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Obsessions in the Shape of a Rose


It happens rarely
that one of us really sees the other:

a person shows himself for an instant
as in a photograph but clearer
and in the background
something that is bigger than his shadow.


Tomas Tranströmer

Between architecture, publishing and photography: in conversation with Giovanna Silva

The point is: if you go to Japan or Norway, it's nice to take pictures. But – also – to know something about these countries you visit. Therefore I had this cockeyed idea to come back to University and I enrolled in Cultural Anthropology at Ca' Foscari (Venice). I studied and the only thing missing now is my thesis, something I will never do...

Look up, what do you see?

I might say: a muddy setting, what seems to be a crater, a bright effect of light around it but through an increasing fog, thick air progressively heavy, and a vanishing background, and an unfinished space, and so forth, so forth...
Well, yes: that's all true. But it's not correct, it's only a part of a whole.

In my attempt at introducing the work of Giovanna Silva, who is mainly an architect, photographer and editor (at a publishing house where she is the founder) – you can easily define her as multitasking – I sense how the role of images must be pivotal within her universe, in a way not that easy to grasp (or that I can't easily grasp). Nevertheless, the challenge of trying to do so is worth a shot.

The act of taking pictures. Let's start with this.
As I wrote – and as you will read – she's a photographer. Also, this facet of her work seems to be visibly present in her experiences between architecture and publishing.
But here's the question: beyond matters regarding the sense of a style (which is not my concern here), what do the pictures she takes tell of herself? In other words: how do they relate to her background and to the books she publishes?

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From the conversation with Giovanna Silva that you will read, a word suddenly pops up and resounds above all others to me: obsession.
A very nice and human term indeed.
If you check out via Merriam Webster the meanings of this word, you will find two general explanations which seem in tune with our case: 'a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal'; 'an activity that someone is very interested in or spends a lot of time doing'. Here, let's focus on 'state' and 'activity': don't these two words express a double movement which is already the sense of what a montage of images should represent? Something appears, something disappears. Or to be just a bit more sophisticated: a rhythm is born, a story is told. Always through a subjective mode.

So if I had to define an approach to her work, I would use the same word she used. Obsession. In the way that this word includes the stillness of vision and the force of blindness – qualities you can find in the development of a building, a photographic fieldwork or a book (images in different spaces, the same eye to track down their visible figures as well as their invisible passages and mutations).
But needless to say: this obsession – or these obsessions, because there is more than one facet – is nothing without an objective.

Looking at Silva's books as photographer, one can't but notice the meaningfulness of many of her themes, related to major and serious questions such as: the sense of the sacred, the sense of history, the sense of the picturesque (just to make a quick summary, hopefully coherent).
I might suggest that they prove a quite ambitious intention which is – of course – logically natural and well supported by a brilliant sense of invention.
But the three aforementioned questions share something in common: the way each of them does not reveal its own truth through that system of signs called representation. They deal with the limits between thereness and nothingness.

Consequently, one might ask: if this is so, is it a matter of poetry? Maybe.
In any case, one needs more than a strategy.
(It also means that the combination of photography plus architecture and publishing sounds like a good start).

From the conversation you will read, there is a passage where the interviewee reveals how the book as form represents the measure through which she constantly deals with her own work.
A simple and personal statement, nothing to add.
But now, taken as assumption, this opinion gives me the chance to suggest something to readers, namely the high consideration related to the book as metaphor within the Western poetry tradition, from Homer to Mallarmé. In short: the book as a kind of aesthetic reason for life, where life (the becoming as life) makes sense.
Too much in relation to our case? The point is just to emphasize the importance of the anticipated passage, therefore the importance of a ground – the book as form – and the use of poetry to better observe it, to better search for what usually makes a ground precious: rarities.

Well, in poetry, most of the time rarity means mystery.
It is a limit and a threshold, and maybe the most important... signifier.
One might see it as the poetical translation of the sacred, history or the picturesque (because it is a poetical translation of every single question concerning the survival of images).
It is a fragile and magical state – one of the few signs of magic remaining in this world – and you can only allude to it, and fight to preserve it as source.
In poetry, mystery is known in many ways, but one is certainly a symbol and the name of a flower.
'A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose'. Beyond any law of identity – which is more a sign of obsession here – as it stands, it's a name resounding through the void and a memory of a scent.
One might add: it is that which makes a search impossible as well as memorable.
As it stands, I would say, it is the shape of the sense of mystery, through which being and seeing are finally different, and yet definitely together.

