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Italo Calvino's "The Adventure of a Photographer"

October 26, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The cuban born Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote a short story "The Adventure of a Photographer". It was first published in 1958, but it appeared in English in his book of short stories, Difficult Loves, published in 1971. It presents a marvelous characterization of the obsession of photography through its effect on one individual, Antonino. The date the story was written has some relevance to my ramblings here since it was well before the technology changes we've undergone in the past 20 years. Like any good story (at least to my taste) the explorations that Calvino makes into the lure and obsession of photography - more generally the human need to record the events of our lives - has a timeless quality.

Using the terminology of the computer era, humans are endowed with "internal memory" but unlike digital memory our internal memory is 'soft', it is perishable, we forget, and it is malleable, we 'remember' an event one way when in fact it actually happened another way. Yes, I know digital memory too is perishable but not in the same way. With coding and error correction-detection mechanisms (ah, mathematics) digital memory readers know when the memory has gone bad and can notify us not to trust what is being output. Our brains on the other hand are not so precise, a piece of some memory may morph or perish but we don't necessarily know it - that darn malleability. We swear things were this way, when in reality they were that way. With writing and painting, mankind acquired "external memory" (peripheral memory?) that is much more permanent than the soft stuff in our heads, but writing and painting are malleable too. They are dependent upon the interpretation of the event by the writer or painter making the record. Photography, and other mechanical recording devices (video, voice, etc), are not dependent on the human operator to the same extent. It has been said that a photograph "speaks for itself". But not so fast you say, a photograph too depends upon the whims and biases of the photographer. The photographer controls where to point the recording device and then there is the conversion of the raw recording into the visual image ultimately displayed. While it is more evident today than ever before, given the precision and simplicity of digital image manipulation, it has always been possible to manipulate the final image displayed in order to convey an impression different from the reality that was originally taking place and allegedly recorded. A photograph can be made to present an image more perfect than the reality it records, the smiling faces in the family portrait masking tensions and rivalries for example. There are deep philosophical questions here. What is the 'reality' of an event that happens in time, especially going forward into the future, when the event is now in the past? Is all that matters of an event our internal memory of it, even if that memory morphs into something different from the initial reality? What matters more, the initial reality or our current memory of that reality? What of all these external aids to our memory, especially today given the limitless amount of memory now available via digital means, how far do we go in recording and preserving these records, how much is too much? Time spent recording, processing and cataloging events takes time away from actually experiencing the events of our lives, from making new events worth recording, when does such activity turn into obsession? And what of the records, who is to play them back? Where does the time spent playing back a record, reliving a recorded memory come from? I better stop here with the questions, before I get to "what is the meaning of life", it's not too far away.

Back to Calvino's story. In the opening paragraph he describes the unnamed city's inhabitants who spend their weekends taking photographs. He says of their weekend lives

It is only when they have the photos before their eyes that they seem to take tangible possession of the day they spent, only then that the mountain stream, the movement of the child with his pail, the glint of the sun on the wife's legs take on the irrevocability of what has been and can no longer be doubted. Everything else can drown in the unreliable shadow of memory.

Antonino is introduced as the rebel, one who sees nothing but folly in the clamor to record every aspect of one's life on film. Then Calinvo tells us what it is with Antonino that underlies his discomfort, he is a bachelor. His circle of friends are getting married, having children, and these events bring about the need to record. Those six month old toddlers will very soon be seven months old and thus a record must be made. It is because they love that they photograph. Well, with Antonino the process works in reverse. While on an outing with acquaintances, he is asked to take some photographs of a female acquaintance, and gradually through the posing and framing in the view finder he falls in love. The love fuels his desire to photograph, and vice versa. His compulsion becomes obsession as the need for the perfect photograph, for recording his love's every waking and sleeping moments overwhelms him, bringing about his downfall. Along the way, in telling this tale of Antonino, Calvino gives commentary on the human need to record the events of our lives, on compulsion, memory, love and obsession.

As for what "The Adventure of a Photographer" tells me about myself, well, that opening characterization quoted above fits me. I find that in my travels, they are not 'real' until I get home and see - and process - the photographs I've taken along the way. As I say on the home page of this site, "I acknowledge change, therefore I photograph". Change, really decay, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, is the way things are. My memory is fleeting, photographs are how I slow that down. As for what I photograph, well, see "signal in the noise" elsewhere in my blog. Like Antonino, I too seek some undefined, unattainable 'perfection' when I look through the view finder and press the shutter release. My concept of perfection is not necessarily in composition or framing or technical precision (mind you, those things are important), but just some glimmer of a signal hidden in the noise.

Calvino's story is in the open domain, it can be found here in the link below. It is entertaining, thought provoking, and, in this rushed day and age, it is short - not much longer than a 'tweet' (not that I have any idea what a 'tweet' is). Read it.






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