by Paolo Mattei
If you look at Franco Fontana’s landscapes and listen to the way the photographer describes them, you might be reminded of a few verses from “The Infinity”: the famous poem in which Giacomo Leopardi imagined – using the expression “I fake myself in my thoughts” – “endless space”, “inhuman silences”, and “the deepest quiet” beyond a hedge in front of him.
The great artist, born in Modena in 1933, brushes off the literary reference with humbleness and explains, “I capture ‘the mind’s photographs’, ‘thought landscapes’. I want to express what is beyond the hedge, what the eyes can’t see; I want to show the invisible”.
We met Franco Fontana while he was in Rome to present “Full Color”, which has just moved from Venice to the Italian capital city until January 11, 2015.
The retrospective exhibition – showcasing 130 works by Fontana to tell the story of the artist’s long career –is held in Palazzo Incontro, in the very central Via dei Prefetti. It is curated by Denis Curti, promoted by Regione Lazio within Progetto ABC (Arte Bellezza Cultura), and organized by Civita.
What do you mean exactly by “mind’s photographs”?
I mean that what really matters in a photograph is what the photographer wishes to express: the image should speak his mind. Sometimes others can fall in love with his same thought, and they can decide to use and spread it…
Well, think about my most famous work, “Zagare Bay”. I shot it in Apulia about thirty-five years ago, and in 1978 the French Ministry of Culture asked my permission to use it. They wanted it for a poster meant to spread national ideals, and thought the image was perfect to express them…
An Italian photographer and a photo taken in Italy were chosen to represent France: you must have been proud!
Yes, of course. The French are notoriously proud of their country, so the fact that they had chosen a photo of Apulia was extraordinary. Although I must say that my work has always been appreciated more in France than in Italy.
If photography is an expression of thought, what is reality’s role?
Reality is only a pretext. It is the raw matter, like marble for sculptures: Michelangelo said he had to chip away the superfluous to set free the work he had in his mind. So it’s not what you see, but what you do not see that is really important.
Are you quoting Saint-Exupéry now?
Well, why not? He was French?
Right. So you agree with “The Little Prince” author that “what is essential is invisible to the eye”.
The invisible is our foundation. Think of a centenarian tree: it lives thanks to its roots, which you cannot see. That is the kind of invisible I want to capture and describe. I want to interpret matter, reality. Like Michelangelo, I want to remove everything that is unnecessary.
That is the core of your motto, “Erase to elect”.
That’s right. Again, my goal is to interpret reality. Anyone can see the landscapes I photograph, but with my camera I try to capture the details and features that the eye cannot see. Some tell me, “I went to Provence and I saw ‘your’ landscapes”; sometimes they will have seen those places before coming to an exhibition, but only after looking at my work they see that part of reality pinpointing something they had not noticed before.
They recognize your interpretation of that part of reality…
Better yet: they recognize a part of me, because I believe photographs “are” photographers. Every photo I take is part of me, bearing testimony to who I am. When I photograph a landscape, the landscape is photographing itself through me. I embrace the landscape, become the landscape, and bear witness to the landscape. As I always say, all you can discover in the world is what you have inside…
Now it sounds like you are implicitly referencing ancient gnosis, the “know thyself” aphorism inscribed in Delphi’s Temple of Apollo, Socratic maieutics, or Plato’s anamnesis…
Actually, my philosophical inspiration is more Eastern: Japanese Zen. In one article I was compared to a Japanese photographer – and they proved I was more “Oriental” than him…
Zen philosophy is very difficult to put in practice…
As Westerners, we will never be able to live in a completely Zen way: it sets almost impossible goals, requires perfect meditation… But it is the philosophy I am most fascinated by. I have read a number of books and try to explain and include some Zen concepts in the photography classes I teach around the world. Yet I am far from perfect practice… I am a down-to-earth kind of guy…
Let’s go back to photography and “reality”. What is your position in the debate over digital photography?
I’m pro-digital, needless to say. For all the reasons I have just explained: I want to make the invisible visible, show known reality in a different way, represent myself in the landscapes I photograph, “erase to elect”. That is photographic creativity. If post-production is a useful tool for this, I am happy to use it. It is part of a progress that now allows photographers wider freedom.
What are you currently working on?
This November, an exhibition titled “Vita Nova” – showcasing my photos of the monuments in the Cemetery of Staglieno – will open in Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale. I have also recently completed “Disharmonious Beauties” (“Bellezze disarmoniche”), a work on disabled people, whom I photographed while they were visiting museums.
Photos via ©Franco Fontana