Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"The Adventure of a Photographer"

In Italo Calvino's short story "The Adventure of a Photographer," Antonino Paraggi is surrounded by friends who "go out on Sundays with a leather case over their shoulder. And they photograph one another." Antonino is a "non-photographer." But he is a philosopher by nature whose philosophising leads him to think about photography. He considers many theories to explain why photography is so popular, and to explain his lack of interest in it, but avoids the "more evident process" taking place: that all of his friends (the photographers) are getting married while he is not.

On weekend outings with friends, Antonino is often asked to take his friend's pictures—why not, his hands are free. He does not have a camera of his own, and he has no family. He continues to think about the condition of photography and his thinking leads him on, logically, to a series of actions. He objects to snapshots, calling them hypocritical: if you really want to capture your life, you need to take at least one photograph per minute, from waking until sleeping, every day. "The line between the reality that we photograph because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow." To avoid this hypocrisy, one must return to posed studio portraits, c. the 19th century. Antonino does this. He disappears under the black hood of an old camera to take portraits of his friends. To avoid a further hypocrisy, one must not only return to artificial, ritualised poses, one must aim for complete superficiality. He does this, posing a friend with a tennis racket in a series of ridiculous postures. He seeks a portrait outside of time and space. She must wear an evening dress, dark against her light skin. No, he must highlight the face, letting the rest melt away. He lowers the dress over her shoulders. The dress falls away of its own. She wears nothing underneath. He begins, finally, to take photos. This is what he wants. "I've got you now." He packs up the camera and walks away. Bice cries.

He falls in love with his model Bice. From that point, he photographs nothing but her, everywhere, in every pose. But what he most wants is to photograph Bice unawares, a Bice "whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else." This was his passion, one that was not un-like jealousy. Bice soon leaves him.

In his depression, Antonino begins a diary, photographic of course. Then, in a moment of realisation, he begins to tear up all of his photographs, the one with Bice and the ones without. He will throw them all away. But not before he takes one more photograph, of his pile of torn photographs. He arranges them just so.

And this, he realises, is the answer he's sought all along: only to photograph photographs. (Calvino, 1955)
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