And it's through this personal suggestion that this preamble ends to let the conversation start, a conversation which is the English version and my personal adaptation of this piece: http://www.lavoroculturale.org/larte-del-viaggio-giovanna-silva/




… Tell me.
How you get to do your main activities, that is: being a photographer plus editor at the publishing house that you founded.

Well, since I was five – no kidding – I redrew my bedroom, obsessively. I have always wanted to be an architect. But maybe I had a slightly different take on what being an architect really is here in Italy. I imagined the architect as a builder, a traveler – I have always liked traveling (since I was a child, with my parents) – and so: obsession. I am a very obsessive person, you know, and if I have something in mind, it has to be made. Therefore I enrolled in the Bachelor of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan, but in the second year... I realized I hadn't hit the nail on the head. Wrong choice. In that year I went to Lisbon, Portugal – it was my Erasmus experience – and there I perceived what true architecture really is. In Lisbon there is a still strong building tradition, something one can't find in Italy anymore.
I eventually understood that the profession of architect means to be in front of a laptop and draw, whilst the traveling dimension is definitely gone.

Thereby: I came back to Italy, I graduated – because I’m always loyal to my, so to speak, promise (achieving my obsessions!) – and in the meantime I started working at Francesco Jodice's a prominent Italian photographer and also author of a meaningful book on city and urbanism which was published in that period (this volume has multiple authors, one of them is Stefano Boeri). 

Jodice had a photographic studio and I was his assistant. I didn't know anything about photography – I was an amateur, I hadn't ever used monorail cameras (it was 2002, when digital wasn't present or, in any case, not prevailing) – and thus, you know... he taught me everything. I worked with him for three years and thanks to him I understood how photography, when applied to traveling and the study of cities, is really something I am very interested in.

After three years of experiences I realized I had a small group of people following my work: I had an audience. So I started to work between architecture and photography at ‘Domus’ At that period Stefano Boeri was the editor-in-chief. And in the end I understood how photography was something from which it was possible to make a living. Paradoxically, being an architect looked like something easier, but I found myself working as an architectural photographer. And it was something random. Also, beyond the act of taking architectural pictures, there already was the dimension of travel. I mean, in those years – different times, there was more money, too – I travelled to work on my pictures related to this or that city. Then we found a writer and edited text and images together.

This for ‘Domus’, right?

Yep, for ‘Domus’. Afterwards, when his period as editor-in-chief ended, Boeri went to ‘Abitare’ – another prominent architecture magazine based in Italy – and I followed him there as well. Now, when you are young, you are enthusiastic about everything, but then things progressively change, and after five years of photography it became a job to me. Thus I had this feeling of being sent away to stay in these countries for three or four days – this was standard – without a necessary theoretical background, something that I would have wanted to study in depth. The point is: if you go to Japan or Norway, it's nice to take pictures. But – also – to know something about these countries you visit. Therefore I had this cockeyed idea to come back to University and I enrolled in Cultural Anthropology at Ca' Foscari (Venice). I studied and the only thing missing now is my thesis, something I will never do...

And yet you have an idea...

I'd like to work on Alexander von Humboldt which – I know – is a direct link to the publishing house ( www.humboldtbooks.com).
Anyway... while I studied Architecture as part of the vecchio ordinamento program, now I enrolled in the nuovo ordinamento. Therefore I avoided the BA and began an MA: the so-called il più due here in Italy. I enrolled in the Master of Geography and History of Explorations. And I more or less did exams on monographic courses, related to series of countries or zones: 'History of the Middle East' and similar stuff. And I liked these courses a lot. Now, Architecture is a wonderful Faculty, it allows you to do whatever you want. But it's, so to say, practical. So Anthropology took me closer to study and reading again. Until I thought that, perhaps, I was a bit tired of my situation, that is: working for eight years in architectural magazines. Moreover, that was a moment where Stefano (Boeri) was tired of planning magazines, something that was also due to his coeval political commitment.

And last but not least: I was almost 30. I thought that if I wanted to do something totally mine, that was the time. And this helped me to understand the thing I like the most is to travel with writers and... let's say, see a country through two different gazes: mine, as photographer, and the other belonging to the writer. Two gazes with – obviously – different storytelling.
In short, well... I was in touch with Quodlibet,  which is an important Italian publishing house, and I proposed to them to found a book series devoted to travel books and be in charge of it. You know, travel writing is something deeply rooted in the Italian literary tradition, even if it has quite vanished in recent years (mainly because of budget problems).

