Book Reviews

, Index G, Skinnerboox, 2018

Black is black! Black is back!

St. Louis, at the dawn of the twentieth century was a driving industrial city, today is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States of America. In recent years, shootings and murders have largely increased due to the arrival of Mexican drug cartels who are in business with local gangs for the sale of cheap heroin. Starting from the '70 the slow but inexorable contraction of industrial work has caused a growing economic regression and the marginalization of the city. The result of the demographic vacuum, combined with deindustrialization, has led to the decline of the city. Many white workers have moved away from the growing black population. The exodus of the whites and the ghettoization of the black community have provoked an exponential urban decay, a racial segregation and an income disparity like no one in the country.

"Niggers do not let the sun go down on you", this is the motto posted on the signs of the early '900 next to the name of many US cities, the so-called "Sundown Towns", where the index of segregation between whites and blacks was very high. The growing ghettoization of blacks in some suburbs and in some outskirts is still today a painfully raw nerve. Right here, right now. The loss of civic and community sense, our closed mental ghettos, an uncertain and fragmented identity, a society with too weak antibodies, bring us back to the same stories lived in the black American neighborhoods.

After numerous trips to St. Louis and with the idea of connect the Gini index (a statistical measure of disparity, also used to measure residential segregation), the authors, Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti, decided not to point the index on the stereotypes and macroscopic signs of poverty and violence but to recreate the same sensations through the pages of the book. A serial and methodical accumulation of layers and debris that reinforce the feeling of discomfort, failure, absence. The black, on which Fiorenza Pinna has built the concept and the graphics of the book, in balance between lack and excess, does not make us fall swiftly towards the abyss but it slowly insinuates under the skin, until we perceive a latent suspension, a rising tension . Discomfort, solitude, a sense of disillusionment and lack of communication accompany us during the entire reading. A score that gradually manifests itself in the mind rather than taking on an explosive or muscular body. The different way of reading landscape photographs and portraits, in black and white and in color, are supported by a narrative that is not only literary but cinematographic. Texts have a complementary value and are not subordinate to images, they create unprecedented relationships and try to bring a bit of light, beyond the dark and impenetrable blanket of black.

Gianpaolo Arena




Gianpaolo Arena: Could you tell us something more about how your "Index G" project started? How long did it take for mapping, documentation and travelling? Did you start the project with the idea of making a book?
Piergiorgio Casotti: Initially, in 2015, I was thinking about a new project related to "Sundown Towns" in the United States, cities, often small or very small, in which security was not guaranteed to black people after sunset. They were numerous at the beginning of the '900 and for the following decades up to the law against racism; but they still exist today, according to someone. It all started here and so I involved Emanuele Brutti. For several months we did research for "that" project, contacted some journalist/blogger and in particular professor James W. Loewen, a great scholar of this phenomenon. We realized, however, that this type of project was to be abandoned, we ran too many risks of stereotyping work and photos. Fortunately, however, during the research (which passed through the reading of dozens of reports, articles, etc.) we came across a university research that has triggered something. A research on the growing MACRO-SEGREGATION of black people. At the same time I have been thinking for years to do something related to the Gini index and so… here it is the right combination. The initial idea was to make a book, but not just a photographic book but also a "text" book, where the text (which in the book takes shape with a film script) should have the same importance as the photos, being its complementarity. So we left for St. Louis (6th most segregated city in the US) with some ideas in mind but after the first trip we realized that what we imagined was not present visually but only perceptually. During the second trip we did a lot of brain storming trying to understand and then follow the right path. Index G, however, does not want to tell the segregation visually but to deal with it in a different way, on a purely mental (and perhaps unilateral) level, looking for nonsense in the American socio-racial status quo. We wanted to avoid all the stereotypes associated with African-American segregation and Afro-Americans themselves. No poor neighborhood, no child without shoes running in deserted streets with fire extinguishers spraying water, no parallel / comparison with white people, none of that. Silence, uncertainty, absence are the words that guide the book. It is on the subtle perception of (human) failure and on the disillusionment that this work is concentrated. The idea of a discontinuity between adjacent human spatial systems.

