JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Witty Books (here). Softcover, 16.8 x 20.5 cm, 264 pages, with 180 black-and-white reproductions. Includes various short texts and a bibliography of text sources. Design by Antonio M. Xoubanova and David Mozzetta. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Andrea Alessandrini’s recent photobook I Am Not a Robot takes its name from the CAPTCHA tests found on websites to prevent spam and bot attacks. The text versions of CAPTCHA typically offer a swirly set of distorted letters and numbers which must be identified, while image CAPTCHAs tend to offer a grid of pictures, asking the user to identify those that contain a stoplight, a crosswalk, a motorcycle, or some other common feature. Computers have a hard time with these tasks (as they require multiple kinds of thinking to be employed simultaneously), but people can generally handle them easily, making them a good way to separate humans from machines.
Alessandrini takes this idea of using photographs to illustrate or test certain principles of thinking, and expands it out to walk us through a compendium of computer science concepts, logic, and terminology, each idea “explained” with a series of his own photographs. He begins with the foundational binary logic idea of 1s and 0s and progressively works his way through increasingly complex concepts, ultimately arriving at neural networks and virtual worlds. Given the level of abstraction taking place in some of these theories and mechanisms, Alessandrini’s accompanying photographs quickly move from the literal to the more expressively representational, becoming a kind of learner’s picture book of computer science. It even comes with perforated holes along the sides, like old-school continuous feed printer paper.
Most of the black-and-white photographs in I Am Not a Robot document urban details of one kind or another, with plenty of buildings, walls, fences, paved plazas, stairways, and other architectural features carefully observed. Alessandrini’s images are consistently crisp and formal, which raises the tantalizing question of whether he made the photographs first and edited and sequenced them into his computer science framework later or actually went out in search of certain pictures that would fit the various concepts to be illustrated. Whichever way it happened, his results are cleverly well matched, bringing an artist’s eye to a series of abstract communication challenges, and in a sense, elegantly proving the photobook’s title.
Alessandrini starts at the beginning, with 1s and 0s, expressing them visually as pairings of presence and absence, positive and negative, or alternating dark and light features of the built environment, like windows, concrete blocks, and intricately shadowed brickwork. When he moves on to algorithms, and the idea of a problem being solved through step-wise actions, his visual choices become even more inspired, with misaligned pipes, loose cobblestones, fallen window screens, and cracked walls all providing obvious “problems”, and images of wiring, painted lines on the road, ziptied bracing, ropes typing poles together, and a dense constellation of covered wires provided as “solutions”.
The photobook is organized like a series of call and response interactions, with short text phrases and explanations on white pages followed by a series of representative images. In this way, “fuzzy logic is tolerant of imprecise data” is followed by images of scraped paint on a wall, a man’s jacket with expressive markings on it, a tangle of layered shadows, and another image of erased or removed paint splotches. Gradations of logic are shown via shadowed tilework, painted stripes, and stepped blocks, while genetic algorithms are expressed via mosaics of tiny tiles, colored dots, and strips of balloons. The pages continue to turn and soon twisted knots of machinery and gridded arrangements of repeating rectangles represent cells in a database, while swirls of scraped metal, nested staircases, curved stonework, and various arcs of lines and walls seek to explain recursion. The book is measured and methodical, patiently working through each example and explanation, one idea building on the next.
Toward the end of the book, the concepts get more esoteric and abstract, but Alessandrini soldiers on in his visual attempts at education. Grid propagation is creatively depicted in brickwork, a child’s marbles, a heart-shaped array of portraits, the awnings on an apartment building, and the stickers affixed to a metal garage door. And the manufactured reality of virtual worlds is found in illusionistic image panels, vinyl dividers, a pixelized carpet with a picture of a white horse, and a wavy architectural mural whose reality seems altogether malleable. The book ends with an image of an ancient statue placed on a real stone capital, bringing us all the way back to the real/not real identification tests evoked by the book’s title.
With so many contemporary photobooks busy evoking moods, probing histories and memories, or diving into personal identity, the deadpan precision found in both Alessandrini’s photographs and the conception of this photobook feels markedly different. But underneath that rigidity is a classic photographic struggle of attempting to use a visual medium to document something invisible. In I Am Not a Robot, Alessandrini has taken on a thorny conceptual challenge, and delivered an engagingly compelling and visually meticulous answer.
Collector’s POV: Andrea Alessandrini does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).