Francesca Catastini

The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

Book review by Gerry Badger

The first question one has of this book by the Italian photographer Francesca Catastini, which won the ‘Dummy’ prize at this year’s Vienna Photobook Festival, centres upon its title. The book is a meditation in images and text upon the process of studying human anatomy, which is essentially the same today as it was in say the famous Anatomical Theatre in Bologna University, constructed in 1637. Except perhaps for that fact that a paying public no longer attends these events, although there was of course the highly public dissection on Channel 4 in 2002 by Gunther von Hagens.

But here the operative word is dissection. The study of anatomy is based primarily upon empirical observation of the body’s inner parts, obtained by dissecting corpses. Catastini’s title however, The Modern Spirit is Vivisective, refers to vivisection, the cutting up of living bodies and a practice confined mercifully to the experiments upon live animals that so many of us find appalling.

Catastini’s title in fact derives from the modernist manifesto of the young James Joyce, a former medical student. In his posthumously published novel, Stephen Hero, Joyce lauds vivisection as the most modern strategy an analytical artist can deploy. The novel was published in 1944, although Joyce could hardly know that at the time the Nazis were using vivisection in diabolical experiments upon human beings in the camps.

Hopefully, Francesca Catastini is using the term in a metaphorical sense, in which she as a living artist is creatively dissecting the practice of dismembering and analysing corpses, musing upon a discipline which, in the early days, was linked more to natural philosophy than to medicine per se. And of course was a prerequisite for study by artists, such as Leonardo or Michaelangelo.

But already, we can see that this is a most unusual photobook. Beginning with the title itself, we are drawn into an intriguing web woven by Catastini, a web of image and word, metaphor and oxymoron, as she combines found vernacular photographs of old anatomy lessons with illustrations from Renaissance anatomy manuals, and sprinkles these with scientific, literary, and philosophical quotations. And of course, she adds her own photographs, scrupulously neutral large format images of some of the those famous Italian anatomical theatres, as well as some subtle photocollages.

The book, edited by Federica Chiocchetti, is divided into five sections, each corresponding to the five stages involved in dissection as detailed in the old treatises, each ‘chapter’ being framed by Catatsini’s interiors. The five are entitled respectively On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, and On Discovery. But the narrative, while not exactly freewheeling, is, shall we say, a little whimsical, and some of the images have little interventions by Catatstini that one could easily miss. The Looking chapter, for instance, contains the expected diagrams of optical instruments, microscopic slides and so on, but also emphasises the theatrical aspect of the business. There are a couple of found photographs from the John Hopkins Medical School dating from 1943, one showing a group of rather serious anatomy lab students. A rip in the photographic emulsion ‘makes a mess’ of one girl’s face, which may or may not be relevant to the subject, yet nothing Catastani does is without thought, so I take it that it is. In the other picture from John Hopkins, a cheerful young lady holds a severed limb like a guitar. Anatomy students are a different breed.

On Canon Lust
is not quite what one might think. Sex crops up frequently in both anatomical studies and in Catastini’s imagination, but this section is in effect about anatomy’s relationship to art, and the obsession that both art and medicine have had with the perfect body, although paradoxically medicine is most often about the imperfect body. The section begins with a photograph of the young Ronald Regan (1940) – regarded as having a perfect physique when young – modelling in a life class. There is also an amusing passage quoted about never pointing out to students that you have a corpse with six fingers on a hand. Hide it – or maybe cut off the offending finger.

Catastini’s narrative is laced with such humour. On Touching has two images of blind people learning anatomy, by touching a skeleton. I don’t know if they go on to handle a corpse on the dissecting table, but that thought, and even handling a skeleton, somehow makes me squirm, although of course it shouldn’t.

In this section, there is also a French illustration of a kneeling man (hopefully a doctor) with his hand up the skirt of a remarkably insouciant woman. This illustration amused me because it reminded me of the only seaside postcard I know to feature a photographic joke. A young man on his knees has his hand up a woman’s black skirt. She is saying, ‘that’s the last time I let you change your film.’ The postcard is dated not only by its sexism but the idea of the film changing bag (no double entendre intended).

