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In the early days of photography, when the exposure times needed to fix an image in the first daguerreotypes were far from the instantaneousness that photography would soon achieve, the silver plates were populated by “ghosts”: the movements of men and women caught by the lens became imprinted on the sensitive surface like the wake of a ship. This resulted in a discrepancy between the static nature of the buildings and objects and the flowing aura generated by moving objects transformed into ghostly figures, or rather, photographic ectoplasm. The View from the Window at Le Gras itself, taken in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce and regarded as the first photograph in history, showed the same view repeated at different moments in time because of the many hours of exposure required for its creation, presenting an image of reality much unlike that perceived by the human eye. What were considered the technical limitations of the device at the time – “photographic errors”, in the words of Clément Chéroux – turned out to be a fertile wellspring of sources and visual inspirations for the photographers and artists of later generations. In the series “Rear Window” and “Now and Here”, on display in the exhibition, Paola Di Bello revives the ghostly presences that marked the early stages of photography: his urban views of Milan and New York are animated by incorporeal figures that roam the streets of the city, interacting with each other or using modern iPhones and smartphones, immersed in an unnatural light that gives them a dreamlike, almost ghostly appearance. In the first half of the eighties, the artist had transformed a mundane technical incident – a Polaroid picture that hadn’t been fixed – into the starting point of an aesthetic process aimed at determining the statutory material and conceptual limits of photography. The first formal outcome of this process was Oxidations (1984-1992), a series of black-and-white Polaroids that had a metallic and reflective texture thanks to the varying lengths of time for which the unfixed images were exposed to light and weather conditions. It was not only the material quality of the reflective surface of the Oxidations that alluded to the past, but also their subjects, often taken from 19th-century iconography: the galloping horses of Eadweard Muybridge or Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet. In the latest series, “Rear Window” and “Now and Here”, Paola Di Bello once again examines pioneering photography experiments, but the intervention of chance, which was fundamental in the Oxidations, is now more limited. In his latest works, Di Bello sets out from a project defined a priori: the artist photographs the architecture, monuments, and streets of New York and Milan with a view camera, before carefully selecting the viewpoint, then by portraying the same subject in two different lighting conditions, day and night, to finally blend the shots into a single image. The artist thus merges two different moments in time into a single space, the virtual space of the image, creating a new reality that lives and can be experienced only through photography. At the same time, however – and this is what makes the works of Paola Di Bello so enigmatic and fascinating – the photographs with which the artist starts to develop temporal collections are still traces of situations and real places. Buildings, urban furnishings, cars, tourists enlivening the streets of Milan and New York are those actually captured by the photographic lens: the two shots, if considered individually, do not deny the “has been” discussed by Roland Barthes, but rather they reaffirm it. What Paola Di Bello in fact proposes is the mechanically objective capture of two distinct moments of reality: the cold, almost inhuman atmosphere, characteristic of these works is generated by the artist’s use of a highly detailed and fragmented vision mode specific to the photographic medium and the possibility that the instrument offers to synchronically separate moments. In bringing together different times, thus moving away from the Bressonian aesthetic of the decisive moment, Paola Di Bello gives photography – traditionally conceived as a frame isolated from temporal continuum – the dynamic quality of human perception, in which the memory of the before and the after, of past feelings and of those present, is confused to make one whole. What the photographs of Paola Di Bello seem to suggest is the concept of durability, already dear to the photographic experiments of futurists, in which the experience of reality is not instantaneous, once and for all, but is the result of stratification of times and different perceptions that permeate and come to resonate with each other. Unlike the duration proposed by Andy Warhol in the Empire, in which the time of the film coincides in a sort of ready-made way with that of phenomenal reality, Paola Di Bello works on a time schedule, where past and present, day and night, are offered to the eye simultaneously, so as to transform not only our relationship with time, but also with space. The fictitious light created by Paola Di Bello, the result of the synthesis of opposite bright moments, also modifies our perception of the urban fabric which, surrounded by unnatural and metaphysical flourishes, has the disturbing and cold look of a synthetic image. In front of these photographs the viewer is urged to wonder not who has taken them, but “what” was photographed, as if they were pictures not produced by human hands, but taken autonomously by an artificial intelligence with an artificial eye. Echoing the thoughts of Charlotte Cotton, these works can be read as photographs of indifference, because in them the accent falls on the mechanical quality of the instrument used: what the artist proposes is in fact a visual and temporal oxymoron generated by the “technological unconscious” of photography, a tool that can create images beyond the natural perception of the human eye, yet closely related to it.

The reflection on time and its perception in these works is accompanied by the check of the area, no longer through the standard angles stereotypical of tourist illustrations, but with marginal and off-centre viewpoints, using a method that has been at the heart of Paola Di Bello’s research since its inception. Already in the eighties and nineties, the artist looks at the urban landscape in an anthropological way, to detect the traces of man’s passage and the transformations it made to the territory, such as in the Fuoricampo series: Naples (1997), where the city is portrayed through the space bounded by improvised football doors, spread throughout the unpaved periphery such that the rectangle of the door creates a frame within the image the doubles the photographic framing, highlighting its artificial character. By applying a strategy of Mise en abîme, a feature of conceptual photography, and making it her own, Paola Di Bello investigates the social context of the city, with its illegal camps, crumbling buildings, and disaster-stricken roads that tell of a marginal reality of illegal settlement and mismanagement of the territory. Also in “Rear Window ” and “Now and Here ” the artist offers us a vision of urban space outside of the canonical circuits, where the city itself is to suggest the point of view. In fact, it is from the verticality typical of New York’s skyscrapers that the artist, in “Rear Window “, draws the idea of ​​framing buildings and streets, establishing a dialectical relationship not only between the above and the below, but also between the external and the internal: through this angle the artist’s gaze, like that of the protagonist in the Hitchcock film from which the series takes its name, penetrates the apartments, into the intimacy of the lives of others, placing the spectator in the state of the voyeur, and thus revealing the power of control inherent in the act of photographing itself. This last aspect, so evident in the pictures taken in New York, is attenuated in the series taken in Milan, a selection of which was recently presented in the exhibition by Gabi Scardi, Paola Di Bello. Milan Centre at the Museum of the Twentieth Century. In these works, completed in 2016, the artist accentuates the evocative and enigmatic character of the spaces: the artist chooses prospects and escape points that enhance the structure of the architecture and the interior geometry of the buildings, giving these places a quality of Metaphysical suspension, made even more intense by the fictitious brightness, invisible to the naked eye, generated by the photographic coincidence of daylight and night light.


Raffaella Perna