Continuity and Change
Francesco Neri - Wooden Tool Shed, Imagebeeld Editions, 2024
Continuity and Change
If you have a knife, and you break the blade and replace it, and then you break the handle and replace that, is it the same knife? This is a well-known philosophical question but for reasons that will become apparent, it is the first thought that comes to mind when I look at Francesco Neri’s photographs gathered here, and it offers a rich point of entry.
Although his subject matter has varied, for several years Neri has been photographing the life and landscape of farming around his home town of Faenza, Emilia-Romagna, southwest of Bologna. The region and its rural activity are the air he breathes. Hi photographs underscore a connection to the land, and assert a continuity across generations in changing times.
Neri took a while to come to his mature approach to photography and his themes. Born in 1982, as a young man he tried many ways of making pictures, figuring out his relation to the world and how cameras might render that relation. At a certain point, he crossed paths with the photographer Guido Guidi, who became something of a mentor, as he has for many younger image makers in Italy. A distinct path into photography opened up. More importantly, another way of being in the world opened up, one that is slower, more measured, less inclined to chase after fleeting moments. Neri began to attune to much longer wavelengths of time and history, and a deeper sense of place started to emerge. The landscape was not to be moved through, like a swift hunter, but dwelled within, belonging and somewhat rooted. An 8x10inch view camera helped to slow the pace. It cannot be rushed. Neri has been using one for fifteen years now.
There is a tradition of this kind of photography in the region. It is a generous tradition, with all kinds of directions and different sensibilities within it. There is something international about it too, drawing on aspects of North American photography, particularly the legacy of Walker Evans as it has been carried forward in the work of Stephen Shore; as well post-war German and British photography of the social landscape. To have an affinity with a particular place or region, while also feeling connected to a much wider and longer understanding of photography, one that crosses continents and can be traced back almost to the beginnings of the medium, is very special.
Neri spends a lot of time making portraits of farmers, but has also made remarkable images of structures that are important to the farming life: tool sheds. Let us imagine Neri observing one of these sheds, approaching it perhaps for the fourth or fifth time. Moving around it. Looking closely. Stepping forward, stepping backward. Noticing the small differences since he saw it last. Getting to know it. Waiting for the light. Setting up his tripod and camera. Making his judgements as to how this three-dimensional form, in all its particularity, should be translated to two. Making all the microscopically fine but necessary adjustments in preparation for an exposure.
Imagine the camera and the tool shed together in the landscape, and Neri standing with both structures. It is not such a stretch of the imagination to see a deep kinship between the camera and the shed. The word camera, of course, derives from the Latin, meaning room or chamber. A camera obscura is a darkened room with a small hole on one wall, allowing light to enter and cast itself as an image upon the opposite wall. For all the constant changes in photography, the endless so-called ‘advances’ in its technology, it has not moved so far beyond the darkened chamber pierced by light. Even your smartphone has one. Most 8×10 cameras are wood constructions, and not much different from the early cameras of the nineteenth century. Lenses have not improved significantly since then, either. This kind of camera, and the kinds of photography it permits, live on today as relevant as ever. They have endured.
We might say something similar about the common tool shed. Nobody ‘designed’ it. It is a lasting expression of a common vernacular – pragmatic, adapted, renewable but essentially constant. If its form has an aesthetic charge, it comes from its gentle sense of evolved purpose and function. In 1955, Walker Evans published in Fortune magazine a set of photographs of cheap but reliable hand tools. A wrench. Pliers. A crate opener. Tin snips. A trowel. It was a celebration of everyday beauty, but also a riposte to the growing cult of design and designers that was beginning to accelerate mass production and waste. Evans honoured these lasting tools with exquisitely direct but exacting photographs. Each tool was centred on a plain background, moulded by gentle light, and reproduced on the page so that one might be tempted to reach out and feel the patina, the natural curves, and the unarguably correct edges of the tools. (A young Robert Frank assisted Evans, and later recalled: “I learned what it was to make a simple photograph.”)
So, let us say the encounter between an 8×10 camera and a tool shed, both modified but unchanged over generations, is a meeting of similar forms and values. A meeting of alter-egos, even, mediated by the photographer with a concern for both. An isolated box is used to photograph an isolated box. There is something miraculous about camera optics, in the way a rectangular shape can pass through a circular hole, through a curved glass lens, and re-emerge on the other side as a rectangular shape again, with all its infinitesimal details intact.
In one of Neri’s photographs we see the side elevation of a tool shed. The structure is covered in horizontal strips of what looks like thin metal. The strips overlap to waterproof the structure (similar to wooden clapboard buildings of the kind Evans loved to photograph in the 1930s). On the ground, there are rusting buckets. They probably have rainwater in them. Neri’s framing allows us to see just enough of the world around the tool shed. Trees and half-forgotten metal things. The withered winter remnants of optimistic weeds. Low sun warming cold air. But there, almost in the middle of the side of the shed is a small, circular hole. Perhaps at one point it was cut to let a pipe pass through the wall. Now there is no pipe, and the hole remains. If you put your eye to it, you might be able to see inside. In Neri’s photograph the hole is black. I find it irresistible to think that whatever purpose this shed was then serving, it was also an accidental camera obscura. Imagine Neri placing his tripod before the shed, and mounting his 8×10 camera. And yes, let us imagine that inside the shed, on the back wall, is a very feint image of Neri and his equipment, upside down and back to front. His photograph of the shed is also a self-portrait, and a contemplation of what photography is.
Even if we do not want to go quite that far in our speculation, there is still a sense in which Neri’s photographs of sheds are portraits, and also settings for portraits. He observes the comportment of the structures, how they hold themselves under pressure from worldly forces, upright but a little crooked, and posed by the camera’s way of fixing things. This is what the sheds looked like at this moment in their life journey. Come back next year and they will be different. The same, but different, and then one year you will find them gone.
Neri walks around the structures, sometimes photographing from different angles, accepting the limitation of the single image by adding others so that we might get a sense of the whole. This is where photography’s two main modes and addition – series and sequence – combine to profound effect. When we look at a group of photographs taken of the same thing from different angles, naturally we tend to place them in the same moment, as if they are simultaneous views. Of course, it is really a little image sequence. Neri has made one photograph, then another, then another. However, the idea of a sequence becomes more explicit when he photographs the same structure, from the same point of view, over time. We notice the incidental changes, as we would in two portraits of a person made years apart. A slight shift in colour. A minor repair. A deepening of patina. Series and sequence equate to passage across space and through time. These are Neri’s twin axes, exploring a region and living with it, connected and not separate.
When Neri makes portraits of people, the sheds become backdrops. Again, it is hard to escape the benevolent presence of Walker Evans and his remarkable portraits of tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, standing in front of their clapboard facades. If photography’s temporal condition connects it to the momentary, and thus to change, it is heartening that in other ways it can be a supportive medium of continuity and long duration. It is not a matter of imitating photographers that have come before us, but of sharing a disposition towards the medium and towards the world, through its changes. Evans loved the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, but it was not an influence so much as a significant affirmation of his own direction. Knowing something of what came before, in the world and in photography, is in itself a rich source of motivation, and inspiration. The writer Umberto Eco put it like this:
The exercise of knowledge creates relationships, continuity and emotional attachments. It introduces us to parents other than our biological ones. It allows us to live longer, because we don’t just remember our own life but also those of others. It creates an unbroken thread that runs from our adolescence (and sometimes from infancy) to the present day. And all this is very beautiful.
Indeed, all this is very beautiful, but the beauty of photography is also the beauty of the world it pictures, and the two cannot in the end be separated. The one, somehow, honours the other.