“I first met Luigi Ghirri at Scandiano when he used to teach photography in the library. I remember him explaining the images. I didn’t manage to become his friend but I am now a friend of his wife Paola, though”.
I’m studying his large photographs “on Velvet paper, a 100% cotton paper – he explains – which comes from Germany; thanks to it I can get exactly the water colour-painted effect I love”.
I ask him where he prints, he answers in Reggio Emilia by a friend, Giulio Montecchi, who’s the Italian winner of macro-photography. He prints the photos with him: “he tends to saturate more than I do, when you work with light tones, everything comes out, the dominant colours emerge, even the ones that I’d rather leave out. When you take very saturated photos you cannot see the nuances, but when you take photos like these which are normally overexposed, then it’s another matter”. I ask him how he started: “Once I failed to set the film roll right and the resulting images happened to be stunning and thoroughly transformed. So it all happened by chance, in the ‘80s. This is a work I have been carrying out over a period of 30 years. It has been built slowly”.
Gloria Bianchino and I were introduced to Riccardo Varini by a mutual friend. I didn’t know his photos by then, so one evening he came to see me with these large portfolios and also much uncertainty, perhaps. His pictures soon struck me, they seemed the typical light paintings from the Thirties, the photos in black and white of the past, but the ones shot by Varini had a very different cut. I think Ghirri taught Varini one important thing: seeing and building a space full of intervals and voids. Varini has somehow succeeded in fully absorbing this Ghirri’s lesson.
Ghirri aimed at a density of colour able to go beyond reality, Ghirri wished to read the world like a manifesto, like an extreme colour tension, except for the time when he portrayed the studio and the house of Morandi and those empty time’s spaces. Varini seems to have actually understood and followed that attitude or else he might as well been influenced by Hopper, the American painter of the absence, of the timeless dimension, of the illuminated bars, of the empty stools, of the counter with a glass on it, of a bottle, or of the signs, everything seen from outside, events which are not really events.
If we now observe these Varini’s photos, starting from a suspended pier in the absolute white of the background except for the reflex designed by the water, or else the sequence of the trees, but also that stunning photo showing the telegraph pole, the horizon, and a grey trace hardly marked below; if we observe the emptiness of the snow, the tree and a ditch full of iced water; if we observe all that, we see how Varini is concerned with trying to capture the time’s dimension. A long still time which the photos of nowadays seem to have forgotten. I don’t think Varini will appreciate any rhetorical digression on the countryside, the fogs, the mythology of the lowland, because what he’s after is rather a balanced story which has nothing to do with the real world. He’s searching instead the dream of a particular kind of countryside, of a landscape which is so much mythical to have no bearing with reality.
One of his most realistic photo is apparently the one illustrating a forest in the snow, where the trees are suspended stripes just like in one of Munch’s painting, shapes whose presence suggest a space crammed with traces and signs as in the similar photo showing instead thin dark poles, again in the snow. But the same effect of thinning out, of time’s dilatation, of suspension of every movement is depicted by Varini also in other landscapes, let’s think of the one with the three blocks of houses against a pale blue sky and the earth spreading between the brown and the green; or in the photo with two persons, one sitting on a bench, the other playing before an expanse which is the sea, or a lake, perhaps, an expanse which almost becomes pink by tingeing with the sky.
Sometimes the night lights seem apparitions and Varini again unveils the charm of the tree barks and of the street lamps with their white indefinite balls; other times Varini seems instead to exactly evoke Ghirri’s photos, with their metaphysical Magritte-like spaces, but he wishes to make them impalpable by pulverising the image, just like in the photo showing two poles in the foreground, with a staggered wall; as in the seaside with the very high and coloured poles on the foreshortened right side; like in the absurd space of the deserted seashore, the deck chairs leaned against one another to build a sort of unusual parallelepiped.
When Varini takes photographs of people he is inclined to make them disappear using two methods: overexposure or blurring. So a seaside with different groups of bathers becomes a space full of characters who are almost shapeless, frayed, faded; and, in another photo, the three figures observing an empty space of sand and sky are hardly marked. So again the couple of bathers, their backs turned, or else the person walking on the right side of a canopy, and again the photo showing a small figure in the middle of the scene, perhaps a man fishing mussels.
In a number of photos, the pier with the couple on it, the skates and the handcart and the red deck chair in front of the backwash, the solitary deck chair and the flag which is like a light evocation of a Ghirri’s image, Varini seems to have been influenced also by Mimmo Jodice’s inventions, who, on the other hand, always uses a very sophisticated black and white and the blurring technique, which he creates above all in the laboratory.
But the images which best show Varini’s concepts and insights are, for example, the walking girl who’s hardly balanced by a grey shape on the opposite site of the sheet; the windows of a house, one with green and the other with white rolling shutters; a figure squatting and the white sprays of the water nearly turning into snow flakes; the row of boats, lonely suspended threads in an empty space of sky and water. How should I then comment on Varini’s photos? What does the photographer wish to communicate? Perhaps something which is inherently linked to him, something which is very close to him, a story of solitude, of isolation from the world, where everything seems to blur and dazzled in a soft light.
The tradition dates back to the light photos of the Thirties of course, but there is also much more here, for instance Michelangelo Antonioni’s grandeur, Federico Fellini’s myth, Hopper’s empty bars, and also the “Chiaristi” painters’ look on the wilderness, from Semeghini to De Rocchi, to name just a few.
Varini’s photos are very much constructed and planned and this is also one of the reasons why they have so powerful an impact over us. Varini has been working on a new photo series, he says “I am now interested in rooms: empty spaces, corridors, old houses, sometimes with models in them, I like the ochre colour dominant, but always teamed with light tones”. So we look forward to seeing this new work by Varini. But now, to grasp the meaning of his quality images, we must read them as thought they were a way to transform the real into a distant dazzled recollection.
Arturo Carlo Quintavalle