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Disenchanted with the referent: photography in Emanuele Martino's Cara fotografia: Racconti.

Introduction: Readers and Referents

A self-reflexive photographic image asks where Carla can be, the person the photograph represents and, as it says, without which it would not exist (61). Uneasy with knowing so little about Carla, the photograph sets out to find her only to discover that it (i.e., the photograph) is a lie, a photomontage that does not respect the truth of the Real (69). Despite the photograph's memory of the day it was taken--"Ricordo perfettamente il momento dello scatto" (61), it boasts at the beginning of the story--and its self-definition as a fragile, pale reminder of Carla in Lugano in 1989, it discovers that it is an image of an event that never took place. This discovery is made when Carla informs the photographic image that the lady pictured in the background is her mother, who died in 1987, two years before the photograph was taken. Gravely disillusioned that it is a manipulated image, the photograph thinks of itself as orphaned insofar as it cannot lay claim to the truth value attributed to its family, photographic images and Photography (61). The realization that it exists apart from and even without that which it represents visually completely dismantles the photograph's reputed status as a referentially sound image.

An inexperienced museum goer Lucio Amedeo goes to a museum exhibition entitled "Mostra fotografica con referente. Fotografie di Oregon" (25). Uncertain as to what referent means, he looks up the word in the dictionary before arriving at the museum and learns that "[referente] debba trattarsi dell'oggetto di un discorso, di un quadro, di una fotografia" (26). At the museum, a short note informs him that he will be able to view the referent in the last hall and immediately thinks that the promised referent is the blonde woman imaged in the first large solitary photograph. Eager to see the woman and perhaps even speak to her, Lucio tries to skip the exhibition and move to the final room where the photograph's referent is, but is forced by a bizarre regulatory system of surveillance to stop at every photographic image until a timer indicates that he has sufficiently contemplated it (26). After much frustration, partly due to the fact that he is unable to ascertain with certainty that each photograph is of the same woman since there is no caption or explanation, he concludes that "quello del referente e una favola, un mito al quale io, sciocco, ho creduto" (30-31). He is finally able to leave the museum, which is strikingly similar to a labyrinth or a prison, only after contemplating if "[s]ono forse le immagini, ed esse sole, a far da refferente a se stesse?" (31). Lucio is permitted to exit the museum because he begins to realize that photographic images do not reach beyond themselves into the real world and that, by extension, photographic referentiality (and all that is tied up in it, such as, truth, accuracy, and objectivity) is a social myth.

These and other highly self-reflexive stories about photography and the photographic image were penned by Italian photographer and professor of visual semiotics Emanuele Martino. Published in 2008, Cara fotografia: Racconti is a collection of sixteen multimodal short stories about the photographic image, its complex relation to other photographic images and to photography, as well as its role within the photographic act. An extended examination of the photograph's referential status and, by extension, of photographic meaning and veracity, Cara fotografia encourages readers to experience the interaction that results between the photographic image and its viewer. The collection thus shifts attention away from the camera's or the photographer's connection to its subject to examine the spectator's role in the photographic act. By doing so, Cara fotografia encourages readers to revisit and ultimately dismantle their trust in the power of photographic reference.

Produced by a chemical-optic process and not by a human hand, the photographic image has since its inception been theorized as presenting viewers with an exact replica of that which was present in space and time before the camera lens. Launched as "so exact and rapid a means of reproduction" by Dominique Francois Arago on July 3, 1839 in his report to the members of the French Chamber of Deputies (15), photography was praised as a process whereby images are "drawn by nature's most subtle pencil, the light ray" (18). The existence of this new art, as William Henry Fox Talbot called it, brought with it a sense that the much sought after goal of perfect accuracy in an image--an accuracy whereby the visual experience of the real world could be faithfully replicated--was reached. The photographic image was quickly established as unique among visual images since it was said to enjoy a causal and apparently unmediated relationship to its referent in the real world. In semiotic terms, it is an indexical sign whose very existence testifies to the reality, albeit a past reality, of that which it shows.