I could go on about this intriguing and engaging book, but one of it delights is that it is a cabinet of curiosities, and therefore surprises, so I may have given too much away already. I am impressed, for example, that Francesca Catastini didn’t opt for the obvious, with images of an échorché – the flayed corpse – or, even closer to home, something from the famous anatomical wax sculptures of Florence or Bologna.

Some felt in Vienna, that with such a plethora of drawn and engraved illustrations, whether this was actually a photobook, but does it matter? It pushes the boundaries of the photobook, not by containing the fewest ‘photographs’ (there are more than one might think at first glance) but by being so intelligent. In an era when the photobook seems all about flashy form and empty content, and drearily focused upon the self and little else, it is a pleasure to see a photobook, contentedly sober in design, looking outside itself, and engaging the brain as well as the eyes.

All images courtesy of the artist © Francesca Catastani

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Lucy Levene

The Spaghetti Tree

Essay by Federica Chiocchetti

It is not only in Britain that spring, this year, has taken everyone by surprise. Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop. […] Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair. […] For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

So said the voiceover of distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby on a BBC hoax documentary which aired on April Fool’s Day in 1957 as part of the news show Panorama. The reaction from the public was as extraordinary as the documentary. At a time when Britain was deeply unaware of Italian culture many people believed that spaghetti did indeed grow on trees and contacted the BBC to find out where they could buy their very own spaghetti plant.

Lucy Levene could not have chosen a better title for her series The Spaghetti Tree, which presents her intimate, and at times performative, journey within the Italian communities of Bedford and Peterborough, England. Flirting with the tensions between reality and perception, stereotype and construction, all the while adroitly manipulating the photographic medium in all its nuanced and multifarious nature, she examines issues of identity and belonging, both of the subject and her own.

In the 1950s southern Italians were recruited to work for the brick and steel industries in Bedford and Peterborough, which were short on labour during the post WWII reconstruction boom. As reported by Terri Colpi in her seminal book The Italian Factor, by 1960 approximately 7,500 Italian men were hired by the London Brick Company in Bedford and around 3,000 in Peterborough. These men settled in the area, ‘rebecoming’ men with moulded identities from their homeland and their adopted country. We are reminded that they were to be workers first and foremost, in light of the fact that in 1962 the Scalabrini Fathers converted an old school into a church named after San Giuseppe, the patron saint of workers.

But life cannot be just about work, even if the latter imposes you to change country and endure all manner of difficulties, something we Italians know very well. In this sense, Lucy Levene’s depiction of people’s leisure time blissfully reminds us that, as human beings, we can adapt to change and move on. Between February 2013 and 2014 she gained access to Italian community events in both Bedford and Peterborough. Initially she started out as an outsider, a traditional events photographer providing portraits as mementos. Over the course of time she became more and more embedded in these communities to the point where a woman was adamant that she knew Levene as a child.

Like all diaspora phenomena, it is complex, fluid and the many personal narratives can often contradict overarching patterns. Levene, by her own admission, had no real knowledge of British Italians prior to this project. Her idea of Italian culture was full of assumptions largely based on film stereotypes. However, rather than focusing on exported stereotypical Italian behaviours, such as gesticulating, obsessing over food, family, and religion, she was more intrigued by the ways in which notions of ‘community’ and ‘family’ are enacted for the camera and the extent to which the community consciously ‘performs’ these stereotypes. As she professes: “Frustrated by the perfect image and its hermetic surface, I have taken these images at just the wrong moment. I am looking for a disruption; ‘a crack that lets the light in’.”

Her staged scenes revel in dismantling of the idea of ‘bella figura’, Italians’ preoccupation with making a good impression on other people. From moments portraying dancers from an odd perspective, to fragments of scenes both before and after the act of posing for the camera, Levene playfully investigates the boundaries between public and private, formal and informal. Concepts that are usually held in oxymoronic relationship, such as staging and spontaneity, become part of and are indeed subverted in the photographic agenda of her interrupted realities. In essence, hers is a construction of the candid nature of an encounter.

