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Site_ Specific


23 octobre - 23 novembre 2013


Olivo Barbieri is one of the world’s most restless photographers. Between 2003 and 2013, while working on his Site Specific series, he photographed more than forty of the world’s cities from a helicopter hovering in midair. The geographic scope of the project took him to every corner of the planet; his artistic ambition prompted him to employ an unprecedented range of photographic techniques in making his images.
Temperamentally, Barbieri has never really been a documentary photographer, and he has never been convinced that straightforward images can fully convey the hallucinatory qualities that he finds in modern urban spaces. During the first five years of the series, he used a special tilt-shift lens that enabled him to drastically alter perspective and scale within his photographs. Later, he used digital postproduction techniques to modify the color balance, tonal relations, and even pixel structure of his images. If Site Specific provides an almost anthropological commentary on the human drive to create and inhabit densely layered urban environments, it is simultaneously a stylistic tour de force that takes photography’s visual language far beyond its customary boundaries.
An engagement with the built environment and a need to expand photography’s expressive means have characterized Barbieri’s work since he began seriously photographing in the early 1970s. Living and working in the vicinity of Modena, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, he was in his early twenties when he met Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992), one of the most significant Italian photographers of his era. Ghirri made it his mission to introduce younger Italian photographers to the heritage of classic photographers such as Eugène Atget and August Sander, but he also made them aware of vital contemporary directions, such as the new explorations of color photography being carried out in the 1970s by figures such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.

Barbieri’s early familiarity with photography’s past and present, and his fascination with modern painting, prepared him to recognize that his own sensibility was not well matched to the documentary style of even so sophisticated a practitioner as Walker Evans. He was drawn instead to the delirious visual spaces created by painters like Giorgio de Chirico and photographers like Man Ray. “I started out from classical photography,” Barbieri has recalled, “from an attempt to describe the world around me as objectively and aseptically as possible. It turned out the results of this approach showed a world which seemed absolutely phantasmagoric and unreal.”
Throughout the 1980s, nevertheless, Barbieri often worked in a reserved, quasi-documentary manner, for example, in his photographic studies of towns in Italy and France. These images were understated, sensitive to everyday local detail, and filled with an unobtrusive visual wit. A more speculative attitude came into view in his mid-1980s black-and-white photographs of the ancient stone megaliths of Brittany, in northern France. Barbieri seems instinctively to have grasped that the human impulse that spurred the raising of these immense stone monuments three thousand years ago can also be traced to the lofty city towers of Renaissance Italy and the soaring skyscrapers of the twentieth century.
Five trips to Asia between 1989 and 1996 sharpened Barbieri’s understanding of the emerging global dynamic of urban architecture. “I first had to travel to China,” he said, “in order to understand the West better.” He was one of the relatively few European photographers to travel extensively in China during the early stages of its economic liftoff.

(…) During the late 1980s and 1990s Barbieri also worked steadily to expand the expressive range of his images, turning two photographic “mistakes” into distinctive signature devices. In his Artificial Illuminations series (1985–96), he took advantage of a technical peculiarity of photographic film, which registers the color temperature of different kinds of artificial lighting in ways very different from what the human eye sees. Barbieri
intentionally sought out nighttime locales filled with a mix of fluorescent, incandescent, and natural light—the kinds of scenes that professional photographers would instinctively avoid. The resulting photographs were remarkable for their controlled collisions of unnatural color, with hot pink skies, for instance, floating over pulsating green or blue streets.
While working on a commissioned series of photographs of Italian sports stadiums in 1999, Barbieri began to experiment with a tilt-shift lens—the kind of lens used by architectural photographers to correct the apparent convergence of the parallel lines of buildings. Barbieri discovered that it could also be used to throw sections of the image selectively out of focus, turning the photograph into a patchwork of eerily disconnected visual planes. The effect was startling. In his photographs of a soccer match in progress on a bright green playing field, the players resemble tiny figurines frozen on a tabletop whose foreground and background planes skew woozily out of focus. Barbieri also found that by slightly overexposing these photographs, he could wash out the highlight details, heightening the illusion of gazing upon an artificial, miniature world. He used this technique to dramatic visual effect in the photographs of China’s glimmering new cities and sci-fi skyscrapers that appear in his 2002 book Notsofareast.
Barbieri hit upon the idea behind the Site Specific series in 2003, while photographing the city of Brescia from a helicopter as part of a series on the highway system in northern Italy.At the time he did not foresee that the new project would occupy him for the next ten years. To obtain a powerful set of images testifying to the spectacular growth of urban spaces that he had witnessed in Europe, North America, and especially Asia, he decided to work entirely from a low-flying helicopter. Aerial photography was hardly new to him; while still a boy he had made airborne photographs of the central piazza of his hometown, Carpi. “I took my first aerial photograph as a child,” Barbieri has said, “the first time I flew in a light plane… I took it with a twin-lens reflex camera, which I had to turn upsidedown to reach the airplane window. There were several black and white photos, and I still remember the amazed reaction of the neighborhood photographer who developed them when he saw the picture of the town square.”
From the outset, Barbieri felt that his aim in Site Specific was not to produce an objective document of the world’s cities but to somehow push photography’s language into new territory. Captivated by a vision of the twenty-first-century city as a kind of site-specific installation— temporary, malleable, and constantly in flux—he sought a photographic corollary for the radical mutations of urban form that he saw taking place. Using a medium-format camera outfitted with a tilt-shift lens, he found that he was able to register enormous quantities of precise visual information and at the same time throw whole sections of the image disorientingly out of focus. The resulting photographs made modern cities look like reduced-scale architectural models—a vision, as Barbieri put it, of “the city as an avatar of itself.”

