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Italo Calvino on Photography and the Art of Presence

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her legendary 1977 treatise on photography, which stands as an astoundingly prescient depiction of today’s visual culture. But seven years earlier, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) — another writer of extraordinary prescience and enduring cultural insight, and a man of great wisdom on writing, the psychology of distraction and procrastination, the paradox of America, and the meaning of life — spoke to this same concept in his magnificent 1970 short story collection Difficult Loves (public library).

Through the words of one of his characters — a photographer named Antonino — Calvino channels the compulsive nature of our “aesthetic consumerism” and captures our tendency to leave the moment in the act of immortalizing it:

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.

Illustration by the late Yan Nascimbene for Calvino’s short stories

Decades before we started manicuring and art-directing life in order to Instagram it rather than simply living its glorious messiness, and even before Annie Dillard’s unforgettable meditation on the difference between walking with and without a camera, Calvino writes:

The taste for the spontaneous, natural, lifelike snapshot kills spontaneity, drives away the present. Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.

All thirteen stories in Difficult Loves are absolutely wonderful, exploring various aspects of relationships and the contortions of communication. Complement this particular fragment with Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking, Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing, and Anna Deavere Smith on the power of “aesthetic force,” then revisit Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, how to assert yourself with grace, and the key to great writing.

Published October 15, 2015




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