Pino Musi, Border Soundscapes

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Artphilein Editions (here). Hardcover, 72 pages, with 30 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay (in Italian/English) by Marie Rebecchi. Design by Fabrizio Radaelli. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Time and again, when we analyse how a photographer sees the world, we come back to the flattening effect of a camera’s indifferent mechanistic vision, and its propensity for collapsing three depth-filled dimensions into a single uniform plane. This effect is particularly common in architectural photography, especially in urban settings or when the subject is a modern or contemporary building made of steel, concrete, and glass – the aesthetic road to rigorous geometric abstractions constructed from skyscraper details has been trod many, many times before. Without much effort, we can tick off Callahan, Crane, and Nixon who smartly explored this area decades ago, and more recently Wolf (in Hong Kong) and Johansson (in Tokyo), with plenty of worthy substitutes waiting in the art historical wings.

The Italian photographer Pino Musi doesn’t claim to be the first to make pared down architectural studies, but his images certainly push the genre to its edges and extremes. He aggressively crops out the sky and other identifiers, layers adjacent buildings into vertical strips, deftly uses contrasts of light and dark to highlight repetitions and patterning, and reduces balconies, windowed facades, and brickwork into all-over surfaces like textiles.

Where he diverges from the architectural pack is in the conceptual mindset he applies to his picture making – while nearly everyone else who has tackled this anonymous subject matter has done so thinking about the resulting images as abstracted cityscapes, urbanscapes, or even landscapes, Musi frames his works as “soundscapes,” thereby encouraging us to see (or better yet “listen” to) them as representations or embodiments of sound. While this might sound odd at first, Ansel Adams was an accomplished pianist and music teacher, and often characterized his negatives as “scores” that he the meticulously “played” during the printing process; Musi is just the latest to pick up a variant of that same artistic parallel and examine it more fully.

What’s intriguing is that when we step away from our usual visual analytical tools and instead apply the vocabulary and structural frameworks of music to these photographs, the analogies and connections are right there to be found. Various individual motifs, details, and architectural fragments become the equivalent of notes and phrases which then build up into compositions akin to complex melodies, harmonies, movements, and even hypothetically at least, symphonies. Repetitions and patterns of ornamentation or design resolve into rhythms and beats, and the density of these geometric patterns becomes analogous to tempo. Similarly, Musi’s careful management of the scale and intensity of light and dark in his pictures offers opportunities for equivalent contrasts of loudness and softness, and subtle grey scale variations and textural opposites stand in for nuances of timbre. Seen as integrated compositions, the photographs each have their own sense of musical dynamics, and if we allow ourselves to “hear” them, Musi’s aesthetic decisions begin to become visible, the “why” of a particular composition explained by its sonic equivalences.

Looking at pictures this way takes some getting used to. The first few photographs in the photobook are like teaching examples – simple arrangements that calibrate our sensory perception toward a musical interpretation. A massive, concrete block is surrounded by a dense pattern of square windows, providing contrasts of light and heavy, long (or deep) and short. The next image introduces the repetitions of tempo, with a stair stepping concrete wall blocking two soaring conical verticals wrapped in tight grids of lines. From there, Musi offers a deliberate slowdown of brick facades and flat sky, and then textural variety, in the form of a flat wall, a mottled barrier, an intricately striated form, and the intruding leaves of a tree.

Now attuned to the idea of music in these photographs, we are ready for Musi to reveal more complicated arrangements. Two dense sections of windows are separated by a expanse of blank sky (a rest?) and connected by a literal (and musical) bridge. A frenetic, percussive facade of windows and balconies transitions into flat planes of white and grey, like a controlled endpoint or resolution. Bold white girders slash across a background spread of rubble, chain link fence, and staccato striping like a soaring melody line or a crash of tympani. As the images pile up, we “hear” them better and better – dark windows repeat in rhythmic progression, geometric blocks move in and out like modulations, and black light poles march through the fog with thumping regularity.

The design of Border Soundscapes is understated, but cleverly matched to Musi’s conceptual framework. The cover features a paired set of inverted volume/intensity graphs, the lines stepping up in width and height as they quantify their measurements. And the book itself is roughly the size of a record album, the large square format providing plenty of space for high quality image reproductions.

Seeing photographs with this set of musical glasses encourages us to measure them more closely, to quantify and count, and to key in on mathematical proportions in the compositions. It makes us more aware of arrangement, pace, and organization than we might normally be, and that line of thinking, when applied to images like these, feels surprisingly fresh and energizing. While we have seen images like Musi’s before, I’ve certainly never been forced to think about them in such an unconventional manner. His is a photography of structure, where every geometric detail fits into a larger and more harmoniously complicated progression.

Collector’s POV: Pino Musi 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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One comment

  1. D. Coma /

    “He aggressively crops out the sky…” Yeah, and that’s why in seven of the pictures you used to illustrate the article, the sky is clearly visible.

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