Nicolò Degiorgis, Prison Museum

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Rorhof Books (here). Softcover with metal bracket binding (16×24 cm) and printed belly band, 440 pages, with paired color photographs. Includes essays by Letizia Ragaglia and Anna Rita Nuzzaci. In an edition of 1000 copies. Cover design by Michele Degiorgis and Walter Hutton. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The city of Bolzano, Italy, lies in the province of South Tyrol, in the northern part of the country, near the Italian Alps and not far from the border with Austria. It features several medieval castles, a cathedral, an archeological museum, with vineyards and funicular railways up in the mountains nearby. For the photographer Nicolò Degiorgis, Bolzano is his hometown, and the location of his independent publishing house Rorhof.

Across the history of photography, there is an undeniable repeated pattern of photographers paying close attention to their local environments, and ultimately seeing (and documenting) nuances of life there that went unnoticed by others. In Degiorgis’ case, he has been making photographs in the area near Bolzano for more than a decade, and then turning those images into innovative self-published photobooks. Over the years, we have considered a number of these books: Hidden Islam (from 2014, reviewed here), PEAK (from 2015, reviewed here), and Blue as gold (from 2017, reviewed here), the projects thoughtfully observing everything from the Muslim mosques hiding inside mundane buildings to the craggy rock formations in the nearby Dolomites.

Bolzano also has a relatively new contemporary art museum, Museion, which was built in 2008, and in the past several years, Degiorgis has exhibited several of his projects there. It’s a sleek futuristic cube designed by the Berlin-based architects Krüger Schuberth Vandreike, with eye-catching transparent front and back facades. And perhaps it was his repeated comings and goings to the museum that led Degiorgis to notice that the city’s prison (built in 1870) is located nearby on the same block. The serendipitous proximity of these two seemingly unrelated structures is the departure point for Degiorgis’ most recent project/photobook Prison Museum.

Degiorgis’ conceptual framework for this project is quite a bit more rigid that we might have expected. It would have been straightforward for Degiorgis to notice these two buildings, and then to make photographs of them, leading to a back-and-forth comparison of the two. Along the way, it might have even become clear that a museum and a prison are unexpectedly conceptually similar, in that they respectively house (or store) objects and people.

But Degiorgis must have made this association early on in this project, as his execution of the comparison of the two buildings (and indirectly, their two functions) is astonishingly exacting. His images are not just paired after the fact with some lucky resemblances, but seem to have been meticulously scouted, planned, and pre-visualized ahead of time (likely bounded by his access to the buildings) to maximize the specific visual echoes the artist wanted to highlight. The juxtapositions are as perfect as seems possible within the constraints of such an effort, with vantage points, perspectives, and subject matter matched with eerie fidelity.

Prison Museum is organized as a relentless series of paired full bleed spreads, each with an image from the museum on the left and an image from the prison on the right. As seen by Degiorgis, while the surfaces and styles of the two structures are markedly different, the functional similarities between the two are uncanny. There are doors, walls, hallways, rooms, work areas, kitchens, bathrooms, storage areas, stairwells, and other practical spaces, and as seen by Degiorgis, the two feel like twins separated at birth (with the same underlying DNA, but different histories). Degiorgis then dives even deeper to find unlikely repetitions of fire extinguishers, doors held open by trash cans, telephones, sinks, hooks, desk chairs, urinals, television screens, mail slots, light switches, ladders, buckets with mops, benches, ping pong tables, and countless other objects that are found to be common to both locations. As this parade of pairings passes by, the dialogue between the two places starts to feel like a harmony, or one set of notes played in an octave higher than the other.

More unexpected is the inversion of aesthetics that are seen in the two locations – the museum is pared down, Minimalist, and functional to the point of unwelcoming sparseness, while the prison is worn, messy, and surprisingly human. While not exactly a reversal, these opposites of styling feel uneasy at best – isn’t an art museum supposed to be a lively place that brings people together to share art, while a prison is often a grim place where criminals are separated from society as punishment for their crimes? Perhaps the most striking image pairings in the book make this distinction explicit, with severe white walls and rooms at the museum matched with colorful painted murals and prison cells decorated with personal effects. While the museum is undeniably more elegantly refined, it’s almost as if the prison is a friendlier place to visit; seen as an aggregation, the museum has almost no color anywhere, while the prison has color nearly everywhere, particularly a soothing shade of lime green paint that sweeps through the halls.

The design and construction of Prison Museum are consistently thoughtful, with each and every detail and decision seemingly chosen or made with intention. At 400+ pages, Prison Museum is a brick of a book, but the clarity of its conception makes its heft seem appropriate. The cover is understated, with a simple design playing with the two words in the title connected by dots (almost like a walking map), the front cover with the words in one orientation and the back with the reverse. A white belly band encircles the cover with architectural line drawings of the two structures, one on the front and one on the back. The photobook is bound using two metal zip ties pulled through aligned holes, essentially “handcuffing” the pages together; the binding is intentionally tight, making it hard to actually open the book fully, forcing the images into closer proximity. And the pages themselves are cut in such a way that flipping them front to back produces only a stream of blank white pages, while leafing it the other way exposes all the full color images, setting up yet another back and forth choice. Just like the nearby physical location of the two buildings, Degiorgis’ book smartly replicates the feeling of close (almost too close) interleaved presence.

Few recent photobook projects feel as conceptually precise and rigorous as Prison Museum, and Degiorgis’ photographic execution amplifies that sense of crispness. This is a photobook that has been painstakingly engineered, almost like a mathematical proof, but with carefully constructed pictures. Prison Museum offers an unexpectedly compelling set of visual insights about the relationship of these two local buildings, the clarity of the argument forcing us to consider whether such unlikely parallels are more broadly universal than we might have imagined.

Collector’s POV: Nicolò Degiorgis does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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