13. – The apparent mechanical objectivity of the photographic lens

If we accept this difference between the original and the photographic copy, the doubt remains whether this is accidental or, stemming from sentiment, sufficiently valid and manoeuvrable to establish itself as potential aesthetic transfiguration; the doubt is accompanied by the recurring question of whether photography can be art or not. Equally tedious is the negative response given not only by those given over to painting or the like, as we would expect, but also common to the legion of those who, perhaps out of a hidden mistrust in their own sensitivity, judge art indirectly, second-hand, that is, based on reasoning and culture. They do so after protecting their backs with dogmas, canons and precepts, that is, preconceived ideas, often utilised with refined elegance or weighty culture to confirm the reality of a work of art that they, in primis, would not have risked upholding; unaware that the only valid critical approach is precisely the reverse, that is, that there can be no criticism without aesthetic re-creation or this without a prior innate aptitude to interpret the work in question intuitively (see note 14).
Precisely because of impeccably objective results that range from the celestial hemisphere to the family album and from the signal cabin to the micro-photographic studio, photography seems excluded from poetic dreams, accepted at most as a lateral exercise of taste, record or chronicle; an activity serving the purposes of the memory as a convenient, pocket or home re-evocation of natural beauty in general.
Out of the same love of the small mechanical prodigy, subtle and infallible, conveniently useful and an almost snobbish indulgence, you place a Leica in your luggage just like you slip an Eversharp pencil and a Dunhill cigar lighter into your pocket every day, or strap a Vacheron & Constantin to your wrist.
The lack of trust in photography as a poetic means is the central and secret problem in the heart of many photographers who look to the lost paradise of painting, naively trying to imitate its technical appearance. Picasso may be a middleman and Kandinsky a successful accountant but these are often recognised by their ties à la La Vallière and stock phrases based on “tones” and “values”, expedients that now even unsuccessful painters are careful to avoid; perhaps, they will soon update themselves and discover the “beret”, visor and other now démodé dress fantasies of the film director.
Because of the limitation created by excessive objectivity, mechanical and not governable, the medium of the personality and, hence, sentiment would appear to be excluded from the work of the camera obscura; the excluded human being acts from the outside with a brutal desire for reproduction. That secret relationship between the memory and the contemplative and transfiguring sentiment, which not for amusement I have compared with and differentiated from the developer of the sensitive plate, does not come into operation: everything is only achieved by our technical reasoning faculties that can do nothing but provoke and watch over the inexorable course of an optical chemical process: what has been has been and will be, the blind reality of the senses, as it appeared optically, will reappear intact, slowly evoked by the developer: exhumation not resurrection. So it seems.
This piece of equipment, tiny yet so heavy and full of mechanical and discerning grace, almost alive with its own logic independent of its pilot, is and always will be a bad recorder, which hopefully we cannot leave to its own devices to await, as promised, the most gratuitous wonders. However punctilious a device is applied to tried and tested beauties, you can create angels or monsters, new meadows, unimagined creatures and movements or worse and, very often, dull, unrecognisable larvae: that almost imperceptible action of pressing a yielding button in no way unleashing a little destiny.
In vain, technology offers us the means to reproduce a fiercer analysis of sensitive reality every day, the most convenient and automatic way to turn the world into a pocket Grévin museum. Once upon a time, when you wanted at a moment to say “Stop, you look wonderful”, you had to place the head of the patient destined to impersonate it in a vice, while allowing a lazy emulsion and a pedantic piercing lens to take their time; today, that moment lasts thousandths or billionths of a second and the shutters are loaded like repeaters, with cannonballs forming in mid-air (63).
To no avail, from the ineffable dialogues of the advertisements, between the legs of a levitating dancer and a huge yawning hippopotamus, Gustavo describes the qualities of each interchangeable lens to his friend Andrea, from that suited only to capturing an eagle in flight to a special one for geese and baby animals and another also suitable for a Gothic rose window in a tourist-filled medieval street; not that hardly any of us really give a hoot about the geese and the rose windows (see note 15).
Fortunately for us, the promises of advancing automatism made in the catalogues are not maintained, nor can they ever be so long as our eye is behind the view-finder and our index finger triggers the shutter as if at the instruction of an unidentified but imperious command – made at that moment. What is very often framed in the view-finder window is the oblivion of everyday ruin, of the desolation that threatens our every hour; sometimes, in that rectangle of life surrounded by darkness, we manage to combine and see the fragment of a world we have dreamt of as the reality before our eyes, happy to smile as soon as the fixed moment has passed and we remove our eye from that rectangle we have selected and separated from the muddled chaos of nature.
This small piece of mechanical equipment will always be an extension of ourselves, an organ expressing sentiment, if this exists, and as such will always manage to turn into good qualities the limitations of automatism and the exact penetration of time and space that is intended to depersonalise or exclude sentiment.

23. – Photography can “begin” after the button is pressed

A photograph can be permanently defined at the moment of the first click, which is the necessary condition for its existence or – as I have already expressed in metaphor saying that it can be taken countless times – come to life at any point in the subsequent series of purely aesthetic operations that can intervene in parallel to change the course of that apparently blind path of the standard chemical-optical process that will eventually end with an enlargement.
Pressing the button was but the brute preparation of material for operations that, as well as the schematic series listed above as a partial example drawn from the many, include the choice of enlargement format: no photograph starts out with a maximum limit but it does have an optimum enlargement size that has nothing to do with the definition potential of the lens or the fine grain of the emulsion. It is the combined choice between brusque and gentle passages from light to shadow given by the gradation of the paper and the nature of the support and also, after minor or major masking of parts of the image while projecting the enlargement, all those operations that range from accelerating the appearance of details only touched upon by the lens with the heat of your hand to rushing anxious to raise tonalities with cottonwool or, worse still, fingers dampened with red prussiate and hyposulphite, and even abolishing entire disturbing parts of the image, right down, to the naive outrage of the purists, to dangerous and interfering retouching of the negative or positive, superimpression and photomontage: all is permitted.
We must mention at this point (see note 19) the total freedom of action in all senses, so long as within the bounds of self-honesty however attained, with any communication medium, only to be accepted or rejected case by case and judged on the validity of its expression.
Interfering photographic, painting or sculptural techniques, whether pure or spurious we do not care, because otherwise we would be back with the mean tale of the muses, each closed in a special cage and occupied with their own imposed craft (see note 20).
This whole discussion is intended simply as a standard, the only one possible, for a means of expression that for ease of presentation and approximate common use of technical communication expedients can abstractedly be classed under the heading of photography. All we are doing is reiterating, also for photography, the uniqueness of the art category, without denying the contingent value of the precepts of one art form or the other or the technical means chosen to convey our expression, which is the same thing.
The argument is only apparently about the aesthetic, the poetic core; actually, a more or less precise awareness of that enables us to proceed to catalogue how a particular technique can fail and betray us; a prophesy prompted by the critic’s taste and sensitivity.
Cassandra may not, however, always get it right; she often arrives after the event to verify, legitimate and interpret for the purposes of a future that will perhaps prove her wrong: the history of taste and literature becomes art by coup.