Federico Clavarino, Italia O Italia

JTF (just the facts): Published in September 2014 by Akina Books (here). Hardcover with tipped-in plates, 136 pages, with 69 color photographs. There are no essays or texts. Italia O Italia is also available (here) in a Collectors’ Edition with 1 signed/numbered print in two editions of 15 each (18×24 cm (image 12×18 cm), Hahnemüle photo rag paper 310 gr 100% cotton) not included in the edit of the book. Italia o Italia is Clavarino’s third photobook (following La Vertigine (2010) and Ukraina Passport (2011)). (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Italia O Italia, the new photobook from Italian photographer Federico Clavarino, is a captivating fictional journey through modern day Italy, a visual labyrinth rich with references and symbols. The product of nearly five years of work, the project connects various known and unknown places via their architectural elements, adding layers of implied meanings while maintaining a deliberate sense of enigma. Clavarino has said that his work is “originating from problems regarding location in space and in time”, and his photographs seem consciously open-ended and mysterious, specifically placed and yet indeterminate.

Clavarino uses formal repetitions, references, and recurring elements as the backbone of his allusive narrative. We follow along as the photographer captures fragments of everyday life (brick walls, statues, windows, ruins, corners, silhouettes), his narrative built through the aggregation and sequencing of these images and the complex relationships between them. He finds continuity in contrast, repeatedly opting for awkward photographic angles, intentional shadows, and a very particular treatment of light. His colors create dynamism, making unlikely connections and propelling the page turns; the rusty red of a closed umbrella spills over into a cut-out silhouette of a man, while a black garbage bag with white paper on top may or may not relate to a double spread of nuns in white against black background. Again and again, color moves us through the book, sewing the unlikely differences together into a single flow.

Clavarino’s background is in literature and creative writing, but he has chosen photography as the language of his imagination. While there are no helpful texts or captions, and the book title embossed on the spine is nearly invisible, his pictures are bursting with symbols and allusions. The cover image shows us an open hand holding a mechanical watch part – time has clearly stopped and that stillness spreads throughout every image of the book. An archway leads nowhere, followed by an image of a shadow, then an unnailed wooden board – the lack of motion and the prevalence of deserted spaces make us feel as if we are in uninhabited surroundings, frozen in time. There are almost no people in the photographs, and the few who do appear are shot from the back and look disoriented, further contributing the overall mystery. Only near the end do we see pictures that feel more alive – grapes on a red rubber glove, a man carrying apples (or maybe peaches) in a plastic bag.

It’s also possible to see Clavarino’s book through an indirect political lens, its politics embedded in the representation of the streets and corners of Italian countryside, the shadows of ancient ruins, and numerous references to the Italian past. The images are full of dark symbols – a hand as an echo of Italy’s political heritage, hands holding a snake and keys connecting us back to temptation and the fall of civilization. The book ends with a glimpse of a open field behind a house; is it an escape? or maybe a different path? The images are loosely reminiscent of the work of his countrymen Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi, but much tighter, more pared down and pessimistic.

The form of the book fuses with its content, and its design is genuinely simple and consistent. In the photobook world, where the focus on the innovative elements very often dominates the content, this simplicity is a welcome relief. The book has a very classic layout: with just a few exceptions, only one image is used per spread, with wide white margins, and the absence of text leaves us entirely to our own interpretation. In short, it’s straightforward but elegantly effective – nothing interrupts the flow of the visual narrative – and the book is well designed and printed with high quality and sensitivity.

In the end, Italia O Italia is a thoughtful visual and intellectual adventure, giving us a complex view of a modern Italy that is both enabled and trapped by its past.

Collector’s POV: Federico Clavarino 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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