Other factors besides the epistemological privilege attached to its mechanical means of production contribute to the power that began to accrue to photography from its early days. As John Tagg so forcefully argues, although the photographic image is vested with a "power to see and record," it is "not the power of the camera but the power of the apparatuses of the local state which deploy it and guarantee the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence or register a truth" (259-60). Photographs in and of themselves are unable to provide a truthful account of the real world; instead, their documentary status, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau reminds us, rests on the fact that they "are routinely used to confirm the truth of dominant ideologies" (xxiv, emphasis added). Science is one such persuasive social institution that used photography to sustain and promote its findings. Indeed, very early on in its history, photography was hailed "as a scientific tool for producing representations of nature with high 'exactitude/ to be used as an instrument of truth and transmitter of information on what 'was there'" (Azoulay 154). (1) With advances in technology, science began making use of photography not only to categorize things in the real world (Sougez 35-36), but also to expose visually that which could not be seen through normal sight. Eadweard Muybridge's widely distributed photographic studies of animal locomotion (1870s and 1880s), for instance, "evinced a secret world existing beyond normal perception--invisible to our eyes, but phenomenologically undeniable, because photographable" (Nickel 65). (2) Here, photography and the photographic image it produces extend beyond their initial appeal as "a new instrument of vision" (Moholy-Nagy). That photographic images are believed to be able to show truthfully that which cannot be seen through normal sight and, hence, broaden our perceptual experience highlights the extent to which the photographic image gained and, for the most part, retains the status as the perfect, ultimate provider of visual evidence of an actual reality.

By contrast, Martino encourages readers to experience the photographic image on its own terms, that is, as an image that holds meaning apart from any link to reality it may or may not have. In Cara fotografia, the status of the photographic image as the ultimate provider of evidence is seriously challenged and ultimately dismissed as irrelevant to its meaning. It goes without saying that to do away with traditional understandings of photographic referentiality is no easy task since despite decades of theorizing the photograph as historically constructed and bound, it continues to slyly enforce itself in the imaginary as "immagine fatta senza l'intervento della mano, specchio del reale, pennello della natura" and "proiezione dell'invisible" (Cara fotografia 10).

That Martino aims to dispel faith in the photograph's objectivity and thus unveil its ontological deceit is most evident in the unusual photographic images--all authored by Martino--included in Cara fotografia. He reproduces unusually bad or referentially impossible photographs alongside stories that delve into the disjunction between photographic truth or evidence and any photographic link to reality. An examination of two major types of unusual photographs included in Cara fotografia, blurry or out-of-focus photographs and empty frames, sheds light on Martino's exploration of the nature of photographic meaning to expose as false the photographic image's strong, historically reinforced claim to a referentially sound objectivity firmly grounded in its indexical nature. (3)

Blurry / Out-of-focus Images

Described as a Trojan horse by the introductory short story's narrator (10), the photographic image has a long history of trickery. Because it poses as and is widely approached as having a special claim to reality and, thus, to truth (at least truth understood within an objective framework), its intelligibility has been closely linked to the dry, stark referential data imaged on its surface. When that data is far from perfect as it is in blurry or grainy images, then the photographic image is rejected as "clumsy or unsuccessful" (Bourdieu 79). As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us in his influential 1965 study, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, "the value of a photograph [may very well be] measured above all by [its] clarity" (79). Whereas Bourdieu makes this claim in relation to popular notions of beauty among the working classes, it is possible to extend his observation to suggest that focus--and the quest for focus--has also much to do with the expectation of and belief in photographic referentiality and its role in establishing truth.

Described by Paul Frosh as "one of the most unremarked of photography's representational norms" (152), a sharp focus holds a normative status in photography since it is deemed by many not only to be the representational equivalent of natural, unmediated vision, but also the signature for the mechanics of the medium. The photographic image's visual clarity invokes the perceptual mastery implied in a technologically and objectively sound impression of the real world. Lindsay Smith, in her gendered reading of photographic focus, traces the production and legitimization of "a consensus upon 'sharpness', upon that condition of being 'in' focus as an unhesitant and irrefutable signature of the photographic medium" to photography's inception (244-45). Indeed, a good century of representational convention of photography (and painting before it) has led us to respond to photographic images as precise, objective likenesses of that which they represent, a response that is integrally linked to associating photographic focus with authoritative visual mapping. Photographic objectivity is synonymous with "a well-defined, sharp, undistorted representation" of the photographic subject (Stahel 16). Hence, even when executed or approached as a desired photographic effect, the blurry photographic image is "at odds with our perceptions of photography as mechanistic and unmediated" (Hawker 547).