In some instances her images bear similarity to the staged elements of British photographer Brian Griffin’s work. Her use of flash, repetition of specific people and motifs as well as theatrical composition – at times showing the edges of the backdrop – all reveal a subtle and sophisticated meta-photographic approach that serves to at once illuminate a deeper understanding of the medium whilst also providing some measure of amusement for her viewers.

Allowing her presence to be very visible in some of the images, Levene also projects her personal narrative into the lives and relationships of these British Italians, with whom she shares feelings of nostalgia for her own Jewish community of North West London. Being an Italian myself, who has settled in London a while ago, Levene’s photographs give me goose bumps. At first the idea that so many fellow Italians were forced to leave our beloved land to serve capitalism’s whimsical swings is heart-breaking for me. However, a more lingering look reveals the tireless strength of these people to redesign their lives in the UK. Spaghetti may not grow on trees, but Levene’s The Spaghetti Tree is the ‘imperfect’ antidote against homesickness and idealised narratives of the motherland. 

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lucy Levene

Federica Chiocchetti is an independent curator and PhD researcher in photography and fictions at the University of Westminster, the founder and director of the photo-literary platform The Photocaptionist and a writer.

Sean O’Hagan

Photography Critic at The Guardian


Continuing our series of interviews with members of the international photography community – writers, curators, collectors, gallerists, picture editors and so on – Federica Chiocchetti of the Photocaptionist speaks to The Guardian’s photography critic of 10 years Sean O’Hagan. They discuss conceptions of ‘good’ writing on photography, how he discovers new talent, and which British photographers he feels have been underemphasised by UK photographic institutions.

Federica Chiocchetti: Could you tell us a little bit about your background prior to your post as photography critic at The Guardian?

Sean O’Hagan: I studied English at university and worked as a music writer for several years. Then, I worked for The Guardian as a freelance writer and as a features writer for The Observer on art and culture. I still really love doing interviews. For me, it’s the best way to shed light on someone’s way of thinking creatively.

Photography was always there in the background as a fascination of mine and several interviews I did for The Observer Review section with the likes of Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Anders Petersen prompted me to start writing about it more. That was about 10 years ago, when there seemed to be an absence of writing on photography in the ‘serious’ papers. It was usually left to the art critic or whoever else was available to review a big exhibition or book. It was not taken seriously as an art form – still isn’t, but to a lesser degree – compared to, say, theatre or film or dance. So, I was very much on a mission to help put that right. It just grew from there and I was offered a regular online forum by The Guardian a few years ago, which became On Photography.

FC: What is your conception of ‘good’ writing on photography? Is there anyone in particular that has inspired you? And what advice would you give to an emerging writer on photography?

SH: Writing that is clear and clear-headed even if it is tackling difficult or elusive or obtuse subject matter. I have a certain responsibility because I work for a newspaper with a huge readership. Many of my readers are regulars but many more may come to a column or a feature out of curiosity and with only a passing interest in the subject. I’d like them to come back. I’m not writing for an art magazine where one can assume that the reader has a certain familiarity with the subject or with the history of conceptualism or whatever. I can’t use dense, theoretical language to deconstruct works by Jeff Wall or Gursky, nor would I want to.

My formative inspirations were non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, in particular her first two collections of essays, The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I like Truman Capote’s essays as well, much more than his fiction. And Gay Talese’s classic collection, Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, which has just been published as a Penguin Classics. On the more contemporary front, I’d recommend John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection, Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America, which is a very personal take on music, politics and culture. As far as photography writing goes, it always amazes me how many great photographers are also great writers – Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Danny Lyon. And Eggleston’s short illuminating afterword from The Democratic Forest still resounds. We ALL need to be more at war with the obvious right now!

FC: How do you discover new talent?

SH: Increasingly, it discovers me. Strange, but true. It’s the power of the internet again. People know where to find you!

I try to stay alert to what people I trust are enthusing about. I read photography mags, blogs, websites – at least the more interesting ones. There is an awful lot of new work out there and I have to be ultra-selective just because of space and the requirements of the job so I see all these other outlets as a kind of filter. And, of course, people send me stuff – books, PDFs, ongoing projects. It’s kind of relentless and so is the demand for an instant response. I worry about that a bit as I tend towards the reflective. I think we should all slow down… and breath. Let things settle. The quick response is journalistic, of course, but it is not necessarily critical. And opinions are not enough. That’s where we live right now, though. I wish there was a slow journalism movement. I really do.

