venerdì 9 novembre 2018

Factory at Bruzella: photographic documentation as art

"In some exceptional cases the photographer manages to create an image that exceeds the simple document for its content and its shape." Gisèle Freund

I came back to Bruzella, Switzerland, to visit a very interesting exhibition at the Rolla Foundation and I interviewed Phil Rolla to understand how, after a few decades, photography can became art. Tony Graffio

Tony Graffio interviews Phil Rolla at Factory's vernissage

Tony Graffio: Good morning Phil Rolla, as already for the other 14 exhibitions in the past, have you made this exhibition with the photographs belonging to your collection?

Phil Rolla: Yes, what is exposed it's all part of our collection.

TG: Why have you got this passion for industry?

PR: Because I lived in industry; in addition to designing special pieces for boating, I produced them. Throughout my life I have dealt with this and so I have always been fascinated by the factory. For me it's better to see a good turner or a good miller working than a naked woman... (Laughter) I've always been fascinated by the man's ability to create something with his hands and his wits .

TG: Can we say that technique is art?

PR: Yes, technique is art.

TG: Where do the photographs shown in these rooms come from?

PR: A little everywhere; I have collected them in various ways: buying directly from the authors; while vintage photographs come mainly from auction houses. I have had this series of images taken from the Krupp factories from an exchange with a friend who had found them in Paris.

Anonymous - Untitled (Krupp Fabrik) 1933  (vintage gelatin silver print 11 photographs cm 17,5 X 23,5 each)
Anonymous - Untitled (Krupp Fabrik) 1923
(vintage gelatin silver print 11 photographs cm 17,5 X 23,5 each)

TG: Are these very old aerial photographs?

PR: Yes, they are military photographs taken in 1923, when the French wanted to understand what was happening in Germany.

TG: Of course, they had already understood that the Germans were about to rearm. Do you know the author of these shots?

PR: No, they are anonymous, it's really about shots taken by the French aviation, there's no way of knowing who made them.

TG: Were you aware of the existence of these shots or it has been a surprise to find them?

PR: No, I learned about their existence only two years ago, when I acquired them.

TG: How long have you been collecting industrial photography?

PR: I started after the year 2000; for about 15 years. My first interest in photography was for German industrial photography, from 1928 onwards. The Germans wanted to document everything. Unfortunately, later also in the bad. After the First World War, in the 1920s, Germany was a very poor country. The only resource they had was the ability of people to do something well done.

TG: Well, they also had some important raw materials like coal and steel...

PR: Yes, but those resources were destined for the payment of war debts. What enabled them to recover was precisely their manufacturing capacity and the choice to pursue a quality product, they had nothing else. The Germans have documented their work through photography, while in other countries this did not happen. In France or in Italy the workers were photographed in front of the factories. Group photography took place, rather than industrial photography.

TG: So, can documentation become art?

PR: Of course. What matters is the choice. Art is in choice. I say this as a collector.

TG: Atget has also documented Paris and his documents have become art.

PR: Atget has documented the Paris that he thought was about to disappear.

TG: In fact it went like that, that Paris disappeared, but at the time just a few people understood it. Maybe nobody...

PR: No. During his life nobody understood what Atget was doing.

TG: These aerial photographs were probably shot with large format cameras, I would say 18X24 cm, loaded with plates that were then printed on contact.

PR: Yes.

TG: What is the charm of these landscapes taken from above with zenithal photography?

PR: It is an aesthetic appeal that has to do with geometry and seriality. It's like seeing Sol Lewitt's drawings. It's the same for me.

TG: Is it a complete series or is something missing?

PR: We found eleven pieces. It was not done as a series.

TG: Let's see something else now.

PR: In these images we see the Turbinenhalle, a turbine factory in Berlin that existed long before the Second World War. It is a very beautiful building from the early 1930s, all in glass blocks, here large turbines were built.

TG: Does this factory still exist?

