Charles H. Traub by Luigi Ballerini
A Magazine Curated By Pierpaolo Piccioli takes the city of Rome as the starting point of a longform visual essay. As his first editorial project as creative director of Valentino, Pierpaolo shared a map of his favorite places in Rome, from the Spanish Steps to Trastevere and the Palatine Hill, to the beach of his hometown Nettuno. His own vision of elegance and extravagance – mixed with paintings from the Italian Renaissance and works by William Kentridge – met the candid eye of American photographer Charles H. Traub, known for his iconic series Lunchtime on the streets of New York City and Dolce Via across Italy in the 1980s. Throughout this issue, Traub documented Pierpaolo’s vision of couture within everyday life, featuring a host of characters from near and far including models Leslye Houenou, Hannelore Knuts and Aurora Talarico, as well as Pierpaolo’s wife Simona and daughter Benedetta, in all the places dear to Pierpaolo Piccioli.
Imagined by Luigi Ballerini, the following musings are an adaptation from the introduction to Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980’s by Charles H. Traub, Damiani, 2014.
PHOTOGRAPHER Good Morning, Muse, I’m really glad to see you, as l am in need of assistance.
MUSE I wish I could share your feeling.
P Spare me your sarcasm. What I need is something you hand out freely to all your devotees. Anyhow, I have been in your debt for so long that one more dram of generosity on your part should not undermine our long-standing and well-tested partnership.
M Hold it, hold it, my big mouth friend. Refrain from drawing conclusions and mind the wisdom of your assumptions. What kind of partnership could ever exist between debtors and creditors?
P The only partnership worthy of its name, the only joint venture not founded on a commonality of symptoms.
M Say, you seem to speak like somebody either going to see an analyst or returning from an inspiring session.
P Neither I’m simply trying to revive the motivations that led me to photograph street life in Italy. I’d like to thread together images I framed, a few years back, knowing full well that things, and people, myself included, have changed dramatically in the last decade or so, relocating from the Savannah of TV to the desert of the Internet.
M You must have been under the spell of mad utopians like Ezra Pound, who wrote, ‘I believe in the resurrection of Italy, quia impossibile est’. As to myself, I would be hard pressed to find there anything worthy of being photographed that hasn’t been photographed a thousand times before.
P That’s just it. The idea of an impossible resurrection makes much more sense than you think. I don’t know about Pound, but it’s exactly what I saw in the eyes, in the gestures, in the proxemics of so many of the people I ran into. Italy looked to me like a dystopia whose inhabitants acted as if they were living in heaven. Not all of them, of course, but many. And those many ended up in my pictures. I thought they might be viewed as typical, you know, not universal types, but common enough to be significant in a representative way.
M Well, you seem to have mastered not just the art of taking pictures but also of divulging its secrets as well. In what could I possibly way be of assistance?
P In many ways. To begin with, I need you to play devil’s advocate. My approach must be tested and you, having inspired so many street photographers before me, are in a unique position to either assail it or to see, perhaps, some merit in it. Is it unproductive, obsolete? Is it a projection of my own sentiments toward life in general and the ‘Italian’ way in particular? Second Is it a foregone conclusion to draw strength from an ever-delayed nirvana, predicated on ruins and on fragments of the past, scattered everywhere, some looming rather large and some perfectly minuscule, but all of them embedded in an offensive environment? Is it the outcome of a superior ability to surrender to the inevitable? And here’s the rub How do you reconcile the stubbornness of their mutilated survival with the unimaginable neglect that surrounds them? Italians have a number of expressions to decry circumstances under which they live, day in and day out, without doing anything to modify them. The best is perhaps a joke everyone repeats When gasoline prices go up and your liras (now euros, of course) remain the same, how do fill your tank? You don’t. You keep paying the same amount and drive as far as you can. You see, there is a difference between this sort of fatalism and total inaction. And this is what I tried to capture, this feverish and yet comforting hallucination. Third…
M Not so fast, my querulous friend. Clearly, you should consult a philosopher, an ethnographer, a sociologist, not a Muse. As Muse, my task is to seduce and inspire, to mesmerise my ecstatic acolytes, to make them believe they could replace motives with connections. I may drive them to madness, but I show them the cognitive advantage of ‘irrational’ thinking. I instigate the making of objects that serve no purpose and yet claim to be as necessary as plants, animals, stars, and winds… draw analogies where none would seem to be pertinent. I make them occur, promote the primacy of the unsuspected and you, you want me to analyse, explain, justify… Preposterous!
