JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Artphilein Editions (here). Trifold hardcover, 21x14cm, 56 pages, with 34 color reproductions. Includes texts by the artist, and additional reference materials. In an edition of 400 copies. Design by Giulia Brivio. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Given the rhythms of our interconnected 21st century lives, the simple properties (and jargon) of the virtual network that links us together have become second nature. We routinely talk about servers, switches, and routers that connect the Internet and other communications networks together, and we understand that this infrastructure passes packets of data around the globe in milliseconds, and that once delivered, that data is transformed into useful information by the software applications that run everything from smartphones and TVs to a dizzying range of computing devices we now take for granted.
Most of us don’t think about the movement of stuff around the physical world in the same way, but of course, the parallels are there to be seen. We have roads, railways, and shipping lanes that crisscross the globe; ports, hubs, distribution centers, and warehouses that provide switching, repackaging, and rerouting; and trucks, trains, ships, and other vehicles that move physical goods around. And just like the packages of bits and bytes that speed though the Internet, there is a standard unit of conveyance that traverses this vast global shipping network – the rectangular steel shipping container.
The Italian photographer Marco D’Anna first began to pay attention to this network of planetary commerce during a trip to the Gulf of Aden in Somalia via the Suez Canal. It was there that he came face to face with the unbelievably massive ships that transport containers across the oceans, and soon, his curiosity pulled him further into the subject, kicking off trips to the port of Beijing and other harbor cities. And at the center of it all lies the humble shipping container, which D’Anna started to see as more than just a modular block, but as a conveyor of all kinds of economic, political, and even environmental influence.
D’Anna’s photobook One Belt One Road is ostensibly about China’s efforts to build a vast physical network, both across its own land mass and across the oceans, but D’Anna’s aesthetic approach quickly abstracts the subject into something more universal. Supporting texts included in the book detail some of the aspirations and plans China has for this expansive infrastructure project, as well as the investments, relationships, and partnerships it has been systematically building to support the effort. But when D’Anna gets his camera out, his subject is entirely the containers themselves, making the Chinese angle to his project a little less central.
As a photobook object, One Belt One Road smartly echoes the proportions of its primary subject – the book is a vertically-oriented rectangle, set at the relative size of the doors of a container. It has an innovative tri-fold construction, with a cover that stays in place magnetically, the two flaps opening up to reveal the bound book in the center. The front, back, and interior covers set the tone for D’Anna’s geometric approach to the subject, with flat frontal photographs of container doors on the front and an angled side view of the corrugated steel used to make the containers on the back. Inside, the images are printed full bleed, two to a spread, creating some unexpected links between adjacent pictures.
While shipping containers are often in motion, being hauled, lifted, and generally moved around, D’Anna has opted to capture them at rest, in stacks found at various ports, and since they are all the same size, they fit together snugly into various regular arrangements. So when D’Anna opts for a squared off picture plane, he gets arrays of small regular rectangles (when seen on end) or wider rectangles (when seen from the side), the bright colors of the containers creating blocked patterns and layered progressions. D’Anna generally pushes the sky to an undifferentiated enveloping white, centering all our attention on the arrangement of the containers; shadows similarly fall to deep black, making the geometries of the colors seem more vibrant. When the blocks are stacked at 6 or 7 high in dense groups, D’Anna has even more fun – looking straight up from the canyon created by stacks placed near each other, or moving off to an angle, showing us the piles as they stair-step upward. From there, the pictures get more layered, with overlapping blocks flattened into more complex compositions, the vertical striping of the corrugated steel adding regular linear patterning to the colored arrays.
As the pages turn, D’Anna slowly moves in closer, cropping out the sky and paying more attention to the surface of the containers. D’Anna finds interest in fragments of shipping company logos and the often perplexing symbols and numbers found on the sides, seeing their graphic qualities and color stories. The same can be said for D’Anna’s attention to wear – these containers work hard and they are variously battered, dented, rusting, and generally beat up. D’Anna sees the geometries in repetitions of connectors and platforms, and discovers gestural movement in the slashes, scrapes, and cuts that travel across the corrugated steel, leading to near abstractions that feel pulled by invisible motion. Seen in this way, all the spots and imperfections feel like badges of honor, earned by the distance of miles traveled.
In the end, One Belt One Road is a single subject photobook that succeeds because of its simplicity. While D’Anna could likely have gone further and taken even more aesthetic risks with these shipping containers (and gotten even closer still), his photobook feels tightly edited with a minimum of fuss and waste. He offers a few solid, iterative examples of each kind of view and then moves on, tying the results into a neat package that conceptually and physically echoes the contents. While the China angle never gets entirely flushed out in the photographs, as a straightforward visual meditation on the geometric properties of shipping containers, One Belt One Road is surprisingly engaging.
Collector’s POV: Marco D’Anna does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).