However, as Bourdieu suggests, a "different aesthetic might intentionally aim for the blurred or unfocused" photographic image (79). Indeed, in an 1864 letter to Sir John Herschel, early practitioner of photography Margaret Cameron was keen to point out the aesthetic qualities of the blurry photographic image. After confirming her belief in "other than mere conventional topographic photography," she asks fellow photographers to contemplate "What is focus--and who has a right to say what is the legitimate focus?" (qtd. in Gernsheim 14). Her rhetorical question points to what is usually deemed a photographic limit or mistake to suggest instead that it be taken as another photographic trope, one that appreciates the photographic image as a visual representation, and not as an accurate, neutral likeness of the real. In short, Cameron's reflection on her own photographic practice is a step toward subverting photography's authoritative self-defining law of absolute visual clarity or sharp focus.

Martino, too, engages in a similar subversive gesture by including blurred photographic images in Cara fotografia to expose and challenge accepted myths surrounding the photograph's intelligibility and evidential value. A large out-of-focus photographic image is reproduced at the beginning of "Clausura," the story of two 7x10 black-and-white photographic images of a nun mysteriously included in two separate boxes of cookies Luigi D. purchases at a convent (Figure 1) (14). After receiving the first photograph, Luigi D., highly intrigued by it and uncertain if it was intentionally placed in his box of cookies, returns to the convent to buy another box of cookies only to discover that it, too, contains a photograph of the same nun, but younger (20). As the story unfolds, Luigi D. feels more and more challenged by the photograph that, as he contends, has not even one factual element to it (19). Aware that photographs are, as he puts it, "fonti d'inganni sottili e crudeli" (21), Luigi sets out to solve the mystery and establish at least one fact about the photographs. He names the nun Suor Elisa, looks at the first image through a magnifying glass, and then enlarges both photographs to 18x24 and 30x40 only to conclude that "i due ingrandimenti, specialmente il maggiore, mostrano meno delle foto originali" (21). The grainy texture of the enlargements makes it impossible to determine any facts about the pictured nun, especially her relationship to Luigi D. Frustrated with the quest to draw out facts from the photographs' surface, he abandons the photographs altogether and decides to draw what he saw in them by memory. The final product is a drawing of a childhood friend named Maria Giulia, aged seven when he loved her. (4) He scribbles Maria Giulia on the back of the first photograph, places it in an envelope and delivers it to the convent. It is returned to him with a bold-lettered YES scrolled across the back of it (24).


Luigi's drawing exercise, in its substitution of the photographic image that secures an affirmative YES as to the identity of the imaged nun, recalls an unfortunately often overlooked thesis by Roland Barthes. While setting forth his theoretically attractive distinction between the studium and the punctum, Barthes argues that "in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes" (53). (5) Surprisingly, it is while theorizing the photographic image as necessarily embroiled in the web of photographic discourse (i.e., the studium), but nonetheless able to capture details whose meaning escapes discourse (i.e., the punctum), that Barthes accentuates the importance of freeing the photographic image from the clutches of the referent in order to truly see and experience what it shows. Keen on delineating a subjective viewing experience throughout his Camera Lucida, Barthes calls for a silencing not only of the image's surface details, but also of the discourses surrounding photography so to be able to shed allegiance to objectivity and thus engage fully with what is imaged. He specifies: "The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: 'Technique/ 'Reality,' 'Reportage,' 'Art,' etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness" (55). When no longer tainted by the fabricated truths or myths that continue to haunt, indeed threaten its appreciation, the photographic image undergoes a process of internalization whereby it gains in meaning for the viewing subject. Through this process, the boundary separating the external and the internal is dissolved so that the subject occupies both spaces at once.

