Nicolò Degiorgis, Blue as gold

JTF (just the facts): Published by Rorhof (self-published) in 2017 (here). Softcover with clear plastic sleeve, 46 pages, with 12 loose double sided photographs. Includes a short text by the artist. In an edition of 350 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past few years, the ongoing refugee crisis has become one of the most serious threats to the cohesion of the European Union and one of the largest collective challenges for the region since the Second World War. The crisis has largely been caused by the response of the member states to the arrival of the refugees, rather than by refugees themselves. Today, refugees continue to cross the sea to seek a safe haven, often fleeing the immediate perils of war and persecution, and to die in record numbers. Their perilous voyages – often on foot, in wooden fishing boats, or on flimsy unseaworthy inflatable rafts through the Sahara, the Balkans, and across the Mediterranean – are almost unimaginable in the age when travel is rather easy and fun for most.

The Italian photographer Nicoló Degiorgis first became known in the photobook community with his 2014 book Hidden Islam, and since that time, he has released a number of other photobooks under his imprint Rorhof. His most recent effort Blue as gold was created during his residency at the Italian Institute of Culture in Paris in 2017 and offers his take on the European refugees crisis, particularly as it is occurring currently in his native Italy. It has a straightforward underlying concept, yet its unconventional design decisions make the book stand out, reinforcing its message.

From a design and construction standpoint, Blue as gold is deceivingly simple. The book doesn’t have a traditional cover, instead its front is a single sheet of shiny golden paper, identical to the pages that follow, without any text or visual elements. It is a high quality heavy paper, and the pages are stitched with white thread. The thin volume comes with a transparent plastic sleeve with the title of the book on it. There are no text or graphic elements in the book, and a simple piece of paper, inserted at the end, provides the publishing details and basic description.

For this project, Degiorgis sourced his pictures from the Internet, selecting images, now immediately recognizable, of boats hopelessly overcrowded with migrants. And from the moment we open the book, we get the sense that Degiorgis is up to something different. The double sided images are printed on glossy paper in a very small size. They are inserted between the pages, one image per spread, appearing at various positions.

The images compiled by Degiorgis are shown in their positive version on one side and converted to negative on the other. Each image can be easily taken out for a closer look, or perhaps to be re-inserted in a different spot. The pages of the book alternate between the blue of the sea and its opposite color, gold (perhaps of the afternoon sun, or of some kind of sainty halo). The golden negative version of an image appears against the blue color of the page, while the normal blue version rides in the yellow. Each image is so tiny as compared to the scale of the surrounding page that it seems like the minuscule boat is completely lost in the wide open waters of the ocean. This presentation definitely has a strong effect.

While it is hard to see any details in the images, the meaning is rather obvious. The photographs of tightly packed boats carrying people towards Europe have become one of the appalling symbols of the current refugee crisis, along with discarded lifejackets, refugee camps, rescue teams, and other indirect horrors, together representing an accumulation of human misery and despair. Indeed, Degiorgis does not have to provide captions or any detailed descriptions, as we immediately know what the images reference. We also know how often these dangerous boats capsize or don’t make it to their final destinations. Presenting the subject in this unexpected form, Degiorgis gets our attention. The generous use of gold throughout the book draws associations with global wealth and stability, those shiny positives standing in a stark contrast to the negated moments of human drama found in people struggling to survive by crossing the sea.

This crisis is likely to remain a top-of-mind subject, as today’s voyagers are reshaping the European narrative. Degiorgis’ photobook offers a creative and unexpected way to examine the refugee crisis and our perception of it. As we flip through the book, it is hard not to think how ordinary it has become, but the artist’s clever inversion has made it urgent once more. In the end, Blue as gold is a no-nonsense project, yet it is dramatically and elegantly executed. It reflects the artist’s demands to express concern, to draw attention, and to take a stand, using innovations in design and conception to make his points all the more powerful.

Collector’s POV: Nicoló Degiorgis 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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