P I do not wish to upset you, nor do I intend to argue with you. I am profoundly grateful for the desire you have instilled in me to seek out the untold and the untried. I owe it to you if sometimes I managed to see the uncanny in situations that a more superficial glance would have labelled as perfectly normal; and you have done it so lightly, without clamouring, without ‘raising the voice’ of my shutter, relying not so much on the punctum itself, but on the urge to actually reframe the world I see before me. Today, however, what I’d like to get from you is a kind of assurance and, at the same time, its disavowal the voice of a discourse that pulls meaning away from the e p circumstances in which it is implanted.
M I must confess, I have entertained queries of all sorts in my day, but never was I asked to reassure anyone that he had operated sensibly and proficiently, while in fact aiming at some, may I say, metaphysical satisfaction. I am always asked for help in reaching the outer limits of human understanding. Assuming that what we normally call ‘logic’ is a mere set of mental habits that must be agreed upon to avoid the reaching of absurd conclusions, I suspect you want me to ‘endorse’ a reversal of perspective. When you took those pictures you were fascinated by the otherness of your subject matter; now you know that you could have only seen it through the eyes of the other that defines you as a photographer.
P I get your drift and have no quarrel with it. All I’m really asking for is that you take a good look at the portraits and situation shots I have chosen and share your thoughts with me. I need your help in piecing together these pictures, as I am torn between the temptation, on the one hand, to treat images as ‘photograms’, as the building blocks of a discourse that will make sense ‘on the go’, without ever crystallising into an unshakeable pyramid of beliefs. And the urge, on the other hand, to decode the unwritten, mysteriously explicit message I saw, encrypted in the life that froze, so to say, before my camera. Many times in arranging these images I felt like letting them coax me into a play, whose parameters I could neither determine nor control.
M I think you are asking yourself whether or not it would be more significant to drop formal considerations and sequence, instead of the unconscious habit of splendour I believe you sensed both in the people who posed for you, and those who merely served as background? Isn’t that the sign of an unfathomable resilience, of an unimaginable pride for a legacy that they believe to possess without necessarily owning it? Isn’t the portrayal of this performative drive a far worthier and more cogent photographic pursuit than the documentation of any subterranean geometry?
P Yes, look at the condescending air exuding from the men and women whose images I have pitched against monuments of unsurpassable beauty. What is that telling us today? Are those bodies nothing but ectoplasmic figures, floating to mesmerise the innocent street photographer who travels far to probe nothing but the consistency of his domain? Are they robot, mannequins, creatures of an abandoned planet from which the photographer needs to be beamed up and returned as quickly as possible to his Starship Enterprise? When you look at the people hanging about anywhere, is it not natural to ask Who is less obsequious of the awe inspiring scenario the girl draped in a fashionable dress, or the man behind her, who is exhibiting his swollen legs? What is dolce in their dolce via?
M I am beginning to appreciate your situation. To make some sense out of dolce, I’d like to lean on the meaning assigned to it by some early Italian poets (the poets of the ‘Dolce New Style’, as it were), which included Dante, and whose acknowledgement of dolce implied, or at least aimed at, consummate argumentation through phonetic, etymological and semantic competence, through rhetorical skills and, of course, through the acceptance of Love (one of my incarnations, I’m proud to say), as Dictator the one who dictates, who sets the rules of the encoding and decoding games. This meant that no narrative was worth its while unless the material ingredients of the language were properly displayed by the poets and fully savoured by the reader. Never mind that, on occasion, their etymologies were completely off the wall.
P I am very proud of the association and eager to know more. How do you make the leap from words to pictures?