Well, they were interested in this idea of launching a book series through which to involve a writer and a photographer in order to propose to them a journey together. However, for various reasons, this book series became a publishing house, whose name logically pays homage to von Humboldt...

May I ask you more about these reasons?

Let's say I would have been in charge of it but I also had to be capable of investing myself into this operation completely. Therefore, also financially. So I wanted that, but I thought it had to be something more personal given these circumstances. I mean: a Quodlibet's book series would always have to be a Quodlibet's book series. Therefore I founded a publishing house with an associate, Alberto Saibene, and we decided to make co-editions with Quodlibet (the co-edition relates to our travel books).

Fine, thanks.
Tell me something about these books.

The work starts with the writer. The writer is the one who suggests the country, where to go. Afterwards, in relation to the destination we choose a photographer whose eye might be suitable. Saibene follows the writing process, whilst I follow the work related to the photographer. In addition, I travel with the authors.

The first book is about Ethiopia. In this case, Vincenzo Latronico – the writer – wanted to go to Ethiopia because his mother was born there, like many Italians. After 1974, due to the Derg revolution, she went back to Italy. He grew up with this myth, Ethiopia, but he never had the chance to visit the country. I thought Armin Linke was the right choice as photographer to picture those landscapes as well as Addis Ababa's architecture as he expresses a very rationalistic and interesting look. So we left together. That being said, we plan the entire itinerary. It goes without saying, the writer has suggestions but in the end I’m in charge of that, I practically edit every book. Furthermore, there's an editorial part we do as a publishing house, the dossier on a country. Therefore, to me, traveling is useful, quite aside from the fact that I like it. Also, I do what I do to travel and, to be honest, 'not like a tourist'. I mean: I travel with a purpose.

The second book is about Greece. Here the writer is Dino Baldi, a hellenist who made two volumes with Quodlibet – Morte favolosa degli antichi and the translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, which is also the travel book par excellence, while the photographer is Marina Ballo Charmet, in this case chosen because of her eye, closer to research work than to forms of the spectacle of ‘greekness’.

The third book is about Iceland because in the meantime I read Claudio Giunta's Il paese più stupido del mondo – his travel account of his experience in Japan – and I liked it. For several reasons, he spent a long time in Iceland, where he taught Dante at the University in Reykjavik (Giunta is a Dante scholar). You know, I met a lot of Icelanders there perfectly able speak Italian, but as though they came out of the Italy of Dante’s era! Moreover, as it happened in this case, going to a country with a writer who already knows most of the places and has local contacts is another story. I've often been criticized because these travel books are based on a stay which may last more or less a month, and you can't grasp the sense of a country in a month. Of course, this is true. However, if you stay there several times it is possible to strengthen your knowledge.




Now, Iceland is a country that has always fascinated me and since I had never been there, well... to the usual question of who the ideal photographer should be, I couldn't help but answer: c'est moi! Therefore we left – the writer and I – to undertake the classical tour around the island (there is only one motorway, the number 1, it's circular and you can only make two choices in direction: clockwise or counterclockwise).

Let's discuss your photography, by considering your contribution in the book about Iceland as main reference. How did you work in the choice of this or that theme, what was your approach? Consequently: what is your idea of photography? Logically in relation to your taste, your passions.

Look, to me photography is a narrative medium. Perhaps it's something I will contradict in a year, but I am not able to see my photography as a single image. For example, Armin Linke and Francesco Jodice produce wonderful pictures that are then printed and hung on a wall. Obviously I don’t want to trivialize this approach, I just want to be clear. But, honestly, this is not my way. I have always imagined photography as a way to tell a story and thus, for me, it's the sequence of photographs that, so to speak, operates, not the single image. Beyond the publishing house, I worked to make photo-books, where photography is always linked to a storytelling. Therefore the main work is not during the shooting, but in the editing process, especially today: an age where it often happens that I work digitally, and this gives you plenty of images once you’re back home, images through which you have to select – for instance – sixty pictures and...





Sorry if I interrupt you. At this point one can say there's an idea of montage behind your photographic work, right?

Yea, totally. If you want, you may relate this thing to a beautiful piece written by Didi-Huberman on Harun Farocki's cinema [1], a piece where he explains very well what priorities montage expresses. So yes, to me the montage of images is more important than the single picture. As a matter of fact, in the editing process it often happens that I reject photographs which are even nicer than ones included because of their, so to speak, ‘silence’ (if regarded within the narrative sequence)...

