Silvio Wolf


Notes de mon entretien avec Silvio Wolf le 1er mai 2011, chez lui à Milan (enregistrement de 1h, 28m).


Your beginnings?

I took a photo of a mannequin with a Polaroid SX70, removed the object and rephotographed the photograph again and again. Some of what Benjamin was not right in my view. I was questioning how photography can reproduce any object of reality but itself: each time, there were technical faults, I was always losing some of the image in rephotographing; I stopped just before the image disappeared. The camera can reproduce any element of the real world but itself; it was aiming towards its final destruction, its end. The photographic object disappears; it was strange because in this time, photography was really the wining capture of reality.


Your first attempt to question representation by photography?

Also the representation of the human figure.
I photographed it with tungsten light; I removed the object and replaced it with its photography; the photograph became the object of reality. Each step is a more dramatic representation, but the representation became more and more vague. Here I stopped because it was gone.
I was reflecting on the ability of photography to represent and encode any element of visible reality but itself. It’s called Feticho della communicazione.
I was also doing photographs with my eyes closed, with my memory, but I did not keep the other series.
Photography is infinitely reproducible (Benjamin), but this process contradicts that idea: when the medium investigates its own code, its own language, then for some reason it implodes.
I began in 1978/79 in the world of conceptual photography.
Some years later, the Icons of Light: they are analog direct photographs of paintings, no manipulation in the moment of the capture of the image, I just choose the point of view, the one that people usually avoid because from there the painting does not appear clearly. The very light that allows you to see the painting is the same light that erases the painting. The shape of the work is dictated by the point of view, it is never square or rectangular because I am never looking straight. I have always been captivated by things I couldn’t see clearly, I am naturally investigating with the camera in spaces, places where I couldn’t see very clearly: it is a contradiction because photography has often been addressed as a medium of clarity, capturing what you see so that the object can remain visible; the object remains completely visible, but at the same time it’s made invisible.
The threshold is the surface of the painting, the oil surface shines like a mirror. That light making the real object visible was also concealing, deleting the object, that light was captured in the image; when I opened the shutter, that light was trapped there. Photography is light, it’s the medium and the subject of the image at the same time.


Its’ a negation, a destruction of the image at the same time as the creation of it

Yes, generation and death at same time


Is it important for you to show them principally in museums?

I had this drive for the image to go back to where the photos had been made, I did it a few times only. The first time here at Castello Sforzesco in Milano; it was called Exposizione.
I curated a show of artists using photography in a gallery GianFerrari in 1984, but my work was in the Museum, and we put in the gallery a sign saying “the work is temporarily on loan to the Museum”, generally it’s the other way around. The cibachrome was mounted on thick laminated board, very shiny surface, the frame is part of the image. I tried to reconstruct a physical object of reality, it’s a flat plane, a true photograph but also a physical object. You move and you change the perspective on the object. This work had to interact with the time and life of the museum.


What lead you in this direction?

My incredible attraction to what is not clearly visible. When I find a barrier, a filter, some aperture, a threshold, then I am attracted. I am really a photographer because I need an object out there, to be captured. Then I have this intellectual process afterwards, but when I take the photo I don’t think that much, rather later.
I became increasingly interested in the non visibility of paintings in museums, especially in provincial museums not very well lighted, with shiny lights on the oil surface. The object itself produces the reflection.
I am also interested in the interaction between the representational power of painting and photography. To take a photograph, I first need to delete the representation of the painting, I am not interested in the subject matter of the painting, but in the phenomenon, the process.


It evokes the debate in 1850s: will photography displace painting?

Photography then triggered a vision of reality which eventually lead to abstraction.
In Icons of light, places of coincidence: light and dark, generation and destruction, 2D and 3D.
When you detach a fresco from the wall (‘strappo’), the work is displaced, sometimes there is a sinopia remaining on the wall, sometimes nothing; the work is displaced. It’s the same thing for photographs: the object is untouched, is still there; light allows this detachment, a virtual detachment. You create a new reality.
When you take a branch of the tree and plant it in the ground, you create a new plant, a smaller tree, but it has the same biological age than the first tree. I like that idea. Not a new life, but a smaller life, same age.
That photograph took some light away and produced a different process elsewhere. I like the idea of the elsewhere, how photo produces an image of the elsewhere. And that happens simultaneously, it’s here and it is there. I have not destroyed anything. I have originated a new process elsewhere; and there is a loss, the loss of the subject matter, but I am not interested by that, I am interested in the phenomenon, the process, and the idea that this new reality sprung from a given object which is untouched out there. Light acts as a subject and a medium at the same time


You also dealt with power (Angeli del tempo, the grand duke of Luxembourg) and with architecture. Light is destructing icons, instruments of knowledge, power, structure, society. Is it political, social?