Emanuele Brutti: The first idea was born in 2015 and started with Piergiorgio Casotti who wanted to share it with me. Initially we wanted to work on a project concerning the "Sundown Towns", city born in the US in the early '900 in which there was no opportunity to live for black people. They were called that because often next to the name of the city a sign was posted saying "Niggers do not let the sun go down on you". One of the main scholars of the phenomenon is professor James W. Loewen who has written extensively and mapped these cities and said that the "Sundown Towns" still exist today. In the meantime, however, we realized that proceeding on that path could have been too obvious and the turning point that made us definitely change our mind was the discovery of numerous academic articles concerning statistics on residential segregation. We have begun to deepen the study of the phenomenon, helped by the fact that Piergiorgio graduated in statistics, and we understood that this could be a right choice to talk about a contemporary fact and try to do it in a way that is not obvious. Immediately we thought to make a book that was not "just" of photographs but that also contained a textual part that could combine the images. As for the choice of the city we decided to go to St. Louis because often in the statistics that we read was quoted in the first places in a negative sense regarding segregation; in 2016 we made the first trip from which we came back with photos that, in part, did not represent what we expected to find. So between the first and the second trip (done in 2017) we tried to understand why we were not satisfied with what we had brought home and we realized that we had to work more on the feelings of what could or was happening rather than going to look for something specific. What we tried to do was first and foremost avoiding any kind of stereotype that could affect the white / black segregation and at the same time work on the feelings of discomfort, loneliness, distance, separation that we had experienced in our travels.

© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018

GA: How did your collaboration with Fiorenza Pinna and Skinnerboox start?
PC: I started working with Fiorenza Pinna in 2013 when, together with Chiara Capodici (then TRETERZI), she edited my first book "Sometimes I cannot smile". I actually contacted them the year before after listening to them at a public meeting between several publishers. Their approach and their "philosophy" struck me immediately and were in line with my ideas. Since then there is now a partnership with Fiorenza and a relationship of trust and great exchange of ideas and incentives and she was also editor of my second book "Where does the white go".

EB: For me this was the first project born with the idea of making a book and therefore I did not know the publishing world, I was just a fan of photographic books. I knew Fiorenza Pinna because I had bought two books designed by 3/3 (Piergiorgio's "Sometimes I cannot smile" and "Saluti da Pinetamare" by Salvatore Santoro) and the choice to choose her as our book designer was naturally influenced by the fact that Pier had worked with her for all his published books. It was a very nice meeting for me because Fiorenza work entered the project and succeeded in creating a book that fully reflected the feelings we had experienced at STL. The nice thing is that we were in touch with her even while we were "on the field", for this reason she was an integral part of the book project right away and probably this has created a particular synergy that led to the creation of the book in a natural way. The collaboration with Skinnerboox was born as we finished the project when we showed the dummy to Milo Montelli and he proposed to participate in the creation of the book.

© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018

GA: What were your favorite photo books of the last years?
PC: Hard question, I would not know how to answer. Several but not so many...

EB: I am a fan of photographic books. Together with two colleagues and friends Francesco Biasi and Chiara Bandino we are managers at Verona Fonderia 20.9 a photo gallery that collects our personal collection of books, so I fortunately can have a whole library available and choose few ones is really hard. A book that I care a lot for the delicacy of the topic that deals with and how it is done is "touch" by Peter Dekens. More recently, "Margin of Excess" by Max Pinkers and an essay titled "The photograph that took the place of a mountain" by Taco Hidde Bakker.

© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018

Fiorenza Pinna

GA: How did you develop this atypical collaboration between 2 photographers and a designer? How did the designer support the authors to bring the photographic project to a higher level?
FP: It is usually a 1 to 1 photographer - designer relationship, in this case we found ourselves in 3, it was nice, a rather fluid process. I have been collaborating with Piergiorgio Casotti for years, INDEX G is our third book together, we have a working method and a solid relationship of trust and add Emanuele Brutti has been very natural and positive for everyone. We shared and exchanged a lot also during the trips and it was not difficult to agree on the meaning of the research and its possible translation into the book. In this work there are many plans and many languages: landscape photographs, portraits, interiors, color and black and white, and then texts that are as important as the images. The most complicated thing was to find the key that would put together such a complex project, from the point of view of the sequence and the object. Building a coherent book project that is solidly confronted with all that this work recalls: American landscape photography, the representation of racial segregation, etc… It is a special book for me: it brings together all that we have shared and experienced in these years with Pier and many of my interests related to narration and visual perception and to making books. INDEX G is not a photographic work in the strict sense, or at least not only, realizing it we have turned more to movies and literary narrative than to photography and photographic book in the strict sense. When I design a book I always try to create a meaningful space that can, through all the elements that compose it (layout, cards, cover, colors, layout, etc...), give the best sense of work… A book for me is always also a research work on perception. The concept of the INDEX G book revolves around black, the perception of black and the different blacks, in relation to light, white and other materials. I'm interested in working on the space of the book in a three-dimensional way, trying to bring the reader within the volumetric possibilities of the material, the print and the color. On the black cover the light stops as if to give stability to the object, in the layout of the initial pages black is flat and not very deep, it divides but in a soft way, while in black and white shiny and thin pages the black page commands, it's a strong presence. Sometimes it reflects the page on the side, or the face of the person who looks and behaves like a concave or convex space depending on the light and the movement of the page curve. In the book as in the photos the volume of black is imposed on the white, creating also a linguistic shift of meaning.

© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018

GA: A sense of suspension and a latent tension go with the reader in the vision of the book. Text and images increase the feeling of loss. Do you want to talk about it?
FP: INDEX G is a book that has to be read from beginning to the end, a narrative that is built up by accumulation, it is built as a relational structure that makes multiple levels dialogue within a multiple and variable sense space. It is a work on racial space segregation in St. Louis but also a way to talk about deeper and universal issues, such as the feeling of emptiness that is perceived in a hyperpopulated urban space and the human failure about the real chance of a true communication. It is this discontinuity in proximity, as the title says, the emotional center of all work. The reference words of the work are suspension, silence, lack of communication. Making this book we wanted to push the reader towards a feeling of ambiguity and even visual disorientation: the non-matching of images, the distorted or exaggerated perspectives, the prevalence of black, are elements that add up and stratify in the direction of a displacement of meaning and language. Each element of the book is designed to build a precise experience that is clearly open to discussion with the reader.

© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018
© Casotti and Brutti, INDEX G, Skinnerboox, 2018

GA: If at the end of the world you were to save 5 photogrphic books, which would you choose? And what other categories of books does your bookshelf contain? Who are his favorite artists and why?
FP: This is really a difficult question. I do not know if I could choose 5 books to save, maybe at that point I would leave the books of photography and save literature, something to imagine each time in a different way. The categories in my bookshelf are: travel books, photography, literature, art, yoga and poetry. There are also many books chosen because they are interesting as objects. The photo books are divided by country, contemporary classics and then there is always a very high pile on the desk, a mobile library, of things I'm reviewing, studying in that particular moment. Even on favorite artists it is not easy to answer. Surely Maria Lai was important for me, as a personal meeting and because of her relationship with tradition and the use of books and other archaic and feminine forms such as bread, weaving and sewing. Gordon Matta Clark for his vision of space and architecture, from Godard and Fellini I learned almost everything about my work, in free association I would add Munari, Smithson, Schubert, Emma Dante and Bjork.

Piergiorgio Casotti

Born in 1972 and graduated with a degree in Economics, I've always been attracted to the dynamics of human beings; Since I first discovered photography, I've seen it as a mean that allows me to explore both the world and myself at the same time. It's been an indissoluble link ever since. What I photograph always has something to do with me; it's about knowing my intimacy, facing my fears by experiencing other worlds and lives. I use the same empathetic method with my life and photographs: tearing up the concept of "beautiful" or "ugly" and looking for images "to be experienced", not just "looked at". I try to create complex projects in order to express the complexity of the world and life: images and texts, videos and music; I try to break old patterns and move borders further; I'd like to tell stories, states of mind and experiences that have little to do with aesthetic standards; I'd like to tell stories of lives that, even through the language of photography, scratch the surface of things digging for what the eye cannot meet – and sometimes revealing it.

Emanuele Brutti

Born in 1984 in Verona. Photographer. Founder with Francesco Biasi and Chiara Bandino of Fonderia 20.9 a lens based gallery who deals with contemporary photography.

Softcover + paper fasteners
Number of pages:
144 pages
24 x 34 cm

Curated by Gianpaolo Arena

Translated by Christian Tognela