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What exactly is landscape and how can you describe it using photography?
A documentary photographer since 2006, Simone Donati’s practice is based on geographical and social research of the Italian territory, his native country. He travels to remote areas to discover its inhabitants and their stories. He is interested in “finding out how a place is and what happened in the past” as he said in a recent interview with the exhibition’s curators. He is one of the four members of TerraProject, a collective of documentary photographers that focuses on social, political, and environmental issues in Italy and abroad. Donati has recently published a book, Varco Appennino, the product of a four-year photographic exploration of the Italian Southern Apennine chain. Four of these photos are shown in this exhibition, one of which was selected as its representative image.
For the project Hotel Immagine, a series of photographs made between 2009 and 2015, Donati looked at politics, religion, music, sport, and television searching for the myths and icons of the Italian contemporary imaginary. Hotel Immagine was also published as a book. For Donati “the book is still the best way to present a project because it’s a finished object that doesn’t change. You can keep going back to it over and over again and maybe after a while you see different things, and it changes.”
He continues: “My photography is characterized by articulated long-term projects which mainly describe the Italian territory with slowness and depth. The documentary approach accompanies the study of the landscape and the relationship that the people who inhabit it have there. In my work, I have always chosen to focus on Italy, the territory that I believe I can better understand and tell more in-depth.”
For Donati, the southern Apennines are rich in natural elements and contain stories that need to be told. The region has, in recent years, gone through several social and physical changes with many leaving to seek better opportunities elsewhere. These are not easy areas to inhabit and a love of the land and willpower is needed to remain. He approached this project slowly and maintained his own pace. He respected the silence and tranquility naturally embedded in the area, enabling his ability to listen to its people. He investigated the relationship that local people have with their heritage and the attraction between them and the landscape. His findings unexpectedly unveiled an affinity with that stillness, allowing him to connect spiritually with the land and discover “a deep closeness with my nature”, as he described. Almost as if his inner landscape had found kinship with the outer, natural landscape.
The low contrast photography resulting in “quiet colors”, as he defines them, was a precise choice made to enhance the calm and quiet atmosphere he wanted to portray. His work as a documentary photographer, he clarifies, “is to observe and describe aspects of society without defining or framing them, hoping this sensitivity will resonate with others.”
As part of the exhibition’s public program, Donati led a workshop called Clash between natural and artificial–rethinking landscapes, with high school students from Liceo Balducci in Pontassieve, Florence, at Palazzo Strozzi, aiming to observe the border areas between city and countryside through photography. He was eager to learn how the students connected with nature in their own familiar territory, and how they defined what is natural and what is artificial. He aimed to generate an interest in photography and also guide them to develop a critical gaze to the landscape that surrounds them.
What exactly is landscape and how can you describe it using photography? What is the difference between a landscape photo and a travel snapshot? The practice of landscape photography involves slowing down, exploring, observing, and thinking things through. The reasons why we choose to photograph one thing as opposed to another reveals our way of observing the world. Making conscious choices and interacting with what we see may bring out different facets of our personality. Photography constitutes an operation of awareness and memory. During the workshop, it was possible to experience the practice of landscape photography with varying degrees of complexity through the shared ideas and honoring the many different ways of seeing.
The key element was using photography as an enabler to develop a critical gaze towards their surrounding landscape and find the space where humanity and ecology converge.
Eco-Existences: Forms of the Natural and the Artificial, is an exhibition that uses the work of seven artists to explore the convergence between natural and artificial spaces and the manner in which communities perceive and experience those spaces. The show took place in Florence (October 20 - December 7, 2022) alongside a public program presented at Palazzo Strozzi.
Simone Donati was one of the participating artists. This text is part of the catalogue that accompanied the show, published by Kunstverein Publications, Milano.