I accept these points of view, but they are not intentional. I found these photos of the grand duke’s family in the market, they are icons to the population. I exposed them to light, deleting the features of the face. It’s about time, the issue that photography deals with all the time. Its’ not political, but I would accommodate this idea. Angels of time, it’s about time, the issue photography deals with constantly. Every time you do that, there is a loss, and addition and a subtraction. There are two polarities, one and the other, not one or the other, a balance between presence and absence, here and there, they interact with each other.


Would you say it has a mystical dimension?

I don’t mind. It has implications of course. The photograph kills time in order to keep it alive for ever. It’s an impossible contradiction. How can you stop the flow of time so that it will exist for ever? Only photo can do that, in a strange way, it was never done before. My photography is never abstract: I probably have an abstract vision of reality, but whatever I photographed was there in front of my eyes.


Also Horizons, Prima del tempo?

They are very real, photographs of a language itself, of a medium; they are appropriations, they come from the dustbins of a lab. People say they are abstract (Rothko), but they are real. They are the start of the film, which you don’t control when you load the camera. It’s the very first part of the process, it is before the time. There is already an image before time, an image embedded in the film, you are not aware, it is not off camera, it’s in camera but the camera is open.
My choice is where I place the horizon line, I find the balance, its’ like a photogram. Everything here is potential, the image is not taken yet, there is actuality and potential. The light is excess of information, the black is lack of information. It’s a photograph without a picture; it is a photograph, it has been exposed to light, processed with chemicals, gone through the lab. Sometimes the lab puts a number there, that’s how I became aware of them, I collected them for years.
In 2002, I was invited to participate in an exhibition called ‘The disappearance of the image’ in Brera (the gallery does not exist anymore): the name clicked, that is what interests me, disappearance. The exhibition was curated by Marco Meniguzzo. Disappearance is a way for appearance. Most of the other work was extremely representational. People were afraid to look and see whatever they wanted; the work is open, it’s like a landscape, a painting, they have complete freedom. I am not interested in giving to people eyes so they can look at it. The image is real and is open to interpretation. There are two polarities occurring simultaneously, the line in between, potential and actuality, light and darkness, excess and lack of information; when you have too much light, you can’t see, you become blind, and the same happens with lack of light, darkness. These pictures are not created through a lens. They vary so much because these parts of the films are not processed properly, in and out of the chemicals, not properly agitated; you cannot predict how the chemicals will act and activate the layers of the film. Like Icons of light, you are aware of the image and of the process at the same time. It’s tautological, a self representation of the medium, which is expressing its own fundamental rules of existence. It is about the life of the image. You need light, a support, time and then you need the process, the processing. But there is no memory of any event, which is to me an incredible success; the image does not have to witness anything. I hate the narrative aspect of photography, I am not here to tell stories, each image is a phenomenon, it just happened, it is open to interpretation and it also resists interpretation. It is, that’s it.

Just photography itself, its essence

Yes, the absolute of photography (showing the most recent ones). They are pure vibrations of light. I am fascinated by the ability of the medium to create its own object within itself. It’s endless.
I work with sound a lot. A sound designer is making a project to activate these images. I am very aware of the acoustic quality of an image.


This is important for you that this is a process that is not controlled in a way, as opposed to a photographer doing it deliberately; it has to be part of the accident, the randomness.

Yes, chance and (arbitrariness) choice. My choice within the chance, it’s a flow.


Argentiera: the role of the frame?

Inside outside, in 1979: investigation in space about the notion of the frame. Impossible contradiction to expose the inside and the outside. It was in an old empty school with a window at the end of the room. Impossible to show both inside and outside; differences in exposure. Show the two images at the same time.
Book: Light Specifics.
This is part of a triptych, photographic frame and physical frame, photographing the horizon. It is very analytical, thesis, antithesis, synthesis; an exploration of the space, the nature of the frame. What allows you to see is also what prevents you from seeing. From a small detail, you allude to the whole universe. We can only see fractions of time, of light, of space. All these limits give you so much power.


Equivalents of Stieglitz, and Dubois’ writings about the frame. (He doesn’t know Dubois)

Most of my early photography was about these limits (the cardinal points; photograph of a courtyard in the desert, very bright, no recording of the inside space; light reflection). I was very experimental in those years.


You still are, no?

Yes, yes (laughing).
[Reviewing his book]
With a reflex camera, when you take the picture, you are blind for a fraction of a second.
Photographs of mirrors (old literary café in Trieste), of a grotto (like a music score). Too much information, lack of information.
Experiments with colors.
Assembling photos (Charles bridge in Prague)
1987 documenta in Kassel: two layers of photographs of the Jewish cemetery in Prague. It’s an interaction with time.
With my installations, I wanted to change the space itself, I applied photography to architecture, instead of photographing it. This installation does not exist anymore.