M Replacing their sonnets with your photographs, I’d say that your dilemma could be formulated as follows Should I, and my readers/viewers alongside me, pay heed to the intimations of, say, the chromatic patterns that clearly suggest the possibility of clusters (the yellow hues of dresses and chairs, the spots of hats and sweaters, or should the postures of these human specimens, the trophies of the nudity they seem so eager to display under the most uninviting circumstances? Should the weird entanglements under which these creatures surface at irregular intervals bemuse or annoy us?
P You’ve hit the nail on the head, my wonderful Muse. Ripeness may be all, but dullness is everywhere, even in the super-dignified expressions of old gentlemen and ladies parsed among gaudily dressed young women, often with a cigarette in their mouth… Even as spectators we must act, and look at the world through a looking glass, but cracked, and cracked on purpose.
M That is a lovely way of saying that distortions and incongruities are the only way we have to come to terms with anything, memories included. And that, my preposterous friend, is the voice of awareness speaking loud and clear, outside the boundaries defined by some pre-established purpose. It is the wobbling pivot of both ethics and aesthetic work. I realise that times have come and gone when a Muse could touch an artist with a magic wand and quickly move back to Mount Helicon to enjoy the tender company of her mother Mnemosyne. There were only nine of us, then. Now who can count them? Democracy in art the uncontrollable arrogance of inflated egos.
The memory that gave birth to me and my sisters metamorphosed into a wildflower. Rare as it was, its scent could be picked up at great distances. Now it is grown in greenhouses everywhere, but it has lost the power of distracting would-be artists from their psychic navel, the representation of which they regard as some sort of birth right. For a while it seemed that only sight and hearing could retain the ritual quality of public curiosity. No more they, too, are all too often perverted like the rest of our perceptual apparatus. In fact, they have become the most insidious agents of an obscene misunderstanding private lives must be self-exposed–and imposed. Morbid curiosity sells. Enough, I’m beginning to speak like a moralist, and that is a disgrace especially for a Muse; let me reconnect with my role as a critic. I was reluctant, at first, but now, unexpectedly, I see how appropriate it is, for a Muse, to intervene after the fact – after the pictures have been taken – and assist in the development of a narrative.
P Oh, this is precisely what I was hoping to hear. In many ways, a street photographer, ensconced in my persuasion, is a privileged artist. His subject matter is so overwhelming ‘there’ that he needs not bother with trends or market imperatives The singles, the duos, the trios, the quartets demand proximity, no doubt; they want to be claimed as variations on a theme; the folds of the casually or consciously worn jackets and robes point to an ironical association with the marble folds of some baroque madonnas. but they are not to be swallowed like vitamin pills to reinvigorate or give a new twist to the brazen stolidity of the vituperative faces and bodies I had been introduced to by such filmmakers as Pasolini. The object does count of course, but even more significant is the dialogue its unknowable being strikes up with the strategy that defines the photographer’s approach. Ultimately a street photographer is a worker who gets compensated for the plus value of his own gaze.
M My discomfort is definitely gone. It helps to remember that there was a time, in Italy, and it was not too long ago, when the mere knowledge and an inheritance – ‘legitimate’ children cannot be excluded from it–could secure a loan a babbo morto (payable upon the death of your father). How is that for an endorsement of the art of survival, or better still the art of make do?
P An art they practice with smiles on their faces, though you are never quite sure whether it is a smile or a sneer. Humans who are not necessarily liable for the history of neglect in which they live are at the same time capable of a rather convincing recitation, a play in which they seem to behave like kings and queens.
M Say no more, I am ready to assist you, to be totally at home in my new role, however, I will have to elaborate further on the concept of distraction. Avoiding the traps of obsessive confessionalism can only be a good thing if, at the same time, you let tales accrue from images that are themselves distracted. Eased out or yanked away from the natural flow of the context, his kind of picture will inject a thirst for truth in what would otherwise configure as a reflection of material reality, and nothing else. Memory then comes alive as questioning, and it matters beyond retelling. As absurd as it may sound, distraction is the only way to cure forgetfulness.
Adapted from the introduction to Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980’s by CHARLES H. TRAUB, Damiani, 2014.