Alessandro Valeri – At the confines of two worlds

Alessandro Valeri  – At the confines of two worlds

By Jonathan Turner

“In the late 1980s, I was fascinated by the metropolis of New York, by Chinatown, Little Italy and Harlem,” says Alessandro Valeri. “The city was a mix of Victoriana, Art Deco and post-war cement. It was a crazy urban composition, half-way between rich and poor, with the beauty of skyscrapers in contrast with abandoned buildings falling into degradation. I was also attracted by the intellectual life of the East Village and such American icons as Bukowski, especially by those people living on the borders of reality. In some ways, such people were like the huge, half-broken cars from the Seventies, the dented gas-guzzlers still patrolling the streets.”

“At the same time, I had always been intrigued by Andy Warhol’s capacity to communicate and his ideas on mass-marketing.  I was shocked by his death in 1987, and so I began my series looking at an alternative New York, showing the other side of the city, including many of the places that Warhol used to visit.”

So Valeri focused his lens on Alphabet City, and the Meat Market, an area of New York so dangerous at the time that some of his photographs were taken by pointing his camera through the open window of a car. Valeri captured the surreal nature of the Surf Bar, an inner-city venue with sand on the floor and surfboards leaning against the walls. He photographed shop signs, boarded-up windows, empty car parks, over-stocked liquor shops, street vendors and children playing games on the asphalt.  These images of 20th Century social history and architecture, including the old Pan Am Building and the now-demolished Colgate Factory, are as emblematic as the chaotic traffic in Valeri’s long vista towards the Hudson River, with Little Italy to the left, and Chinatown to the right.

However, Valeri’s work steers clear of the principles of photo-journalism and archival reportage. He is less interested in the concept of representation, instead using the medium of photography to transmit emotion. It is the mood, rather than the subject, he wishes to explore. His New York street-scapes are not specifically about the city itself, but about a sense of transformation, maintaining the equilibrium between the dirt and the perfection.

This is visible, too, in Valeri’s series produced at the end of the millennium, focused on the Togni Circus during its tour in Rome in December of 1999. Living with the circus troop for a month, Valeri almost became part of the family, and the photographs which eventuated display an uncommon degree of trust, intimacy and suspense. The faces of the trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns and the ring-master are expressive and complicit. Nothing is casual.

“Backstage, everyone is vulnerable. The space was dangerous, the animals were loose, including a hippopotamus, an elephant and a bison. The joker las vegas online casino enters electronic cigarette gdl, the rhinoceros exits. There was a constant level of tension.”

Valeri positioned himself at the confines of two worlds, directly behind the curtain separating backstage from the ring where the acts were performed. He took his photographs at this gateway, at the point at which the dimensions changed from the hidden to the public.

“It wasn’t the spectacle itself which fascinated me. It was the mood of anticipation and anticlimax, of a nomadic life always in the same mud.”

Valeri was particularly impressed by the potent human motivation behind the feats of strength and skill he witnessed backstage, and by the strong cultural force linking circus performers from many different countries. And like in his New York series, these pictures capture a disappearing world. Many of the acrobatic acts which were performed are now outlawed as too dangerous, and many of the wild animals in his photographs are no longer allowed to be used for circus entertainment.

Valeri’s photography also changes the rules. Over the years, Valeri has created striking portraits of models, actors, designers, musicians and athletes, people who typically are comfortable in their own skins. Sometimes he purposely exaggerates the eroticism of symbolism. Le Ali (The Wings) portrays English supermodel Naomi Campbell as an avenging angel. Kneeling and naked, she looks back at the viewer in defiance. The outsized wings of the Annunciation are blackened and ominous. Presenting a different mood, La Rosa (The Rose) is an exaggeratedly romantic interpretation of Valentino Rossi, the world champion motorbike rider. The red rose held by his teeth mimics the sensuality of his lips. Such public figures have been photographed thousands of times, but Valeri projects a different gaze on his models. Here we have a subtle battle between the public icon and thorny iconography.

Many of Valeri’s silver gelatin prints are enlarged to extreme formats. In his most recent black and white photographs, the human body is transformed into a landscape of peaks and hidden valleys. Reclining nudes become compositions in which deep shadows contaminate the light. Feminine curves are highlighted by gestural brushstrokes in ivory-coloured paint, with a texture like zabaglione. Marks scratched into the surface of the prints resemble the slash of a panther’s claws.

Rembrandt’s Reverse is Valeri’s totemic image of the head of a man, shown symmetrical and face-on. It suggests the minimalism of a skull. Using light to exaggerate the bones and the blackness of the facial features, the holes of the eyes and mouth become vacuums. This image is blown up beyond nature. Its size is explosive. But it is not merely the portrait of a man.

“It shows the shadows of communication,” explains Alessandro Valeri. “In this image, you can only see the darkness of the eyes, the nose and the mouth.  So it is a portrait about sight, breath and speech.”