FC: Do you read/appreciate photography theory?

SH: It depends. Good writing is good writing, whatever. But, when I read bad theoretical writing – dense theoretical jargonese – the old punk in me agrees with Nan Goldin, who said recently: “Fucking postmodern and gender theory. I mean, who gives a shit? People made all that crap up to get jobs in universities.” I think it kills the work for people who are not from that academic background. That kind of writing is exclusive by its nature. It often makes things less clear.

That said, I am familiar with theoretical writing. I did an English degree at a time when post-structuralism and semiotics were like time bombs exploding in the academy. I still return to Barthes and Foucault from time to time. I love Barthes when he is at his most personal and Camera Lucida is a very personal meditation on photography and memory and mourning.

I worry about the teaching of photography in colleges and the emphasis on theory. You see degree shows and MA shows where students present half-digested theory and really dull photographs. I think the ascendency of the curator is a cause for concern as well. They sometimes seem more important than the artists, which is something Brian Eno predicted when I saw him gave a lecture at the beginning of the nineties. I like this essay by Paul Graham, which touches on some concerns of mine. I don’t think it helps to exclude people – or images – from the ongoing debate about the meaning of photography. Theory can be a way of entering and decoding a work but, too often, it seems to me like an end in itself. It’s still valid to walk out into the world with a camera and simply take photographs, though there is, of course, nothing simple about doing that well. I often detect a kind of implicit disdain for that approach from curators and academics.

FC: What is the harshest criticism that you received in your career as a photography critic for The Guardian?

SH: Where to begin? You have to become thick-skinned pretty quickly if you venture online. There was a post recently suggesting that a ‘proper’ art critic should have reviewed Lorna Simpson’s show at BALTIC – “she deserves to be reviewed in a context and by a reviewer commensurate with her status!” – which I took personally for about five minutes until I realised the next post had demolished the inherent snobbery of that remark pretty succinctly. I received a fair amount of flak as well as support for my views on The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize a few years ago, when I suggested it was biased towards art photography at the expense of other genres, but that comes with the turf. I guess if you don’t annoy some of the people some of the time, you’re not doing your job properly.

FC: Which British photographers do you feel have been underemphasised by UK photographic institutions?

SH: Oh dear, where to begin? Chris Killip had a major retrospective in Essen, not that long ago, but has not had one here. That is mystifying to me. In fact that whole generation of great British documentarists get short shrift from British institutions. I can only put that down to curatorial bias. If not, what else explains it? I think people in the photography community were relieved when Tony Ray-Jones was finally given a show last year (at Media Space.) Likewise Tom Wood at The Photographers’ Gallery. I know Paul Graham had a big show at The Whitechapel a few years back, but why not at the Tate or the Hayward? It just seems odd at this stage of the game.

FC: What trends do you find interesting at present?

SH: Found photography continues to fascinate people in and out of the photography community – Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine project looks like the last word but probably isn’t. I get sent a lot of diaristic work, which is probably the biggest trend. Says a lot about where we live. A lot of it seems solipsistic and has none of the heft of, say, Nan Goldin’s work.

I’ll be glad to see the back of (too) big prints, which everyone seemed to be doing for a moment there, whether the work required it or not. And, please, no more Google Street View projects! I think photographers do tend to get apocalyptic about the post-digital deluge – Instagram etc. – and the sheer numbers can be scary, but most people don’t even see that stuff. For me it’s just another moment in the continuum. I read somewhere that, in the sixties, over half of all households in America had a Polaroid or Instamatic camera, but I don’t think Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand were running around in a panic thinking, “It’s all over for us – everyone’s taking photographs!”

What it does to looking or processing images is another thing, though. We’re all living though a huge social experiment that it is hard to gauge the real meaning of. I’m a bit more concerned with what texting, tweeting and the rest is doing to literacy. Kids’  brains are definitely being rewired. Where will it lead? Who knows?

FC: Do you think that prizes and awards are a good thing?

