Angelo Vignali, How to Raise a Hand

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Witty Books (here). Softcover (20×28 cm), 128 pages, with 68 black and white photographs. Includes an essay by Benedetta Casagrande. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Federico Barbon. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: How to Raise a Hand is the second photobook by the Italian photographer Angelo Vignali, who in his artistic practice focuses on personal and vernacular narratives that show universal themes. His earlier book, Flattened in Time and Space (reviewed here), centered around the character of his grandfather, Concetto Drago. In that book, he mixed family photos, photos taken by friends, and his own images, taken over decades, to both look back at the scattered family memories and to rethink the potential of a collective archive.

In How to Raise a Hand, Vignali again starts with his family archives, and this time his project centers around his father and the “enormous archive of photographs and drawings his father produced throughout his life.” As an illustrator, his father used photographs as a reference for his drawings. As Vignali was going through that archive, he unearthed 313 black and white cut-out prints of his father’s fingers. “I was struck by the fact that these prints were a part of his body, and his hands were really similar to mine,” shares Vignali. He decided to turn this discovery into a conceptual project, bringing back the presence of his father and creating a dialogue. In How to Raise a Hand, Vignali combines images from his father’s archives with performative and sculptural elements to examine the themes of memory, family, and loss.

As a photobook, How to Raise a Hand is very simple yet quite effective. It is a softcover, medium sized book, and a collection of cut-outs of fingers and numbers takes over its cover, creating a playfully fun but also mysterious introduction to the project. Inside, just as in the case of his first book, the images are arranged in chapters, this time in seven, with simple numbered titles. This consistency in design reflects his systematic approach, and also becomes essential in building the narrative and the rhythm of the book. An essay by Benedetta Casagrande, with the great title “Molting, Molding, Mourning”, closes the book with reflections on Vignali’s practice. 

The photobook begins with a sequence of images showing silicon fingers, big enough to note details like skin lines. The first chapter then opens with a horizontal image, placed at the top of the right page, showing a box full of archival pictures. Slowly, page after page, Vignali unpacks it, showing us the bizarre cut-outs of fingers his father stored there. One photo depicts a selection of images attached with pins to a string. Another series of photos in this chapter shows his father’s suit jackets hanging on a clothes rack, with a couple of packed IKEA bags next to it, in an otherwise empty room. Then these jackets appear floating in a room, arranged in a particular order. Suddenly, ordinary objects get a second life. 

Chapters two and three focus on hand molds and the process of their creation, respectively. In this study, Vignali made various casts of his own hands, constantly looking for similarities with his father’s hands. The physicality of objects is important to the artist, and working with materials and shaping them was essential to this project. Chapter four is the most striking visually – here the cut-outs of fingers take over the pages, shifting to an unexpected and very strange collaged visual flow. Each spread mixes a number of fingers, arranging them in various combinations and categories, often based on their shapes (straight, bent forward, or inwards). And then chapter five mixes hand sculptures with actual human hands, blurring them in the final shot. The sequence of images creates layers and meanings, making connections between them and bringing them to life.   

Eight self-portraits of the artist with his father close the visual part of the book. They reenact Renaissance style portraits of a king and son. The father wears padded sleeves, referencing the clothes of the time, and his hand rests on his son’s shoulder. The very final photo in the sequence is out of focus and blurry, and father’s face is replaced with another cut-out of his face. And in this blurry, underexposed image, the similarities in the features of the father and the son are undeniable. 

Vignali’s project brings to mind a very different, yet somewhat similar book by the Croatian photographer Sara Perovic, My Father’s Legs (reviewed here.) It offers a playful formal study of men’s legs, intertwining a father, a husband, and a family passion for tennis. Other recently published photobooks that use performative staging and play as motifs include Pedro Guimarães’ Rato Tesoura Pistola (reviewed here), produced in collaboration with the artist’s two children, cleverly bringing together photos, crayon drawings and pancake masks, and Yurian Quintanas Nobel’s Dream Moons (reviewed here) turns home isolation into an uncanny parade of discoveries.

What stands out about How to Raise a Hand is the way it merges a lighthearted and clever mood with a moving personal investigation. It’s another terrific example of turning an archive of family memories and ephemera into a seductively enjoyable and visually exciting photobook. 

Collector’s POV: Angelo Vignali does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).

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