A neverending istant

In a lovely photograph taken by Henry Cartier-Bresson, Les voyeurs-spectateurs (1932), two people stand in front of a canvas barrier; one is concentrating hard, looking at something very interesting through a hole, whilst the other – possibly waiting their turn to look – is apparently distracted and has their gaze focused elsewhere.The same photograph was recovered 40 years later by the painter Eduardo Arroyo in his: Gilles Aillaud looking at reality through a pinhole next to an indifferent colleague (1973).In Arroyo’s canvas the entire situation is shown in an identical fashion, except for one detail: the head of the “indifferent colleague” is not illustrated, it is replaced by a silhouette created with greyish dots.These two images contain many elements that stimulate a consideration of the pinhole method.The first is the “go-between” function provided by the small aperture; the observer is engrossed in what they see beyond the canvas, whilst the excluded bystander is absent, not only in thought, but almost physically also; it is no coincidence that the apparel worn by the latter is reminiscent of Magritte: a little man with a huge moustache, enveloped in a heavy topcoat and wearing the archetypal bowler hat.A surreal presence that almost seems to say that anyone who does not look at the world, interrelating with it, has no role, might as well not exist.Significantly, Arroyo did not paint the head of the second spectator, he dissolved it into a series of dark marks that struggle to come together.Taking photographs requires a mental selection of reality; retinal observation isolates a fragment of the surroundings, sets it in a context and then exposes it onto sensitive material.To get this far, you have to look through a camera lens which focuses on the image that will then be frozen on the frame.It is a clear, bright image, that the photographer captures as they please; the pose time is infinitesimal, a split second of a life frozen for eternity.The result will be a resemblance of reality, not a reproduction of it, where part of the merit can be attributed to the excellence of the materials used.The empirical observation of optical phenomena in a poorly-lit setting generated the “camera obscura”; it was perfected over the centuries and inevitably led to the connection with sensitive materials and created modern-day photography. Nowadays, technology – especially the digital kind – offers solutions that were unthinkable in the past, although the underlying concept of light passing through a hole, has not changed.It may well be that this profusion of technology has brought a revival of the pinhole technique (a box into which light arrives through a small hole, exposing a sensitive material within), initially unobtrusive but achieving a crescendo.It might appear as a sort of rejection of scientific progress, an attempt to establish the priority of the result mentally rather than mechanically.Nonetheless, there is a less evident but equally meaningful aspect: the uncertainty of the result.Each pinhole “shot” is a little adventure. Nothing is taken for granted; there is no chance to see in advance what will happen, nor to define outlines and shades, or even to establish the “split second”, since pose time is considerable.That is how one of photography’s most fascinating virtues is lost: the snapshot, that for so long seemed to constitute a “specific” truth.During exposure a lot of things can happen and this, too, assures an unforeseeable result.However, it is the technical traits that render the pinhole method aesthetic; first of all the often extreme wide-angle function, which alters and modifies the dimensions and then the precision of the hole itself.The more tentative this is, the darker and more blurred the edges of the frame will be, whilst the central  image will continue to be focused and bright.All this creates an aura of mystery, a ghostly vision that seems to emerge from the shadows.The presence of the person operating the equipment would appear irrelevant, except for needing someone to position the camera at a distance considered suitable and to calculate the exposure time.Conversely, it is precisely at this juncture that the photographer influences and decides the quality of the result. Were it not so, anyone could be a photographer – which is theoretically possible but impossible in reality.The photographer’s ability lies precisely in choosing a subject and having a mental picture of the result to be obtained, and with considerable practice: another sign of individual talent.Nowadays, a large number of people are embracing the pinhole technique and are neglecting or even forsaking traditional photography. Massimo Stefanutti is one of them: he began a few years ago and is now one of the most committed and successful artists of the genre.As far as expertise is concerned, he is certainly no amateur: he is a skilled photographer who has been behind a camera lens for at least 30 years, almost all of them as a member of “La Gondola” photography club in Venice.He has always stood out for the originality of his research, refusing almost immediately any stereotypes or pitfalls of “prettiness”, so common amongst  neophytes.Massimo Stefanutti has explored many avenues and used different techniques, measuring  himself against the toughest photographic situations and still achieved significant results.Then, a few years ago, he began approaching the pinhole method on tiptoe and gradually developed confidence and awareness.This exhibition shows the most significant aspects of his work and is the proof of a truly noteworthy expression of maturity.First of all, it is interesting to linger over the subjects being portrayed, which are very varied but share an underlying preparation that leaves little to chance, despite the type of tool being used.The artist moves from sublime iconographies – above all Venice – to the most intimate and familiar of situations – landscape, the home, portraits – and, lastly, the nude, which we might discuss in more detail.As we know, nudes depicted in photography are generally women. In the past the smooth, sinuous bodies and the creative options available using detail and light, brought top quality results where objective beauty was transfigured by style.Stefanutti has subverted the practice and explores the male body, with no particular aesthetic mission, leaving the pinhole technique the task of selecting details and arousing interest; the indefinite that arises on the frame, the aura of uncertainty that surrounds the nude, whose traits we can hardly discern, inevitably leads us to ask questions and, of course, to come up with more answers.Basically the specific quality of the photograph, its ambiguity and uncertainty, has only been perceived in the contemporary age.The pinhole message conveys the edginess of our times, the inability to establish a solid rapport with the image and with the depicted world, gathering only one meaning.Pinhole photography is not reassuring.Stefanutti knows and exploits that; so his Venice emerges from a wan, worrying shadow, the children making their first communion resemble little ectoplasms, contexts and objects that are naturally  familiar and positive, appear mysterious and strange.The subject emerges from the dark and is the paradigm of memory, of recovery from oblivion. The author evokes and describes strange stories, experiences of who knows when and who knows where, with undefined actors, always on the edge of disintegration.A ghostly existence in a ghostly environment; perhaps the other side of the coin, the reversal of today’s lifestyle, which demands certainties, security, colour.

Stefanutti’s photography is not a comfort to us but it does ask us to reflect, to become aware of our condition, without precise references, objectives, certainties; it is an exploration not only in memory but also in the meanders of our personal psyche.Each of us can see what we want, thus drawing the most wide-ranging conclusions.It is a subtle game and often played out with cutting irony, setting aside the emphatic prose of much contemporary photography. It is not even a conceptual operation because it does not rely on the poverty of relics and of alienating situations to arouse emotion.Stefanutti relies on the “purity” of pinhole technique, which is actually far more complex and not at all easy to decipher.It is certainly not a straightforward type of photography to appreciate, but gradually, observing the actual images in this exhibition, we can get a feel for it and develop a sort of complicity with the photographer, a parallel traveller seeking a new dimension.

 Manfredo Manfroi

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