Nicoló Degiorgis, Hidden Islam

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2014 by Rorhof Books (here). Hardcover, 90 pages, with 84 black and white and 42 color photographs (shown in gatefolds). Includes a detailed map of northeast Italy and an essay by Martin Parr. The book won the Author Book Award 2014 at the recent Rencontres d’Arles festival. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given all of the innovation going on right now in contemporary photobook publishing, we are starting to see more and more risk taking books that consciously integrate the photographs and the book design, to the point that the traditional single image per right hand page format seems like a quaint and distant memory. Nicoló Degiorgis’ Hidden Islam is a smart example of this tightly coupled approach, where the subject matter content, the photographs themselves (both black and white and color), the style of these photographs, and the manner in which they are presented in sequence on paper are so cleverly and intricately intertwined that the result is an elegantly meditative, interactive book experience.

Degiorgis’ interest lies in the proliferation of makeshift places of Islamic worship found in northeastern Italy. As explained in Martin Parr’s introduction, there are 1.35 million Muslims in Italy (many of them migrant workers), but only 8 official mosques in the entire country. While religious tolerance is the law of the land, social and political pressure (particularly from right wing anti-immigrant politicians) have driven Muslims underground, forcing them to create temporary mosques in a variety of highly unlikely locations. Degiorgis’ five year project has been to tell the story of these places, documenting each one with meticulous care, and then building the resulting photographs up into a larger taxonomy of improvised religion.

Photographically, Degiorgis has taken a hybrid approach, which manifests itself later in the design of the photobook. For each location, he has taken a deadpan, street level, frontal view of the setting in black and white; these images are workmanlike and often dull, capturing the doors, windows, and architectural details of forgettable warehouses and shop fronts. These places are then categorized into typological groups (with post codes): supermarkets, apartments, stadiums, gyms, garages, and the like, providing a flavor for the diversity of locations that are being used for prayer. A quick flip through the book is a numbing series of less than memorable venues.

Interleaved with these grim facades are color images of the activities inside. In these photographs, Degiorgis often opts for more of a bird’s eye view, looking down on rows of bent over worshippers. Shoes are removed, feet are washed, carpets are laid down, men and women are separated, and special foods are laid out, in back alleys, on basketball courts, in empty factories, and under plastic tarps. Whether alone or in large groups, prayers are taking place with discipline and fervency, regardless of the obvious flaws of the location.

What’s fascinating about the book design here is that these color pictures are printed on gatefolds that must be unfolded; they lie hidden unless they are opened up. So the process of engaging with the photographs moves back and forth between looking at a pair of unwelcoming, faceless buildings in dingy black and white, and then pulling open the gatefold to see the communal prayers going on in full color. This same opening and closing happens on every spread, so the viewer is constantly turning pages, moving back and forth from outside to inside. It’s a breathtakingly simple device, but it works extremely well, integrating the idea of “hiding” right into the experience of the book. Each spread is initially blankly anonymous and unknowable, and then magically inhabited and personal when revealed. The logical framework that lies at the foundation of this project is so clear that it makes the telling of a complex story feel effortless – by opening and closing the pages, we tangibly understand the reality of these hidden places of worship. By the end of the book, the unfolding and folding becomes a kind of calming rhythm.

In this project, the design of this photobook stands on equal footing with the photographs themselves; it doesn’t attempt to recede into the background to allow the photographs to command center stage. At every turn of the page, we are reminded of the design as it interrupts our natural reading flow, and that discovery process reinforces the themes depicted in the photographs. It’s a cohesive and novel blend, where structure and photographic content mesh together with memorable flair.

Collector’s POV: While Nicoló Degiorgis has had various solo and group shows in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, he does not appear to have US representation at this time. As such, contacting the artist directly via the link in the sidebar seems like the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Nicolò Degiorgis, Rorhof Books

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