So is it correct to say that you think through the montage, instead of the image?

Oh yes, definitely. At first, I divided the shooting and the editing phase. Now, on the contrary, I already work with an image in my mind’s eye and then search for it. In short: I already know what I have in mind and what to look for. Regarding Iceland, it goes without saying that everyone is potentially able to take nice pictures if they are even minimally educated in looking. That's because nature there is so beautiful and thus it seems easier to grasp it visually. That said, it is obvious that I faced the problem that a nice picture, in Iceland, immediately expresses a postcard-like beauty. And I didn't want my work became a series of nice postcards, because I was worried that, you know... it would result in something a bit reductive. Therefore I tried to create this kind of history of the landscape according to what Iceland is in my view: a huge playground of nature. One day, you wake up and you're maybe on a glacier, and two hours later, it’s the opposite, you can be in the midst of a red desert...


The conversation stops accidentally, then restarts.
(But the interviewee didn't stop...)

[…] this idea of sequence – in every book there is this 32mo of color photographs – implies the need for images. Afterwards, every photographer decides how to edit them. For example – to mention the book about Ethiopia – Armin Linke chose to put his pictures in a chronological order (from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, along the straight line of the local railroad).

I'd like to digress now, just to enrich our discourse. Besides projects like  'Peninsula Hotel'.
 I know you made books as a photographer. So tell me something about them. How they were conceived, and if, maybe, you have preferred titles among them today – and if so, for what reasons?

My first two books, which are Orantes and Desertions, are the fruit of a collaboration with Amedeo Martegani, who is a publisher and an artist. He was the first to persuade me to do something personal. I am fond of these two volumes and, despite their diversity, they both reveal a crucial aspect of my work: the montage.
Orantes was conceived like a series of portraits of people taken during their act of praying. The pictures were arranged between the pages, so as to force the reader to track the whole photograph.
Desertions is the chronicle of a travel I undertook through the American deserts with Enzo Mari  who is a very famous and important Italian designer. It had to be like a montage of images for a film never filmed. There was no editing.

Now I am mainly involved in a series of books on countries at war, which I am working on with Mousse Publishing. Each of them is conceived as a unique project. The first, which is on Baghdad and its historical antecedent Babylon, is printed through a rotary press. You know, the images we have of that country often come from newspapers. The second is related to another country, Libya.

I traveled from Benghazi to Tripoli and I documented the palaces and monuments related to Gaddafi which were destroyed. Every photograph is interspersed by short chronicles and the book, both in English and Arabic, is palindrome: it can be read in both directions. This year the next one will be out, on Cyprus, on its division between Greek and Turkish parts.


And what about your exhibitions, for instance your work at the last Architecture Biennale in Venice? Any comments?

I am not interested in making exhibitions. I don't know why, unless they imply a fieldwork. The more I work the more I'm aware how book is the final form I always have in mind.
Last year I was invited to the Architecture Biennale in Venice and they asked me for a photographic work on Italian discos. And, to be honest, it was more an archival research. I interviewed architects, disc jockeys, clubbers: to document the Italian scene from 1960s to the current day. One can see the result in the 30,000 booklets for visitors.

And ‘San Rocco’ ?

‘San Rocco’ is a magazine about architecture and made by architects. I would define it independent, it does not relate to current news (we also provide its own distribution and promotion). As such, we do not publish articles on the latest projects and buildings, we work on monographs. ‘San Rocco’ is based on calls for papers, in every issue we launch the theme of the next one with an explanation and a request for contents. We evaluate the abstracts and then, according to the selection, we proceed to plan the issue. The statute of the magazine indicates 20 issues, then the project will end.

Let's come back to our discourse about Iceland, when you emphasized the postcard-like beauty risk. What was your mental strategy / technique to avoid such a risk?

Honestly, I don't think I was able to avoid it completely. I thought of this idea of a playground, that is: what Iceland represents to my eyes. Therefore, I considered its landscapes, which are gorgeous but, also, more violent than what you would expect. The postcard does not meet the real image you get being there.


I think I do not totally get your point...

Let's say Iceland is a country... well, not that dangerous – the word seems a bit extreme – but, nonetheless, with a violent nature. You know, one can often read about how the unique accidental deaths in Iceland happen because people get lost, and you can't even meet anybody for three days there, when you are maybe on a glacier or in any case in the middle of nowhere. That's the reason why I said dangerous. There is this beautiful and overwhelming air but you know, a moment of distraction, and you're suddenly far away from a safe path and... nothing. It's a point of no return. Nature is nature at this point. It's like when you're swimming, and you do not realize you're going towards the open sea. You may say: how nice. But then you can't come back, because of the current.

