Italo Calvino on Photography

I always find it fascinating when authors incorporate their academic thoughts into works of fiction.

I came across this this story by Italo Calvino titled “The Adventures of a Photographer,” found in his novel Difficult Loves. In it, we follow Antonino Paraggi, who is described as a non-photographer. Feeling isolated, he picks up the camera and begins to shoot. The story is short, and perhaps unrealistic (what of finding love through a model shoot?), but I wanted to highlight a couple of noteworthy passages.

Is it possible to use an extracurricular endeavor, such as photography, to discover ones faults, misgivings, and dissatisfactions in life? Calvino makes the case that it is so:

It must be said that his examination of photography to discover the causes of a private dissatisfaction—as of someone who feels excluded from something—was to a certain extent a trick Antonino played on himself, to avoid having to consider another, more evident, process that was separating him from his friends. What was happening was this: his acquaintances, of his age, were all getting married, one after another, and starting families, while Antonino remained a bachelor.

Have you encountered parents who become obsessed with photography because they think that if there’s a moment of their child’s life that they don’t capture, it will be lost forever?

Given the speed of growth, it becomes necessary to photograph the child often, because nothing is more fleeting and unmemorable than a six-month-old infant, soon deleted and replaced by one of eight months, and then one of a year; and all the perfection that, to the eyes of parents, a child of three may have reached cannot prevent its being destroyed by that of the four-year-old. The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own.

Antonino’s argument here is interesting, but flawed:

For the person who wants to capture everything that passes before his eyes, the only coherent way to act is to snap at least one picture a minute, from the instant he opens his eyes in the morning to when he goes to sleep. This is the only way that the rolls of exposed film will represent a faithful diary of our days, with nothing left out. If I were to start taking pictures, I’d see this thing through, even if it meant losing my mind. But the rest of you still insist on making a choice. What sort of choice? A choice in the idyllic sense, apologetic, consolatory, at peace with nature, the fatherland, the family. Your choice isn’t only photographic; it is a choice of life, which leads you to exclude dramatic conflicts, the knots of contradiction, the great tensions of will, passion, aversion. So you think you are saving yourselves from madness, but you are falling into mediocrity, into hebetude.

I find it hard to believe that there is a person who wants to capture “everything” — that is impossible. Secondly, one would not use a still camera in this instance, but would shoot a film. On this topic, I highly suggest reading “While the Women Are Sleeping,” which I previously discussed here. The central obsession of shooting continuously in the two stories is very, perhaps eerily, similar.

And this is probably the best passage in the story. Can the photographed reality be better (i.e., more visually appealing, more engrossing, more ethereal, more subjective, etc.) than reality itself? I’ve previously noted, with my photography, that it’s often the case (because I sometimes envision a scene as I would like it to look, and complete my mental image in post-processing).

Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself. To believe that the snapshot is more true than the posed portrait is a prejudice…

Hat tip to @escapeintolife for posting a link to this story on Twitter.

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