In addition to being the “incunabulum” of photography books, The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot is also the official birth certificate of the relationship between photography and sculpture. Among the plates illustrating the first part of the book is one depicting the cast of a Hellenistic bust (the caption describes it as the Bust of Patroclus, but it has been wrongly attributed). The text that accompanies it sets out the extraordinary potential of the new medium in relation to antique art: the variety of views offered by sculpture and the variety of impressions that the light can draw from them is joined by the variety of angles made possible by photography. “[I]t becomes evident how very great a number of different effects may be obtained from a single specimen of sculpture”, the short text concludes. A plate in the fourth part puts these considerations into practice: it consists of another photograph of the bust, this time depicted in profile, with different lighting, showing less contrast than the first picture.
The text establishes a relationship between sculpture and photography whose middle term is light. Light, which reveals and models volume, is also responsible for impressing its image on photographic paper: the solids and voids of the sculpture correspond to the light and dark areas of the photograph. It is an equation in which the void in sculpture is to shadow what shadow is to black on photographic paper. However, it is necessary for the solids and voids, light and shadow, to be in equilibrium in order for the equation to be correct. In the final passage of his book, Talbot warns photographers against direct sunlight, for it creates excessively sharp and deep shadows “as sometimes to confuse the subject” (in the sense of the thing portrayed).
The selection of works that Alessandro Dandini de Sylva has entitled Voids and Burns seems to depart from here, from these reflections, but turns them upside down. Indeed, his photographs seek the shadows that Talbot advised to avoid. The voids in the middle of the large prints Untitled (Hole #1095) and Untitled (Hole #1097) – two slightly different views of a recess between rocks – place a huge, almost completely dark area in the centre of the image: a black hole with ragged edges, as flat as the surrounding rocks, modelled by the light, appear in relief. The effect of this flat zone is, as Talbot feared (and Dandini de Sylva hopes), “to confuse the subject”: the forced coexistence of two different visual regimes – one illusionistic, suggesting depth and relief, the other denying them – creates an ambiguous, suspended image, which is intentionally undetermined. (The effect is heightened by printing the images in the upper half of a sheet of photographic paper so that the half that is left white echoes the black area in the centre of the photographs, inverting it.) In the Untitled (Reflection) series of small prints, the concept is the same but the technique (and the results) are different. The ambiguity of the images is first and foremost relative to the scale of what they depict: it is difficult to determine if these are aerial views or details, mountain lakes photographed from above or pools of water between the rocks. In this case, the flat black areas (reflections of the sun on the water, blackened by overexposure ) are very small, just little dots, but the perceptive fabric that they pierce was nonetheless already laddered. The “subject” that risks being confused, is not so much the thing depicted here, as the person observing it, who has been made aware of both the physiological limits of vision and the technical ones of photography.
After having overturned the logic of “good” photography of sculpture, Dandini de Sylva has applied the procedure to sculpture itself. What defines the formal quality of a traditional sculpture? Its play of solids and voids, which the light transforms into bright and shadowed areas (which, as we know, are in turn transformed into light and dark areas on the photographic paper). In the two sculptures Untitled (Void #1) and Untitled (Void #2), the small cavity excavated in the centre of the two marble slabs shows itself to the eye as a perfectly flat circle, a small inked disc on the smooth surface; the volume of the two parallelepipeds appears intact. The analogy – the symmetry, in fact – with the process conducted in photography is evident: both, prints and sculptures, nullify the perception of depth (in the first case illusory, in the second real) opposing a flat, impenetrable black to it.
It is interesting to note that both the Untitled (Reflection) prints and the sculptures insinuate an analogy with the eye. The two small images Untitled (Reflection #1) and Untitled (Reflection #2), displayed alongside each other – cavities full of water, small vibrant areas of light on an opaque ground – appear as a natural analogue of the eyes; and the small black specks in them can be interpreted as scotomas, defects of the retina that alter the vision. In the sculptures, the perfect black circle, which our reason tells us is deep and our vision tells us is flat, instead suggests a parallel with the pupil, the disc whose depth – in a symbolic sense – is concealed behind an unbroken black surface. Continuing with these ocular analogies, the abstract polaroids of the Untitled (Burn) series, exposed (and partly scorched) by the heat of a flame, could be subjective shots of closed eyelids, devoid of images of the outside world; and the approximately circular shapes, floating in the centre of the emulsion, could be phosphenes, elicited by a direct action (the pressure of a fingertip) which replaces that of light. But now we are pushing the boundaries of the potential for analogy of these works. What they are inspired and held together by is the intention to instil doubt about vision and its mechanical equivalent – photography – placing a blind spot in their field, and placing it not at the periphery, but in the centre of the field, the image, and vision itself.