PR: It still exists now and it still works. The images were taken in 2009 by the German photographer Christof Klute. He is a friend of ours who has studied with the Becher. He is very good. These images give me the sense of the factory. All this exhibition, including the catalog, must give the sense of the factory. You can not document everything, but you can leave an impression, a sense of what is the factory, and that's what we wanted to say with this exposure that we have just called: Factory.

TG: Phil Rolla, excuse the curiosity, even the cameras express a concept of technicality and mechanical precision, do you also collects cameras?

PR: No. I've always had several cameras; first a Rolleiflex, then Leica, Hasselblad, Sinar... but I have always bought them for my personal use.

TG; On this wall what do we find?

PR: Here, there are various images of different authors. The first two photographs are by Werner Mantz, a great German photographer who worked both before and after the war. They are images of great strength. A human element also appears to give an idea of ​​the size of the building. This is the first industrial photograph I bought. Frechen, 1928, is another photograph of Werner Mantz that I liked very much for the strength expressed by the chimneys.

TG: Beautiful. The chimneys really have an unusual shape, they almost look like those Moroccan pans where they cook the cous cous...

Werner Mantz - Frechen - 1928 (vintage gelatin silver print cm 21.5 X 16.5)
Werner Mantz - Frechen - 1928 (vintage gelatin silver print cm 21.5 X 16.5)

PR: (Phil Rolla smiling) Yes, they look like the Tajines. However, the German cous cous is called charcoal. This untitled photograph taken in the early 1960s is an image by Bernhard Becher. Later, he will work with his wife Hilla, but each of them independently photographed on his own. From this photograph one can understand that he was a little more romantic than she. Together, they have been documenting the industry for more than 40 years. Hilla was the daughter of photographers, while Berhard was a painter who wanted to document German industry with his drawings, but then realized that with that technique it would take too much time, so he went to photography to document what was disappearing more quickly.

TG: Did he photograph a village of workers?

PR: Yes, the chimney is in the center of the village, while the workers' houses were around the factory.

TG: The next is another aerial view.

PR: Antony Linck photographed from above an industrial village in New Jersey from the 1950s. These are the first industrial installations where there are only factories. Unlike what happened in Europe, where workers lived near the factory, here factories have arisen where before there was nothing. The novelty consisted of separating industrial and residential areas; it is a concept opposite to what we have seen in Becher's photography.

TG: The American vision of life and work is totally different from the European one.

PR: Yes, even if afterwards, outside of any Italian city, the industrial areas will be installed. The factory should not be close to those who consume the goods, but should be placed close to the suppliers of raw materials and where there is the ability to create the product.

TG: This solarization by Ludwig Windstosser is a bit like the emblem of industrial civilization. It is more interpretation than documentation.

PR: Yes, right it's interpretation.

TG: Here we are instead in front of the photograph that has been a manifesto for this exhibition. It is also beautiful because it contains all the elements that give the idea of ​​the factory and work: the smoke, the darkness inside the shed that contrasts with the light of day that comes from the windows and gigantic spaces that crush the man who ends up with losing its individual value to become part of an immense productive mechanism.

PR: It is a photograph of the Ansaldo of Genova, taken by the Swiss photographer Kurt Blum. You perceive that dirty atmosphere crossed by the sunlight that is radiated to the ground. But now I leave you with Enrico Minasso who will explain to you what you will find in the other room, right on the other side of the wall.

TG: Thank you so much Phil.

At this point I listen to Enrico Minasso, a Piedmontese photographer to whom Phil Rolla has bought a series of 15 photographs printed on a fairly small size format. The images called D/RUST resume a mechanical workshop in disuse for years that still kept the tools used for work covered by a veil of dust.
Inspired by a speech on the print dimension, I resume talking with Phil Rolla.

Tony Graffio: Personally, I really appreciate the print on a fairly small paper format, while for some time now more and more prints are being printed on giant sizes. What does Phil Rolla think about it?

Phil Rolla: Once the photograph was made in a small format and to observe it was necessary to take it in hand and keep it roughly 50 centimeters from the eyes. In the '80s the first gigatographs of about 1.5 meters X 3 were made. The forerunners of this style were the Germans Andreas Gursky; Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff who was the first photographer to make prints on these large formats. From then on, photography has changed and has become painting, because these works must be observed at least 6 meters away. And so, somehow, we return to the Renaissance and the size of the large frescoes.

