Artists: Marcin Gierat, Danilo Ceri, Alesssandro Possati
The project aims to document the craft heritage of Florence as a unique know-how that must be preserved and passed down to new generations, with reference not only to techniques but also to the stories and anecdotes that represent the cultural heritage of a true human ‘archive’. The craftspeople of the Oltrarno – the southern district of Florence, ‘oltre’ (‘beyond’/‘on the other bank of’) the River Arno – thus become the subjects of the photographic project “Work Where” by Polish photographer Marcin Gierat. Alessandro Possati, creator and curator of the project, has documented the stories of the craftspeople with a series of video interviews.
The technique used by Gierat for the portraits on show is the fusion of the relationship between art, technology and artisan traditions. By choosing to use the collodion wet-plate process (a craft printing system developed over two centuries ago), carpenters, tailors, bronze workers and other craftspeople of the Oltrarno are portrayed as timeless figures.
The patina that covers the images of their faces and workplaces is not that of time; rather, it is the depth of experience, the visible aura of the allure of the history of humanity and work. Thus, photography takes over as the means for documenting and narrating, of not merely showing but of going deeper, to overcome its artistic limits. With the technique used by Gierat, the concept of reproducibility of works that considers photography as a ‘lesser art’ or one more akin to design moves photography to share a place with the arts such as sculpture and painting.
The project, which has been created in collaboration with Danilo Ceri, who hosts it at his premises, stems from the idea of the exhibition’s curator Alessandro Possati, who for years has aimed to represent craftsmanship in a contemporary form. In this collaboration with the Polish artist (Krakovia, 1978), Possati succeeds in demonstrating his theory of contemporary craftsmanship epic in a concrete and effective way. It is by no mere chance that it is promoted by A.I., Artisanal Intelligence, which has been researching and promoting craft culture for years.
Every photograph taken with this technique is unique and it is impossible to create two identical ones. They can be used on different types of surfaces. A variation made on a black glass surface, like most of Marcin Gierat’s photos, is called ‘ambrotype’. Although photographic, the portraits are therefore unique items thanks to the variables that affect the work on the sensitivity of the plate which makes it optimal only when the collodion layer is still wet and requires a special skill from the photographer. The name comes from the fact that the glass plate inserted into the camera must still be wet after being immersed in a silver nitrate solution, which forms silver iodide. Even before this, the plate must be coated with a soluble iodide mixture added to the collodion solution. Finally, the plate is developed by pouring a solution of pyrogallic acid onto it, and fixed with a strong solution of sodium thiosulphate, for which potassium cyanide is then replaced. Immediate development and fixation is essential because after the collodion film has dried, it becomes impermeable and the reagent solutions cannot penetrate it. The entire process must therefore be carried out within ten to fifteen minutes. Due to the timing and the fact that the chemicals are highly sensitive to air exposure and dirt, it is rather difficult to use this technique outdoors. The chemicals are toxic, so it is advisable for the photographer to wear a mask for the entire process. However, unlike many traditional techniques, it gives a high level of detail and clarity. It was invented almost simultaneously in 1851 by the English Frederick Scott Archer and the French Gustave le Gray, but Archer is considered to be the father of the collodion wet-plate process as he was the first to present the photographs to the public at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in that year.
In an era when digital photography is reducing photographic times to a minimum, slowness becomes a requirement for in-depth study and care, and an artisan skill that brings artistic ability to the fore.
Stranger Passing by
Always begin with feeling, it’s unlikely that it will be banal wrote young Antoine Saint-Exupéry in a letter to his friend who was trying her hand at a literary profession.
Search of feelings and impressions that one could easily call „amazements” led Marcin Gierat to Florence, while their density turn out to be such, that it keeps forcing him to return there.
The intensity, mentioned above, sourced directly from the beauty of this magnificent and proud city – what seems to be obvious. Useless to remind historical and cultural importance of Florence. Urban life was the core of Renaissance Italy. Before the hit of the Black Death pandemic (1348), Italy had four of Europe’s five largest cities: Venice, Milan, Genoa, and Florence.
The essence of urbanity lays in a phenomenon of concentration as it nourishes and conditions the intensity of contacts what – in return – is a major development factor. Likely, it was a vital cause to give birth to the Renaissance movement being born and developed in the most exquisite manner just in Florence.
Cities included diverse industries: banking, manufacturing, trades, and professionals like shopkeepers, retailers, teachers and lawyers to name just a few of them. The streets were filled with men and women doing business, chatting, working, and gossiping. It was in such environment that craftsmanship could develop and flourish.
