Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fulvio Roiter, Part 2

Fulvio Roiter, Carnival

[Continued from the previous post:]

With few exceptions, Roiter’s Carnival books concentrate on isolated human subjects or small groups of subjects, mostly young adults, who almost invariably wear a costume or a mask. The few attempts to render crowds are impressionistic and show them as homogenous masses of indistinguishable individuals. To put it another way, there are no images in the spirit of my own 37 Tourists (no. 10 in the main sequence), which is intended as an encyclopaedia of possible reactions to the presence of a camera. There is no literal overlap of images, but thematically the Carnival books are monotonous. Every new photograph asserts the same thing, over and over again. There is no evolution or inflection.[7]

It would be foolish to object to Carnival images on the basis that they are posed, since posing is the whole point. What matters is the quality of the direction and the acting, the complexity of the role assumed, and the intensity of the connection between photographer and subject. Roiter’s technical prowess has never been in doubt, but in these works his script and direction are simplistic. The drama rarely amounts to more than empty affirmation (‘Look at me!’) and Roiter does not actively engage his subjects.[8] To be more precise, he never challenges the adequacy or credibility of their performance. Nor do they challenge him. In Roiter’s Carnival, no-one is ugly, tired, drunk, miserable, hostile, uncooperative or even indifferent. Worse, Roiter is not interested in the backstage aspects of the experience; that is, in how the illusion is created and sustained.[9] The extent of the lost opportunity is suggested by the few images of children, which stand out precisely because the subjects have not yet learnt how they are supposed to respond to a camera.[10] Some of the shots of professional theatrical performances are also impressive, but for the opposite reason: that is, they show people capable of fully immersing themselves in their roles.

Everyone has to make a living, and Roiter’s Carnival books probably tell us more about the relationship between the publishing and tourism industries than they do about his individual photographic vision. I remain hopeful that an intelligently-edited retrospective will reveal an artist who understands both the nature of his own talent and the history of the city he loves.[11]

[7] Ivo Prandin, author of the introduction to Venice Masked, urges us not to seek the real Masks in the tumultuous carnival crowd in St. Mark’s square: you may not find them in the multitude. Instead, we should look in remote calli, silent and shady banks, little bridges under which a gondola slowly slides away, like human life wandering in the city maize [sic] (p. 8). The problem with this argument is that thirty-five of the forty-six images in Venice Masked are identifiably located in and around Piazza San Marco. Similarly, in Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, if we exclude the sixteen plates of theatrical performances, twenty-seven of the remaining thirty-seven images appear to have been taken in San Marco or its immediate environs. Of the other ten, six are obviously staged compositions, which were probably set in quieter areas because it would have been impossible to keep the background clear elsewhere. Another two (not by Roiter) are banal shots of boats, taken from a distance on telephoto lenses.

[8] His reliance on telephoto lenses is telling, since they allow him to photograph at a safe distance from his subjects. Since Roiter helpfully supplies technical information on each shot, it is possible to calculate the proportion of images taken on such a lens in the four books on Carnival. Taking the books in chronological order, this figure is 70%, 80%, 50% and 66% respectively. (For the purposes of this calculation, I count a 50mm lens as a moderate telephoto, but many shots were taken on significantly longer lenses.)

[9] There are only two images that show ‘technical support staff’: a theatre wardrobe assistant in plate 32 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, and a maskseller in plate 27 of Carneval. In addition, there are a couple of images showing subjects applying make-up, but in both cases they are adding final touches and are thus already fully ‘in character’.

[10] For example, the child distracted by a firework in plate 47 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, which Roiter’s afterword correctly identifies as a crucial image.

[11] I have not had the opportunity to see the exhibition ‘Fulvio Roiter, Fotografie 1948-1978’, which toured Northern Italy c. 2003, but among the non-Venetian published work I would certainly recommend Ombrie: Terre de Saint François, which deservedly won the Prix Nadar, and remains one of the highpoints of Roiter’s career. In this book, texts written by or about Francis of Assisi are juxtaposed with images of rural Umbria in the 1950s. The insistence on ‘timelessness’ is no less aggressive than in the books on Carnival, but it is deployed to much better effect than in Venice, partly because (as in Roiter’s work on Spain in the 1950s) the relationship between text and image is more interesting.

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