Italian Portraits

Photo Installation, printed on canvas 10’ x 7.5’
In collaboration with Vittoria Ciolini, Dryphoto Arte Contemporanea, and Comune di Prato Assessorato alla Cultura
Officina Giovani TraArt Regione Toscana, Italy
Catalogue with essay by Caroline Smith


Experience: Renate Aller’s Italian Portraits

By Caroline Smith

Stories told from the past lead to a greater understanding of truth, for the officially accepted tapestry of our past has some clumsy tucks here and there; a general appearance of being badly stitched up. –Alan Moore, historian

Which visual documents become selected as the official archive? Can there be an image of a national character; the composite traits of which are deciphered by race, gender and social status? Or is a portrait inherently flawed and serves as masquerade, enticing us to look while concealing private agendas?

Archives of portraits reveal social order and historically have served the interests of the dominant few. Official stories and their image banks follow convention. But when rules are broken, the veracity of the image is undermined. The guts of the archive gape open and enable us to reshuffle history; to dust down the files and see anew. Universal truth then yields to chaotic, private moments; ones that are bound up with flights of the imagination and have less of an allegiance with the real, but with the half-lit worlds of fiction.

Renate Aller’s work explores this fluctuation between the public and private, the universal and the specific. Her first exhibition in London in the 90s: The Camera Obscura Never Lies, showed a black-covered box with a hole cut at eye-height for viewers to peek inside. On the interior side of the box, a mirror reflected the gallery wall on which the title of the show was written. Fiction and illusion were seen to rub up against and interfere with photography’s indexical relationship to reality. In following exhibitions, she often documented the residue of the real and the lived marked by absence, seen through traces of people, behaviours and events. When I interviewed her previously in her west London flat a decade ago for her exhibition Altered States at the Agfa Gallery in Hong Kong, we exchanged stories and experiences, captured on tape but also recorded in photos that she took before and after our meetings. Her relationship with the Bauhaus movement was seen on a stretched leather chair that she had made and was pulled out in preparation. A domestic espresso machine in her kitchen – a luxury at that time – spoke of a merger between bohemian London and European chic. Her photos sprawled over the table unravelled years of collecting memories. All objects were photographed as symbols of our stories and the ghosts of our bodies.

When she left London for New York City at the turn of the Millennium, she was not to know the shock of white light, impenetrable smoke and thick cloying ash that would darken the city and shift world view. The aftermath of 9/11 led her to capture her own community as a way of deciphering inexplicable tragedy. The resultant portraits that toured internationally took the viewer away from the stunted New York landscape riddled with endings and terrible consequences, steering instead into the wide and exhaustive spaces of contemplation. These portraits became part of a counter history. Existing in the shadows away from the seductive glare of news imagery, the series punctured the collective imagination with a private theatre of faces in which the showing and not the telling was key.

The Italian Portrait project (2005) continues with her enquiries. During a residency in the Villa Romana in Florence, she was struck by the statues in the piazzas in which viewers had to crane necks to see the structures against the sky, as if from a worm’s eye view. She then created large-scale triptychs of a working textiles community in Prato. Each triptych captures the subject from both sides and the front, but these are poetic documents, a far cry from the anthropological exactitude measured through the gaze of August Sander, for example, whose Faces Of Our Time in the 30s and People of the Twentieth Century in the 50s cemented a social archive and surveyed labour and class divisions.

Italian Portraits is intricately bound up with the historical study of recording deviant bodies, made famous by the French bureaucrat Alphonse Bertillon in 1883 by taking side and frontal angles of apparent recidivists, together with eleven written measurements. Through his system, the body became a production tool – its features easily transcribed, turned into statistics and read as a defining text. Bertillon’s notion of ‘anthropological signalment’ has continually been used throughout history to criminalise the face by marking out differences. To this day, ID photos – from the passport to the mobile phone and cyber chat site – are central to self, corporate and government-controlled identification as a shorthand device to maintain social order, stimulate social interaction based on judgement or simply sell in a competitive marketplace.

But these expressive faces captured by Aller are framed by the white and blue chequered skies of the everyday, not within a studio or laboratory. Moreover, the subjects turn inwards to see themselves, not confront the viewer with their gaze. The community members, with their interior dialogue of smiles and private glances become epic players in a hall of mirrors. It is a performance; a democratic play of emotions, of warmth and generosity. Each person is captured as if in flight and between emotional states. The performance is simultaneously held open for us and yet closed, out of bounds and elusive. Notions of classification by status are seen as obsolete, entirely absent from her vision and thus from our gaze. She has created a choreography of human experiences that defy the traditional conventions of the portrait. We can only gaze up at these characters and wonder where and who they are in the scheme of private and public relationships.

So our eyes dance for evidence, scavenge for clues. We imagine a mirror reflecting the words: ‘the camera obscura never lies’. Photography here is a smokescreen and the archive of portraits she has created, a fiction telling stories that remain tantalisingly unstitched.