In this way, the work performed by the image that came into being through the viewing of the photographic image--for Barthes, a mental image and for Martino's protagonist, a drawing made from the melding of a recent and a distant memory--obliterates the original photographic image as it was, creating a new version of the old image that is freed of the referent. Once subject to interpretation, the photographic image partakes in a metonymic expansion, a structuring process which allows the image or, better, ensures that the image also means that which it does not show. The "reader's experience actually makes present and meaningful that which is absent from the photographic image itself" (Gombrich 24), so that what the photograph actually portrays ultimately recedes in importance. The strength of the photographic image, then, lies not in what is shown, but rather in what is withheld. Recognition, like reference, is born of the viewer's interaction with the photographic image, an interaction that is nothing if not subjective.

In its attempt to overthrow what Hubert Damisch calls "the source of the supposition of 'reality', which defines the photographic situation" (88)--that is, the way a photograph presents itself as the result of an objective process--Martino's project goes beyond showing that the photograph is at once informative and affective, that it combines the studium and the punctum. (6) Instead, as his use of photographic out-of-focus-ness suggests, he is concerned with exposing as absolutely false photographic indexicality and its implications for photographic truth and reference. His out-of-focus photographic images and the way they force a reading that moves outside of what is imaged warns readers against looking for exact likeness or identity in clarity of photographic detail.

A blurry photographic portrait is reproduced towards the middle of a short story about a middle-aged man whose face was completely destroyed in an incendiary car accident (49). After undergoing reconstructive surgery, surgery that produces a face drastically different from the one he was familiar with, the man contemplates over 200 photographs of himself before his disfigurement in an attempt to recover the subjectivity he felt he lost in the accident (46). Struggling to determine whether the change in physical appearance corresponds to a change in self, he begins shooting a new series of photographic self-portraits. In them, he searches for "una pur vaga somiglianza con cio che fui, se non di sembianze, di intenti e di spirito" (51). After much torment, the man comes to the conclusion that the whole photographic project is useless because he has been made aware that although he thought he was photographing himself, he also photographed an other whom he did not know (51). He concludes: "occurre essere in due perche si possa conoscere e l'altro e se stessi" (51-52). Like the photographic portraits taken before the accident, the new ones also fail to show him his self for he comes to realize that he has to unite his new face to his old one and "accettare cio che essi, insieme e da soli, mi avrebbero narrato" (52).

The out-of-focus photographic portrait conspicuously reproduced in the middle of this story that does not mention it encourages readers to partake actively in this discovery (Figure 2) (49). Acutely aware that the photograph was supposed to show a middle-aged man, readers scrutinize the image to determine the man's appearance. Readers assume, in other words, that resemblance between the real man and the image must be present even in this blurry image. However, as Victor Burgin so keenly notes, "When confronted with puzzle photographs of the 'What is it?' variety (usually, familiar objects shot from unfamiliar angles) we are made aware of having to select from sets of possible alternatives, of having to supply information the image itself does not contain" (133). Faced with Martino's unusually blurry image, readers want so much to know the who and what and where of the photographic portrait that they begin to invent its narrative. The blurry photograph is thus invisible not only because it merely visually hints at that which it refers to, but also because its intelligibility resides, almost entirely, with the viewer. The out-of-focus photographs included in Cara fotografia make the viewer's mediating role in establishing the photograph's referential quality abundantly clear. (7) Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, stops on the "bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect" in photography to argue that "[e]ventually, one reads into the photograph what it should be saying" (28-29). As Martino's blurry photographic images prove, the viewer amplifies the image, adding to it other possible elements that are not pictured on its surface. Italian theorist Epifanio Ajello, who examines the role of photography in modern Italian literature, explains this process as a type of continuation, of mental cinematography, of the image (15). (8)