What is Stelle Braille?

It’s composed of five slide projectors, with Braille negative slides; a visual code of a language for those who don’t see. You cannot enter, you see shadows, as if in a platonic cave. They are negatives, with black dots in white shadow; it’s like coufic writing or cuneigrammes. I projected details of the façade of Palazzo dei Diamanti, with the visual structure of the wall.


What is Totem?

It’s one of the Horizons, a very large one, a symbolic figure of some kind.


Looking back today, what would you say have been the esthetical or intellectual influences on you, shaping your vision?

I studied photography in England in the 1970s. Back in Italy then, I saw strange photographic works in the galleries that were not taken by artists. The artists would employ photographers to take photos, not doing it themselves.
Vaccari was using the medium of photography, not taking photographs; there was a conceptual environment. At that time, photographers were not artists. I took photos.
My interests: Georges Rousse, Ian Dibbets, John Hilliard, Franco Vaccari, Ugo Mulas.
I was also interested by the painters, the artists: Richter, Kapoor (notions of invisibility and process of vision at the same time), James Turrell (presence, awareness, intangible elements of experience, you cannot explain a Turrell), Ad Reinhardt; also the moving image.
This is where I am now, I’ll show you my latest work.
At the Venice Biennale two years ago, an image of light, taken with a 35mm film camera, shutter wide open for a long time, looking at a light projector, I am breathing so it is not fixed; it’s an image of light radiation. It looks like architecture, a mystical pyramid. Many people saw it like a tunnel, a near-death experience.
Latest work, began in 2009: I print on mirrors. In front of them you see yourself [I saw it at Paris Photo two years ago]. I merge the representation of the icon with the process of looking; the glance of the viewer becomes part of the work. The inkjet printers do not have white; the white is the support paper. You appear where the light is meant to be. It’s a threshold and you see yourself reflected.
Another work: black chromogenic mirrors, they are like light boxes, but the light shines against the walls, not through the image (since it is a black c-print). In front you see your face reflected.
Is there anything else left to be photographed on this earth? The whole visible world has been mapped. Now scientists explore the black, the dark: black holes, dark energy, dark matter where light does not assist you anymore. Scientists cannot use light anymore.
What role remains for the light, for photography? How come photograph still uses light? These photographs have been exposed to so much light that they have turned black, they have been so overexposed and have become completely black. Light shines against the walls and makes the space visible.  After almost 200 years I am asking photography to give back some of the light which it has absorbed over time. I am not interested in what it represents but in how it activates the process of viewing, of seeing. There was a specific spot with a spotlight where you make yourself visible (and there was a sound)
The notion of hic and nunc, here and now, is now the experience of the viewer in front of the photograph, not of the photographer, the viewer is in front of a mirror. You are always looking to the past, but here finally you are looking at the present, at your own experience. The photograph is a mirror of reality, of the reality of the viewer.
I don’t project this work, it just comes, with quick intuition. It’s after that I become analytical.
I was interested in the work of Reinhardt, his black paintings, you have to concentrate mentally but also physically to really see them.
There are so many images, too many, fragmentation. This is called Meditation.

It’s going against the flow of photographs. Barthes is somewhat relevant here (here and now, past and present); you come to the antithesis of that.

Photography is ‘as if’, a model, a simulation. But there is so much reality out there, like Horizons; you have to stand in front of it, to see yourself looking.


Negative over positive?

If you do that, you put 100% of the information where there is none, and vice versa.


Do you teach?

Yes in New York; language and philosophy of photography. I like to merge the theoretical, conceptual aspects with the experience.
What I like in photography is that you have to be physically engaged, it’s not just the thought. You are out there, you confront yourself to the flow of date, of reality, you react to the world. It reflects your values, your ideas, your intuitions. The reality is out there, it doesn’t need you, but you need it to represent it. And it continues to exist when you are absent.


You still do big installations?

Yes, when they are commissioned.
I will have a retrospective exhibition at PAC Milano in October (Oct 6 to Nov 8), with three site-specific installations.


Do you have suggestions of other photographers interesting for me?

– A very young Italian girl working with pinhole camera, with her body in the camera obscura. [I speak of Cassar and Takeda]
– A US student places explosive in the camera with a very fast camera filming the explosion (thousands shots per second) (I teach a class on Death and photography), calling it ‘Still Photography’ (is it still photography? Is photography still, not moving?). He has a very interesting discourse on that; nothingness. David Todd. [I speak of JF Lecourt]
– Another ex student, a Japanese in NYC: ‘Jackson Heights’. He is merging photographs of light in different moments, using color images of temperature. It’s about light and time, but there is no space. Yutzke Mishimura.