photographers, what has gone, has gone for ever. Hence the anxieties and strength of our profession. We can’t rework the story once we’re back at the hotel. Our task consists in observing and recording reality in the sketchbook we call a camera without manipulating that reality, neither during the shoot nor in the darkroom. Such tricks are always noticed by anyone with a good eye” (Images à la sauvette, Photographies par Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1952, pp.3-4 of the preface with non-numbered pages). Conditioned by the historical and technical contingencies of the time, these remarks obviously also now need to be updated. Michele Smargiassi is very clear on the subject: “The awareness of being able to resort to easy and powerful postproduction tools now alters a priori (much more than in the analogical era) the production plan of a photographic image. Right from the beginning, even before an image is captured, the digital photographer’s working method includes the possibility of improvement. Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ can now be reconstructed at will on a monitor. But if this is the case, why go to such lengths to pursue it in the streets?” (M. Smargiassi, Un’autentica bugia: la fotografia, il vero, il falso, Rome, 2009, p.41).
Thus it is no longer a question of photographing a “precise instant”, as Cartier-Bresson put it in the passage quoted above, but of identifying that instant and then being capable of reproducing it adequately by resorting to all the existing technical means of photographic production and postproduction. In this way portraying that instant or its optimization may be staggered in time and its extemporaneous capture may give way to subsequent processing. Consequently, the photograph becomes the thought-out rendering of an idea representing reality rather than the immediate representation of reality itself. Photographic processing, moreover, has always existed and has always been applied, only the new techniques enable us to do it in fast, perfect and sophisticated ways. Are we dealing more today than in the past with illicit artifices? Or, even worse, with downright deception? Perhaps it would be better to speak of a change in the relationship between the photographer and the world. The works of a photographer are no longer simply live attempts, but are extended to the subsequent stage of a sophisticated postproduction. In this process the relationship between the onlooker and the photograph becomes more important than that between the photographer and reality: in the final result the public rather than private tones are accentuated.
The emphasis is thus different from Cartier-Bresson’s photographic gesture seen as the “sincere” act of capturing a crucial moment. From our point of view, it doesn’t matter much if modern software programs can detect digital touching up. That is not the point. Yet again Michele Smargiassi has some enlightening words to say on the subject: “Today is there even one photograph in the media that reaches its audience without any manipulation? Have there ever been any? Antifraud software demonstrates a truth of which our technologically backward mind has already been convinced for some time, i.e. that to a lesser or greater extent all images lie. So now it is simply a question of not being naive and of making the best use possible of the lies” (M. Smargiassi, “Corazze e proiettili”, Fotocrazia, La Repubblica.it, 23 January 2010).
We might speak of an ideal world superimposed on reality, admitting the possibility for the photographer to transform varied, contingent situations into a single exemplary picture which, most importantly, must necessarily be verisimilar, in the sense defined for the Italian equivalent verosimile in G. Devoto and G. C. Oli, Il Dizionario della Lingua Italiana: “In keeping with the truth so far as to ensure the probability or credibility of an event that even did not happen, that is not documented or not expected”. In Aristotle’s view, the poet is privileged compared to the historian because he can narrate not what happened but what might have happened, i.e. possible actions according to the laws of verisimilitude. The poet is thus delegated to represent the universal and not the particular, as we can read at the beginning of Chapter Nine in his Poetics. To respect these principles, you can’t run the risk of falsifying the photographed scene through reworkings that give rise to unreal solutions. An excessive or absurd intervention would only attract attention to the intervention itself and its implausibility, preventing or at least impeding other kinds of reflection (a possible theory but far from my intentions in this context).
In short, we can reconstruct the verisimilar but, as already stated, we can’t go beyond its boundaries, since we only wish to make credible reworkings with a low impact aimed at improving the enjoyment of the image. In other words, you must avoid undermining the laws governing the scene portrayed. The operation, therefore, can only be successfully undertaken by experts who use their technical capacities not to distance the image from reality but, on the contrary, to improve the image’s relationship with that paradigmatic reality built up in mind through meticulous daily observations. In this sense I have followed the lessons of Abbas Kiarostami who, on several occasions, convinced me of the validity of this philosophy of the image which, applied to Persia, we once defined together as a kind of “ideal realism”. This method has been used by various photographers, also in photo-reportages. An authoritative example in this sense are the adjustments made by Eugene Smith both directly during the shoot and in the printing stage. As he says, they are aimed at “a rearrangement for the benefit of reality”, and the whole is based on a kind of emblematic and emotional idealisation of the everyday (W. Eugene Smith, Du côté de l’ombre, edited by G. Mora and J.T. Hill, Paris, 1998, p.16, pp.337-340).
What is particularly important in this context is thus the idea that the photographer has of reality. If a given reality for some reason turns out to be unsatisfactory compared to a plausible ideal model the photographer had in mind, that reality can be adjusted to reflect more faithfully that ideal model. It should also be remembered that in his mind’s eye the photographer may shape more than one ideal model, correcting and supplementing observed reality. The photographer can in fact imagine various alternative changes giving rise to different final outcomes. The result is that the same reality can conceal various plausible variations, in a play of different levels with multiple superimpositions, transforming the world into a great kaleidoscope.
Once the image has been completed according to the logic just described, it must be printed and presented, with all the variations involved in these two operations. Think, for example, about the kind and size of paper (if other media are excluded) or the ways of presenting or exhibiting the photographs to the public (matting, frames, book, exhibition, individual photographs, pairs, in sequence, etc.).
We would stress that the various stages of the process outlined here require skills that we might schematically associate (inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous remark) with three “organs”: the eye, the mind, and the heart. The eye observes and chooses, the mind reflects and elaborates, the heart gives soul and is capable of arousing feelings. The simultaneous presence of these functions will ensure a photograph has basic quality while the absence of even only one of them implies an unsatisfactory result. The choice of a landscape, for example, may be striking but, if it is not aided by the mind, the construction of the image may be badly organized and, if the heart is not involved, the image may turn out to be cold and lifeless. Here an example may be enlightening. Family albums often contain photographs that are the outcome of a good eye and passionate heart, but often lack the elaboration typical of the mind. In this case it takes a few correctional touches to make those pictures more captivating.
Lastly, I should like to say that most of my photographic activity has never had the exclusive characteristics typical of the full-time professional world. My photographs have usually come from my travels, often with my family and friends, and sometimes for study, when I took some occasional shots without being able to wait for any great length of time, make deliberate visits, or repeat shots several times.
I have initially used Kodak slides (usually 200 ISO) and Nikon cameras (Nikkormat and Nikon FM2) with 50 mm and 135 mm lenses (in some rare cases I have used a 24 mm lens) almost always equipped with a polarizing filter. The images have been scanned from slides using a Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 scanner. Recently (from 2007) I have used a digital camera: a Nikon D300 with a 18-200 mm lense and a Nikon D500 with a 18-300 mm lense.