TG: Do not you think that extra-large photography is more worthy of advertising and art posters?

PR: No, because the billboards have always been very big. Photography is something intimate; large photography becomes a different thing, closer to art. A few years ago in Munich I saw a Gursky exhibition where he had taken the Formula 1 cars back to the pit-stop. I observed those images and I told myself it was like seeing a Titian, because the images conveyed a great expressive force.

TG: Do you prefer to collect small formats? Or do you also own something big?

PR: At home I hung a large photograph of Ruff because it describes well a landscape of the German province, but you should have the space of a museum to be able to exhibit so many large works. We must also respect the stylistic choice of the artist. There are photographs that need to be printed on a large format, while others are more intimate and do not need to be large. Vincenzo Castella's photography in color at the entrance to the exhibition is just the right size. If it were bigger it would lose impact, while if it was smaller you would not see it any more.

TG: But I know that there are some collectors who sometimes commission a special print of an oversized format, compared to the usual formats used by an artist. How do you see this kind of operation?

PR: If the artist does what he is asked on these occasions, I do not know if he can be considered an artist. More than anything else, he is a good seller of his work. Before doing something, the author already has the right size in mind.

TG: Most of the authors on display are German?

PR: They are Germans, because are German the photographers who dedicated themselves mre than others to industrial photography.

TG: At the time they were documentarians, not artists, right?

PR: Yes, they were documentarians who lived on their work. They photographed on commission for the industrialists who owned the factories.

TG: It is an example of photography that has been transformed to acquire a different value from the initial one.

PR: Yes, but it was a photography that was already very well done. Those photographers did not follow directions, but only their aesthetic ideas.

TG: Were they free to create what they wanted?

PR: Exactly. The geometric constructions of their photographs were beautiful, look at this image of Albert Renger-Patzsch is so perfect as to look like an abstract painting...

TG: It's so perfect that it looks fake.

PR: Yes. Follow me to show you another picture ... This photograph by Oliver Boberg is fake... The photographer built a factory model and then photographed it. He always does this: he builds models in the most realistic way possible and then he takes pictures of them.

Oliver Boberg - Parkplatz - 1988 (C print cm 85 X 181)

Oliver Boberg - Parkplatz - 1988 (C print cm 85 X 181)

TG: Interesting. Is it important for a collector to have silver salt prints or made with techniques that are difficult to reproduce, compared to digital printing?

PR: The most important thing is the subject of photography. A print in silver-print is better than an inkjet print, but even the silver-print can have little value if the subject is not interesting.

All the rights are reserved

Factory is the fifteenth exhibition held in the ex-kindergarten of Bruzella, home of the Rolla Foundation. The photographs are from the private collection of Rosella and Philip Rolla. The exhibition is dedicated to man that does things properly.

As the economist Christian Marazzi writes in the introductory text, the selected photographs are “a representation of the finest 20th century material culture, of that cultural materialism in which people learn and improve through the things they produce, in which their comprehension of the process of making allows them to understand how things may generate social, political, and religious values.”

The exhibited authors are: Tom Baril, Bernhard Becher, Kurt Blum, Oliver Boberg, Vincenzo Castella, Giuseppe Chietera, Ruth Hallensleben, Fritz Henle, Christof Klute, Anthony Linck, Werner Mantz, Enrico Minasso, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Fabio Tasca, James Welling, Ludwig Windstosser.

Opening period: from October 27th 2018 to January 27th 2019. Every second Sunday of the month from 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and by appointment. Free entry.

Bruzella: The historic town of Bruzella, in the Valle di Muggio, about 10 km from Chiasso and 26 km from Lugano, is now part of the new Breggia community (Mendrisio). At an elevation of 600 metres on a terraced hillside the kindergarten is situated on the first floor of the former Town Hall, in front of the San Siro parish church.