JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Kris Graves Projects (here); also available from the photographer’s website (here). Softcover, 48 pages with 30 black-and-white reproductions, 7×8.5 inches. Includes a foreword by the photographer. In an edition of 250 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: A breeze drifts through the photograph, dusting it with a tinge of late spring or early summer. In the distance, antennas rise like ship masts against a hazy sky. A man is working on a deck, while a dog on the neighboring roof tries to watch him. It is a place suspended in mystery, as if everything dear was not to be seen, but hidden behind closed blinds and rough walls, revealing nothing but the brick and mortar they are made of. Closer, standing on an upper-floor terrace, a little girl looks at the camera from a building across the street. Surrounded by flowerpots and dangling cables, she is poised and skeptical in the way only a five-year-old can be – one who knows the rules, but longs to break them. Perhaps, she is waiting for lunch, or for the siesta to end, ready to return to her friends and the narrow streets below. Streets I cannot see, but know are there. How would I? Because looking at the cover of Andrea Modica’s latest photobook, I find a memory of myself, standing on a similar terrace, at a similar age, in the same town. Lentini.
About halfway between Catania and Syracuse, Lentini is not a tourist town. Purportedly the only Greek settlement not located on the Sicilian coast, it is neither stately nor picturesque; the kind of place you wouldn’t end up in unless you, or your relatives, were born there. Modica came to the town by coincidence, perhaps destiny. Born into a family of Southern Italian descent, she first traveled to the country in the summer of 1987. Equipped with a backpack and a large-format camera, it was her first trip abroad. “I landed in Milan and did some sightseeing and photographing as I made my way south by train. I had the summer off from my teaching job at SUNY Oneonta, and wanted to see the country I’d been hearing so much about while growing up in Brooklyn, with an emphasis on seeing the south.”
Headed to Sicily without any defined plans, Modica found herself in a train compartment with a family of three. Given the long hours of their journey, a conversation inevitably unfolded. “It was quite moving to share this trip with them”, Modica wrote me. “They were making their yearly visit to their hometown, Lentini, coming from Switzerland, where the father was employed in a factory. It had been imperative that they would leave their familiar and beloved home for work.” Speaking exclusively in Italian, that Modica did not learn at home but taught herself, the family was impressed, but also concerned, that a young woman would embark on such an adventure alone. Knowing this insular culture and all the social involutions it entailed back then (and still does today) – including superstition, pride, and sexism as much as genuine care and hospitality – it is not surprising that they invited the young photographer to stay with them and their extended family in Lentini. For the following week, sharing a room with three other women, Modica was introduced to a tightly knit community that she began to photograph. This first experience sparked to a successful Fulbright application with the intention to document the town’s women and girls. Yet, as it is usually the case with Modica’s projects, it became something else, once she began shooting.
Elegant, like a well-kept notebook, Modica’s Lentini encapsulates her thirty-year relationship with a forgotten town and its people. Unfolding as an evocative sequence that is organized within single and double-page spreads (and thoughtfully edited by Kris Graves), we see photographs of men and women, young and old; children and teenagers; alone and in groups; in their homes and gardens, on the streets, or the edge of town. Most of these monochrome images live from the faces and gestures they distill – ordinary expressions of ordinary people that, in front of Modica’s camera, become extraordinarily telling. There is a realness to them that might be called documentary, but isn’t, because it has little to do with reality, and everything with Modica’s photographic method and conceptual approach, that she describes as:
“Using an 8×10 camera, everything is completely set up. However, during the process of setting up, things reveal themselves and I have the opportunity to see them and the choice to include them or not. [. . .] I’m not interested in making pictures about the fact that the photographs are made. Instead I’m obsessed with sleight of hand, not having the viewer trip over my equipment or my decisions or collaboration and negotiation that occurs when I photograph another person. At best, the conceptual aspects of my work are hidden in a traditional presentation including a well-practiced use of photography’s formal elements and a hand-made platinum print.”
What manifests, then, within these sumptuously seductive images, is the photographer’s unerring eye for the quintessential: whether it lies the relationship between a tray of local sweets and the bending fingers of a longing hand; the determined posture of a girl sitting on a fading hopscotch grid; or the way in which an elderly lady, wearing a headscarf and a shawl, observes a stuffed seagull standing on her kitchen table, like a remnant of some long lost love.
Formally, Modica’s images are far from being anecdotal or decisive instants. Instead they carry the essence of a slowly evolving moment. A moment that retraces the fine line between fact and fiction, and that photographically recalls both the intentionality of Paul Strand and the tender ambiguity of Larry Fink. Another keynote that Modica shares with these photographers is the apparent equality, if not autonomy, of her subjects. I’d like to think of it as a particular kind of storytelling: one in which the subject narrates, while the photographer is not recording, but listening. The results can be distinctly unsettling – not in the sense of being disturbing or troublesome, but in the sense of disrupting the familiar, or familiarizing the foreign, without ever fully unlocking it.
Take, for instance, the photograph of an elderly man, shot from behind. We see his broad shoulders covered in tweed; his carefully combed ponytail that cannot hide his balding head; while a glistening watch and golden ring accentuate the adjusting gesture of his hand. You could almost get lost in this moment of quotidian vanity, if it wasn’t for the nail of his ring finger, curving like a blade. In another photograph, a young woman confronts the camera. And as you look at her open face resting in her hand, her arm resting on a chair, you realize that the woman leaning into her, perhaps her mother, is not merely resting, but bound to a wheelchair. Her arm heavy, her hand discreetly clutched as if holding onto the blanket on her lap, but barely succeeding. It is details like these through which Modica insinuates relationships, and transforms silent thoughts into tangible expressions of the body.
It takes a lot of trust to make pictures like these. A trust that Modica has gained repeatedly, not just in Lentini, but all her previous work, most forcefully present in Treadwell and Barbara. This mutual exchange is more complicated than it might seem. It involves time, kindness, and the willingness to take risks. In Lentini, a town that “had a hard time adjusting to a young woman living alone”, as Modica recalls, these risks involved the physical discomfort of dealing with corrupt people and “the occasional dangerous situation”, as well as the psychological one of being called a whore by strangers. She persisted regardless, and in doing so made lifelong friends, who supported her project and opened many doors for her work.
What strikes me when I look at this slender, beautiful book, is the timelessness of Modica’s photographs. Taken between 1987 and 2017, her images don’t show the years that lie between them, but radiate with an enduring atmosphere. The absence of captions and dates only strengthen this impression. Instead of documenting the passing of time, Lentini speaks with a succinct tenderness, one that is capable of carrying bewilderment and mystery at once. An intimacy, we cannot see, only sense.
Collector’s POV: Andrea Modica does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).