Blank Photographs

Just as poorly focused photographs call forth the enactment of the many stories that have yet to be told, so too do blank or empty photographic images. A photograph of an empty framed photograph is reproduced before a short story about an old photographer who purchases three framed photographic images at a flea market without seeing what they portray (Figure 3) (80). From the words written on the envelope that contains them, he knows only that collectively they are called "Tre foto da spalliera" (81). Intrigued by this designation, the photographer learns from the vendor that the photographic images used to hang above the headboard of three single beds found in the same room (81). In response to the photographer's question of what the photograph's represent, the vendor explains that to know what they represent would serve no purpose since the photographs "non svelerebbero il loro segreto" unless they are hung in their right place, that is above a bed's headboard (81). The old photographer purchases the photographs and many months after hanging them over his headboard, the first two photographs--one representing a boy playing a violin, the other of a sail boat--tell him stories related to what they portray. When the third, empty and thus most perplexing photograph begins to speak, it explains that it is not "una vera fotografia" since it is "solo un foglio di carta fotografica bianca, ove non sta immagine alcuna" (84). Describing itself as "il luogo aperto della Possibilita e della Liberta" (84), it argues that unlike the other photographs that capture a precise reality and are thus bound by the constraints of the referent, the stories it can tell are limitless because nothing is imprinted on its surface. Herein lies its value: in its capacity to accommodate an infinite number of stories, some that "si fondano su una sola immagine; altre, addirittura, possono non richiedere immagine alcuna" (84).


Although nothing from the real world had been chosen and framed in the initial stages of the photographic act, the actual frame around the blank photograph announces the existence of a story. As narratologist Katherine Young has recently argued, frames do two things: one, they communicate the presence of a story, codifying its kind and two, they reveal an attitude toward the story, establishing a relationship between the story's tellers and hearers (76). Hence, frames are metanarratives that "qualify the events they span and inform" (79), offering up information of the existence of a story and its type through an intimate selective process the frame organizes and thus governs. In Martino's text, the frame announces a story that is linked not only to that which is imaged--actually or potentially--on the photograph's surface, but also to what lies outside of that which is imaged, in the real world.

Frames also fulfill an evaluative function, (de-)limiting the details of the story, allowing some elements to work their way into the story told and others to remain out of reach all the time filtering them through a determined perspective and a critical mind. Critics of photography attribute to the photographic frame the capacity to delineate the story-world's particulars and endow them with meaning--a capacity predicated on the ability to separate and exclude an event from its originating context, ultimately denying a whole by intending a mere fraction of that whole. Defining the frame as "the central act of photography," John Szarkowski argues that it "forces a concentration on the picture edge--the line that separates in from out--and on the shapes that are created by it" (100). The photographic frame signals the importance--semantic, aesthetic, social, etc.--of that which it contains, qualifying the photographed event as less-than-ordinary. The photographic frame thus validates that which it demarcates.

But the frame in Martino's story spans and informs an empty photograph, one where all traces of reality are filtered out of the image. Unlike the other two images that represent something, the invisible, empty one speaks to the narrative potential of the photograph, the many possible stories that it is prepared to hold. The photograph explains to the old photographer who is intrigued by it that it can "accogliere qualunque storia, passata presente e futura" (84). The photographic image does not consider its own blank surface as a withholding of the referent. Instead, it claims that photographic reference extends well beyond the time constraints implicit in a photographic image that depends for its meaning on indexicality. It shozvs that the referent does not need to be visualized (and, by extension, that the photographic image can be independent of indexicality) so that the photograph's narrative potential extends into the indeterminate, infinite and unpredictable realm of desire.

Ultimately, the empty framed photograph stages what Michael Fried, in relation to a particularly dark, quasi imageless photograph in Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Seascapes" series, calls "a strategy of exclusion" (298) to force the rejection of popular notions of the photographic image as indexical of exterior reality. The old photographer searches in vain for the photograph's claim on reality and truth, only to suspect (and, we alongside him) that the photograph is correct in announcing that it will lead its viewer "nell'ampio regno abitato dai veri sognatori, i quali talvolta non sanno e non vogliono distinguere i loro sogni da quello che abitualmente chiamano realta" (84). The photographic image accommodates that which is not only inherently different from reality, but also desirably so.