Florence was not an anonymous entity, but a city of smaller, closely-intertwining communities. The understanding of the notion of “community” can vary depending on an individual view-point, experience or simply: current need. Specific factors such as social bonds of family, marriage, friendship or business have a lot to do with the meaning of the ‘community’ which photographer sensed and experienced while being in Florence. Of course, there is also a small-scale geographical factor which cannot be forgotten and which in fact is probably the one still binding as the phenomenon of the Oltrarno district proves.
Artists and artisans workshop are yet another very distinct type of community well present in Florence. As photography is an art of observation (what Elliott Erwitt rightly stated), Gierat made several attempts to approach, familiarize, contact, feel, touch and observe these.
And as himself, he’s not a member of any of these families, neighbourhoods or even parishes meaning he’s not a member of any of these communities, being just a stranger passing by, therefore par force his view was distant and somehow cold, deprived of familiar and emotional touch sourcing from common or at least shared history. Nevertheless the distance, that in fact is a specific feature of photography making, which – recalling a famous study on photography by Susan Sontag (…) neither rapes, nor takes into procession, yet it may suggest, squeeze in between, burst, deform or abuse (…) – did not leave photographer intolerant to the beauty of this what he had in front of his eyes.
Boundaries of one’s own territory including those of a community (in any sense) have mystical dimensions. One crossing these, accepts and risks to be either accepted or rejected. Gierat was lucky enough to be accepted in a reasonable sense – just to observe and capture this observation.
The eight diptychs presented are not innocent, quickly done visual notes on reality. These are studies which required time, devotion and patience. And a certain moment was needed for the photographer to understand that these – in fact – might be exercises in introspection, which was neither a reason nor a goal to achieve.
In the era of post-concepts which gave birth even to a concept of post-humanism (carefree as it’s just a theoretical model) those photos reveal “world of people”: colourful and filled with a variety of emotions, feelings, gestures, smells not omitting even dirt.
Attentive observer will notice that photographer implemented different strategies while making his diptychs.
Tactfully and somehow timidly he takes views of the workshops’ interiors, remaining distant, not entering a sacred zone. Like a stranger passing by and catching this very moment when no one is inside. This is how these ‘long views’ were done. Colour seems to be crucial in this case, it’s a gesture or a quest for objectivity – turning image more accurate and precise – although photography is not an objective art. A great deal of this what art history calls “viewing ethics” is present there.
In portraits photographer becomes more self-confident as portraiture is definitely his domain. He makes these in a long-time lost technique of wet collodion and more precisely – ambrotype, which in fact has a lot to do with artisanal way of working. It requires time, trained skills, dedication and even grace and agility because as every craft this one also is capricious. This is how photographer got familiar with his characters, he’s not a stranger anymore: although on opposite sides of the lens, they stand as equals. Wet collodion specificity is that it doesn’t hide imperfections or defects. Contrary, it gives a rigid, clear and sharp image. It tends to look beyond a surface, therefore it helps not only to look but to see.
Photography is endowed with a privilege of durability, it resists time. Many of the artisanal professions did not have this privilege: metal spinners, whitesmiths, bladesmiths, locksmiths and joiners slowly disappear from our languages and realitiy. Gentrification of our cities is a fact which makes possible that those skilled people won’t be around forever. Awareness and sensitivity of these facts explains deep humanism of these photos.
One could ask if the subject matter of diptychs had any (real) impact on them. In order to understand art, one has to believe an artist, so one could answer ‘yes’ as the photographer not only begun but also finished off with feelings.
Born in Krakow in 1978. Studied at Jagiellonian University, Faculty of Management and Social Communication, and obtained his diploma in 2003. He graduated from the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations of the Jagiellonian University. In 2005 he moved to Florence to the Faculty of Fashion Photography at Accademia Italiana. He gained his diploma from Roberto Quagli’s studio in 2006. The same year he started work at the Studio Quagli with which he has been connected till now. In 2011 he returned to Krakow. He practices artistic photography and fashion photography. He works in Poland and in Italy and is linked with Studio Quagli and LEA44 association.
Born in US but Venetian since generations and in the depths of soul, he combines his managerial training with passion for art and culture. With an extensive experience in running non-profit organizations, he has collaborated with major institutions such as Guggenheim Foundation, Save Venice, Venetian Heritage, Pinault Foundation and La Biennale di Venezia.
Danilo Ceri has a passion for vintage and military uniforms from an early age, when he travelled with his father for antiques markets. His passion became an atelier shop over 20 years ago, and it’s still in Via dei Serragli, Florence. A reference point for stylists and collectors of vintage clothes and accessories from the 1800s to the 1960s.
He has participated in fairs in England and France, and in many editions of Pitti Uomo in Florence.
This year he has created Casa Craft, an off-site event combining fashion art and music at Ostello Tasso in Florence.