SH: Yes and no. It’s good to be acknowledged, but there are too many prizes now. And they can tend to be a lottery of sorts. I looked at this year’s Deutsche Börse shortlist and thought, What?! Where’s Viviane Sassen, for example? But, that’s the nature of prizes: it’s four people’s opinions usually – and two of them are curators. I tend to take them with a pinch of salt – unless I’m up for one!

FC: Could you tell us a photobook and an exhibition from the past that blew your mind?

SH: The past is a big country. How about the very recent past? The Robert Adams retrospective at Jeu de Paume in Paris recently was just so impressive – a life in a body of work. I spent ages in there. He’s a living master. At the other extreme, someone who is relatively new. I walked into Tereza Zelenkova’s small show, The Absence of Myth, at Legion TV, a small gallery in Hackney last year and was blown away by the work and the way it was laid out – texts and multiple black and white prints in large frames. She’s a young photographer, but there is something very thoughtful as well as day dreamily melancholic about her approach to the gothic and uncanny. She’s fascinated by Georges Bataille and manages to get something of his aura into the words and pictures. She has her own way of seeing things. That’s what I’ m looking out for.

In terms of historical shows, Eggleston’s Ancient and Modern at The Barbican in 1992 was a game-changer for me. It presented a new way of seeing: the ordinary made luminous, the world as we know it, but slightly skewed.

And photo books…Off the top of my head: Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken was perhaps the first photobook that made me see the potential of photography to create a staged, semi-fictional, but somehow utterly real, visual narrative. It still amazes me that it was first published in 1957. So far ahead of the game. I also remember coming across Ray’s A Laugh by Richard Billingham in a bookshop in the mid-nineties and being really confused and excited by it. It had a similar impact on me as a great punk or hip-hop record would once have had – that feeling that you were encountering something new and so viscerally powerful that you were not quite sure what to do with it.

I had a similar reaction to Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. What’s going on in these pages!? Still not sure, but it’s pretty powerful. And, recently, this photobook arrived though my letterbox and it’s pretty damn exciting, too: Shanxi by Zhang Xaio, published by Little Big Man.

José Pedro Cortes


Pierre von Kleist Editions

14 km south from Lisboa, where I live, is Costa da Caparica. During the last years I often found myself returning to this magnetic place.” With these lapidary and somewhat ominous words, José Pedro Cortes drags us along his photographic journey that serves as the subject for his latest photobook, Costa, a body of work which hovers somewhere between the oneiric and the hypnotic.

Costa da Caparica is the stretch of land that can be reached from Lisbon by crossing the ocean bridge, called 25 of April, named after the Revolução dos Cravos in 1974, following Portugal’s liberation from a half-century of fascism. The aforementioned quote is the only textual element of the book, an overriding caption echoing in each and every photograph, and intriguingly brings to mind the mysterious legend around the toponymy of Caparica. Rumour has it that an elderly woman who lived there, possibly a witch, guarded a fortune (rica, meaning ‘rich’) in her coloured, patchwork cape, hence ‘capa’.

Cortes, mesmerised by the bewitching powers of light, invites the viewer to be his modern Virgilio and sets forth on an exploration of the excruciatingly luminous and varicoloured physical terrain, where the wilderness of nature and the suburban patches mingle together to produce an unsettling scenario of exotic decadence. “I pushed the light to the limits,” he says, “because I wanted to transmit the feeling of bewilderment that I experience when I wander around this territory.” It begs the question, how much light can our retina tolerate before loosing the ability to recognise the place we find ourselves? Frequently indulging in off-kilter compositions, Cortes constantly questions his and, by natural extension, the viewer’s position in this paradoxical territory, as if we were the protagonists of a labyrinthine videogame.

Despite all the positive connotations behind the idea of light, it would be plausible to describe this series of photographs as nihilistic or even apocalyptic; the human presence is only hinted at through not-so-flattering objects, such as abandoned and decrepit architecture, an improvised wooden cross, presumably marking the death of somebody, while images of lunar landscapes with paw prints or a snake are the nearest we come to signs of habitation of any life form. In that respect I can only say that during the last months I often found myself returning to this magnetic book.

—Federica Chiocchetti

All images courtesy of the artist. © José Pedro Cortes