Neither primarily affective nor primarily informative, the invisible photograph's semantic status lies predominantly with the reader and with what the reader chooses to see, imagines seeing or, indeed, believes to see. Once the photograph declares its existence, it is in the hands of the viewer who formulates narratives that exist apart from that which is pictured as well as that which is real. Although "[p]hotography is rooted in the real world and is made of optical, chemical, and mechanical facts" (296), as Martino argues in a 2003 article entitled "A Set Theoretic Approach to Indication and Indexicality in Photography," it does not hold any firm claims to the real besides those imposed on it by its viewer. By exposing the representational capacities of the empty frame, Martino enacts the implications of the shift away from understandings of the photographic act that overlook the viewer to posit the composite of reality, camera, and photographer as both source and locus of meaning. The photograph, Martino strongly suggests, is made not when the photographer depresses the camera shutter, but rather when the spectator looks at, experiences, reads into the photographic image.

It follows that the photograph actually has meaning--it works, in other words--even if the viewer has no means of identifying the photograph's subject. This is so because the photographic act is tied up with private and individual practices of looking that are removed from the moment of the image's making. Reference is thus dependant upon the modality of looking that viewers adopt.

Photography exposed

In Cara fotografia, Martino broaches a complex if not downright ugly, messy question that haunts the history of photography: What lies behind the photographic referent? He does so by proposing a series of stories in which the photographic image is exposed as actually lacking the objectivity that historically has been attributed to it. His multi-modal collection of stories asks readers to revisit, substantially revise and, finally, abandon traditional notions of photographic reference. What becomes apparent is that once the far too often forgotten spectator is factored into the photographic act, the photographic image is not referentially sound and unchanging. When no longer approached as merely the product of an encounter between the photographer, the photographic subject, and the camera, the photographic image sheds the shackles of objectivity to live in the world as an object that is repeatedly read. What Martino's collection of short stories and photographs emphasizes is that each observer of a photographic image renegotiates that which is shown on its surface. So, although the photographer negotiated that which was before the camera and the photographed subject negotiated the camera and the photographer behind it, once the photographic image is released into the world, its visual details literally take on a different meaning with every new observer it comes into contact with. The new encounter, in other words, imposes itself on the outcome of the original one, transforming what is imaged into an unpredictable and highly indeterminate possibility. In other words, photographic images hold the potential for a plurality of senses because no one person or thing authors the photographic image into existence.

It follows that photographs do not speak for themselves; nor do they decipher, accurately or otherwise, or refer to the things that populate the real world. In denying the assertive capacity of photographic veracity firmly anchored in the extra-textual referent, Martino turns the table on conventional views of photographic reference, thus threatening the fundamentals of photographic certainty. Photographs, as one of Martino's narrators tells us, "mostrano ma mostrano poco" (75). Cara fotografia, with its unconventional stories of photographs and its unconventional use of photography, exposes photography's defiance of its evidential status as proof of the reality it registers, not only revealing the referential fragility of the photographic image, but also confirming that it has a life of its own. Once understood to be a picture, the photographic image ceases to refer to the particular event from which it was drawn. Instead, it creates its own special reality, one that is separate from the reality of commonplace vision.

Tellingly, in his famous definition of the index, Peirce specifies that the index is indicative precisely of a real datum. Physically obliged to coincide point by point with the object in nature, the photograph ends up being closely connected to the object without replacing it completely. Peirce, however, specifies that it is not thoroughly in place, "frozen like a mirror". Instead, it is ready to act in its referentiality (1931-1958). The empty frames and blurry images as well as the referentially impossible photographs (Figure 4) reproduced in Martino's text invite readers to engage in the acting of referentiality. In order to do this, they perform the abandonment of the type of looking for referentiality to which photographic viewing is prone, replacing it instead with an imaginative explosion of narrative possibility.


Martino confirms that what cannot be is what was once promised in the original photographic act: a faithful, accurate, objective visual copy of the real. In order to be, to have meaning, photographs need the look of a spectator. The photograph's spectator, as Ariella Azoulay reminds us in her ontological-political approach to photography, cannot be "reduced to the act of judgment" (130). Instead of assuming this passive judgment, viewers share with the photographer and the photographed subject the "responsibility for what is seen in the photograph" (130). As visual representations, photographic images offer themselves up to interpretation and encourage our active engagement. What Martino's use of unusual photographs emphasizes is that the photographic subject, that which is imaged on the photograph's surface, is inevitably stripped away, forced to fade into a stitch of black on white, through the very act that makes a photograph that which it is: a representation.