In relation to the photographic work on Iceland, it is a work based on a diptych structure, where even if the landscape changes you can see the same formal pattern. While other photographic works I did are more focused on history – for example, the one on Libya is simply a trip through which I present the rise and fall of Gaddafi – in the case of Iceland, it turned out to need a far more formal composition. Something which does not belong to my viewpoint but that was suitable on such an occasion.

You say so because...

Otherwise it would have been difficult. At first, I had imagined doing a work on the role Iceland played in history. Apart from my passion for Bobby Fischer, Iceland is also – for example – the place where Reagan and Gorbachev met. But it is hard to support this viewpoint as soon as you leave Reykjavik. Outside the capital, you can't find anything. I mean, if you work on Reykjavik, you can do these things. Otherwise it's quite hard. Thus my attempt was to focus my attention on the landscape. Iceland is landscape.

In any case you have your archive of images, right?

Yes, however some also are in the text.
Let me give you a couple of examples. The house where Reagan and Gorbachev met. You can find it in my contribution (but here I deliberately didn't add a caption about it and so, if you don't know the episode, you may see it as a usual Icelandic home). On the other hand, the text includes the grave of Bobby Fischer we searched for outside Reykjavik.

You know, the book has this double structure where the series of color photographs is independent from the written part, and yet you can find black and white pictures within the text, related to it. So, since Claudio Giunta evokes Fischer in a passage of his account, we thought the image of his grave was needed.

That being said, yes: at first I imagined doing a work on Bobby Fischer and one based on the role Iceland played as a 'neutral' field if one refers to the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. But it was unsustainable as an overall guideline. I would have been extreme in my attempt at avoiding any postcard-like sense of beauty and Iceland, like I said, is not this.

It's nature. Something that seems possible to apply to other Nordic countries, don't you think?

Yes. Let me add another thing, just to chat. During the stay, we also went to the Westman Islands, where Chris Marker shot part of Sans Soleil (1983). I wanted a link to the movie.

The sequence of the three children...

Oh yes, precisely. The movie is about Japan and Africa. Anyway, as soon as he heard the news of a volcanic eruption, Marker went there, stopped by and filmed what we now see in the movie. Westman Islands are amazing because, to me, they represent the Icelandic mentality very well. An island was completely erased by ashes. Consequently the territory was evacuated but as soon as the situation returned to normal, they – the local inhabitants – went back to their land. So, you can see a strong sense of belonging that they express in relation to their environment.
However, following this route would have resulted in something too partial. I mean: making a photographic work on the Westman Islands featuring these cinematic references in relation to a travel book project on Iceland in general.

I’m curious now: do you have preferred photographers?

Tastes change. When I was 20 and I started to work as a photographer, the pictures I was interested in were those by Francesco Jodice, or Armin Linke. In short: creators of single images. Now I'm more into discourses similar to what an artist like Wolfgang Tillmans suggests through his practice, though it isn't probably my kind of photography, because he makes these huge books where he puts some pictures together and through their combination he comes up with a story. But if I had to indicate which is the photographer I'd most like to resemble now, I'd say Wolfgang Tillmans.

Last question. Did your Icelandic experience stimulate and convey a curiosity about the North (abstractly or concretely), or should one consider the entire thing – the stay, the travel – as a parenthesis?

Yep, it gave me stimuli. And look, let me share something confidential: I was happy in Iceland. Maybe the association with the word 'violence' is not that precise, because it's mainly seen as negative, but... well, I don't see other options. I studied Architecture, and my subjects were cities with more than ten million inhabitants. We architects – I see myself as such, given my education – like cities such as Tokyo or Bangkok, but they are cities that demand a tiring physical experience in return. On the contrary, the beauty and the emptiness which I experienced in Iceland are something I particularly liked (here I give the second term – ‘emptiness’ – a positive sense). So, yes: despite the brevity of my experience there, I think other Nordic countries would have the capacity to give you these feelings. Enormous landscapes. Empty. And I liked this emptiness very much. It fascinates me. Definitely.








1. See Georges Didi-Huberman, Remontages du temps subi. L'Oeil de l' histoire, 2 (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2010).

Thanks to Max LeCain for his suggestions, useful as usual.

Translated and edited by Gianluca Pulsoni

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