(…) The three cities that Barbieri singled out for major helicopter shoots in 2004 and 2005 reveal the ambitious visual comparisons that he hoped to carry out in this series. Rome is a 2,500-year-old European capital whose urban fabric weaves together the entire historic span from antiquity and modernity. Las Vegas is a brash new North American city improbably situated in the Nevada desert. And Shanghai is an Asian metropolis that has consciously sacrificed its architectural heritage to turn itself into a futuristic skyscraper city. In site specific_ROMA 04 (pages 11, 13, 15), Barbieri’s aerial views portray such buildings as the Pantheon and the Colosseum as fragile relics of a distant past that manage somehow to coexist with the sleek modern administrative and residential buildings that now surround them. These ancient structures stubbornly hold their ground amid the ribbonlike railway lines and auto flyovers that wind through the Italian capital. Barbieri’s ambivalence about the triumph of such ubiquitous modern transport networks is telegraphed by an oddly serene image looking down on an auto graveyard, bristling with rusted metal hulks, that occupies a verdant field outside of Rome. (This scene also provides the closing image of Barbieri’s short film site specific_ROMA 04, which was shot at the same time as the still photographs.)

(…) In Rome and Las Vegas, Barbieri used his tilt-shift lens technique to bring an air of unreality to his images of those cities.

(…) Barbieri’s decision to extend the Site Specific series beyond his original plan allowed him to photograph such emerging megacities as São Paulo, Istanbul, Bangkok, and Mexico City.The transformative dynamic that he discovered in the developing world also prompted him to revisit and photograph a number of cities in his native Italy, such as Milan, Florence, Genoa, Venice, and Naples. In the recent changes he found there, he could now perceive echoes of larger processes occurring around the world. Because Barbieri never regarded the Site Specific series as documentary in intent, instead seeing it as part of an effort to enlarge the scope of photography’s visual language, he continually sought out new means of picturing the cities that he scrutinized from his aerial perch. His photographs of Jordan, Montreal, and Mexico City, for example, include pairs or series of images showing the same building from successive vantage points as his helicopter circles the site; the effect is that of a sequence of still frames taken from a film. Barbieri was quick to notice that new Web-based imaging technologies were beginning to offer fresh ways to envision the world we inhabit. Google Earth, for example, began in 2005 to put online high-resolution satellite views of much of the planet’s surface.
Google Street View, launched in 2007, made available interactive panoramic photos of virtually every block in most world cities. By 2007 Barbieri recognized that the novelty of the “model world” effect produced by the tilt-shift lens, which had won him considerable attention as well as many imitators, had begun to wear thin. Without fanfare, he gradually dropped that device from his repertoire. During the remainder of the Site Specific project, he ran through a remarkable array of visual experiments. Many of them involved the use of computer-based imageprocessing techniques, a move that reflected Barbieri’s switch from film-based to digital
photography in 2007. During the final years of the series, he seemed to invent a distinctive new visual style to portray each of the cities he photographed.

(…) The photographs in site specific_ISTANBUL 11 (pages 137, 139–41) are memorable not only for a sweet, pastel-tinted palette that recalls the look of 1950s postcards; more surprising is Barbieri’s introduction of out-of-register, seemingly double-exposed images to create the effect of a visual stutter. In site specific_HOUSTON 12 (pages 174–77), clusters of skyscrapers are rendered as posteresque patterns of solid bright color. And in site specific_LONDON 12 buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Norman Foster’s glassy Gherkin (page 159) are reduced to a ghostly monochrome while the cityscape around them appears in full tonality—as if an architect’s drawing has been dropped into an otherwise realistic photograph. Despite their air of playfulness and their flourishes of visual wit, Barbieri’s Site Specific photographs contain hints of a gloomier subtext, signaling his awareness of the impersonal, sometimes coercive forces that increasingly touch the lives of city dwellers.


(…) When questioned about the chilling effect of these photographs by an interviewer who likened his camera to a “bird of prey,” Barbieri cited as key reference points two cinematic masterpieces of technology run amuck: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The boundless visual inventiveness of the Site Specific project ultimately masks a cautionary message, as Barbieri himself acknowledges. “Today,” he said, “we humans are surprised at how good we are at doing impressive construction. But we’re also a little afraid of what we’ve done. We’ve created a new kind of urban sublime that combines the elements of awe and fear, just as the nineteenth-century sublime regarded the great mountains of the Alps.”In the end, his extraordinary reimaginings of the look of the twenty-first-century city teach us to regard it in the coolly detached manner of an architect or city planner: as a set of essentially impermanent, transformable spaces awaiting the sometimes capricious intervention of the urban designer. It is this calculated ambivalence that gives Barbieri’s photographs their enduring interest. Certainly his decade-spanning series demonstrates his astonishing mastery, at a moment of radical transition in photography’s technical basis, of both film-based and digital processes. Yet photographic virtuosity, he feels, is pointless if not placed in the service of a larger artistic vision, as it is in the Site Specific series.


“I’ve never been interested in photography,” Barbieri provocatively insists, “but in images.
I believe my work starts when photography ends.”

Christopher Phillips


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