Martino's extraordinary use of photography in Cara fotografia also forces readers to consider how photographic images are caught up in the complex web of their own history. When freed from the bonds of the referent, photographic images are exposed as referring to the system in which they partake, that is, photography and photographic images, and not to contingent reality. (9) Martino's use of unusual photographic images draws the photograph in the direction of art so that reality is neither its subject nor its object. Ultimately, in Cara fotografia Martino pays no heed to the warning that "photography may not become totally abstract, because that would constitute a denial of its referential ties" (de Duve 117). On the contrary, Martino's nod towards photographic abstraction, a nod that borders on a full fledged celebration with the inclusion of referentially impossible photographs (Figure 4), unveils photography's strongest deception of all: that its semantic value is bound up with referentiality.

What must be emphasized is that Martino's interrogation of the photograph's intelligibility and referentiality--How does the photograph mean?--is in no way restricted to the types of unusual photographic images examined throughout this article. Instead, these and other more conventional images scattered throughout Cara fotografia work to challenge preconditioned perceptions of photographic reference and encourage readers to become sensitive to the way photographs become intelligible. What is particular to the unusually vague, ambiguous photographs collected or referred to in Martino's Cara fotografia is that they make readers aware of their role in determining photographic reference and establishing photographic truth. In this way, the photographs offer a unique opportunity for readers to theorize the photograph--all photographs--as images that tell much more than what they show. As the protagonist of the last short story confirms, some photographs "favoriscano qualcosa che, esagerando un poco, chiamerei l'illusione dell'oggettivita. Dimentichiamo troppo facilmente che, anche senza davvero volerlo, siamo sempre noi osservatori a dare un senso alle foto" (134). The empty, blurry, grainy, and referentially impossible photographs in Martino's Cara fotografia make it impossible to forget.


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--. Cara Fotografia: Racconti. Firenze: Meridiana, 2008.

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Memorial University of Newfoundland


(1) Other discursive practices and institutions that have privileged or continue to privilege the photographic image as objective visual evidence include criminology (see Faigley et al. 238-39), anthropology (Prosser 53-87), the British Empire (see Ryan), journalism and advertising (Stahel 31-37), and medicine (Tisseron 22-26). For a detailed analysis of the photographic act as a civil contract, see Azoulay.

(2) Other secret worlds can be perceived in the "Moon Studies and Star Scratches" series by Sharon Harper or Dr. Hippolyte Baraduc's photographs of the human soul (see Dubois 216-19).

(3) Referentially impossible photographs, which remind readers of Magritte's paintings, are also included in Martino's Cara fotografia. An examination of this third type of unusual photograph leads to similar conclusions regarding photographic reference and the spectator's role in the photographic act.

(4) Tellingly, it is at this point in the story that Luigi D.'s full name, Luigi Damiani, is disclosed. It is only in the freedom from a photographic discourse that places reference at the fore that Luigi is complete in his interaction with the photographic image.

(5) Extended commentary on Barthes' distinction between the stadium and the punctum is numerous. See Derek Attridge for a provocative analysis of this distinction.

(6) Allan Sekula appreciates the implications of the spectator's engagement with the photograph and the power of looking to transform that which is imaged. He writes that "photographs achieve semantic status as fetish objects and as documents. The photograph is imagined to have, depending on its context, a power that is primarily affective or a power that is primarily informative. Both powers reside in the mythical truth-value of the photograph" (94).

(7) See Frosh who argues that one potential effect of the use of unconventional focus "is to add a conspicuous direction and duration to the viewer's gaze" (154).

(8) Raymond Bellour, in his examination of the increasing production of blurred photographic images by contemporary photographers, likens the effect of blurry elements in an otherwise focused photographic image to cinema (170-73).

(9) In 1978, Wolfgang Iser made a similar observation in relation to literary texts (68-73).
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Date:Jun 22, 2014
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