WHEN you're so accustomed to living in a big city where everything is available to you at most any time, it can take a while to get your head around smaller places and the fact that you often have to seize the moment in case you want to see something cultural.
Generally smaller population bases mean shorter runs at theatres and galleries, so I can't tell you how many times I was meaning to see something in the last year and never got around to it due to, well, a million reasons.
But this weekend I stopped by Otranto. It's a cute little town of around 6,000 people that swells into something completely unrecognizable once the summer hoards get in.
But the reason I headed over wasn't to enjoy the water, or the views of the Albanian mountains (Albania is technically closer to Otranto than Bari or Rome), but instead to check out the newly refurbished Otranto Castle and an exhibition that was being housed within.
Ferdinando Scianna is a Sicilian photographer who began working in the seventies, and who, by the eighties was invited to join Magnum Photos. Over the years he has predominantly worked as a fashion photographer and his images have also been used in countless high profile advertising campaigns. But for Italian audiences, his images particularly strike a chord for their recurring motif of the deep south, which anyone in Italy will tell you is a world of it's own in comparison to its northern counterpart.
When you've such a huge body of work to draw from, drilling in on a theme in an artist's work can be very satisfying. In the exhibition Il Sud E Le Donne (The South and the Women), Scianna's treasure chest has been raided, with around thirty black and white images of women photographed in the south having been selected for the show which has previously travelled to Bari and Matera.
There's a good balance between staging and candid documentary in the show, even if some of the staged moments can be a little overpowering. But what we're looking at are images predominantly drawn from the eighties and nineties and their aesthetic.
Remember, it was a time when Herb Ritts was the undisputed master of black and white portraiture, when staging was de rigour and a time in which the photographers were more well known than the models. But that all changed with the nineties and after almost everybody had tried their hand at black and white.
That said, Scianna is clearly a master composer who leaves traces of his own fashion background in every image. The images of women in the south are almost always in evocative southern settings: by turns Moorish, desolate or claustrophobic.
The South also provides the subtext for the show: the exhibit ties in with Tu Non Conosci Il Sud (you don't know the South), a cultural project which seeks not only to examine the south, but to contribute to its relaunch. Remember, Southern Italy is in a very different state than the Central/North.
The name derives from the Pugliese poet Vittorio Bodini and the swirling discourses that took place in reaction to the stereotypical ideas such as that of the south as simply being a place of criminal activity
But, back to the photos. It should be said that there's more than the odd nod to the times in them. But the way that fashion seems to transcend the generations and date them at the same time is pretty breathtaking.
As I've also been helping out with the translations for an upcoming photography festival here, I've found myself thinking a lot about the current view on photography. I find it amazing how we like to think that photography per se shapes our view of things and the world. But I would add that we seem to forget that framing and subjects are elements that are shaped as much by the times the photos are taken in as they are by the photographer's preferences themselves.
Beyond the black and white nature of these photos, their fashions and their styling, there is somewhat of a time stamp to them, even if as a collected group they seem to be about elegantly positioning women of the south in a way that most mainstream media refuses to do (or acknowledge).
The central placement of the female figures, the staging, the reliance on props...they're all hallmarks of an approach that you can see through if you think about it and don't allow them to define things too much for you.
But that's the same with any kind of photography. Usually, the best photography (especially contemporary) drags you towards being wowed or impressed before you even have time to think about it. Sometimes, the vocabulary, like here, is more evident, because we've had time to process the language and our own tastes have since changed.
But that doesn't detract from the fact that the images, such as the two in this post, are still compelling images, and very much documents of their time and of the tastes of their time.
If you manage to make it over to Otranto before the end of September, the exhibit and the castle grounds are well worth visiting.
Visit tunonconosciilsud for more info.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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