Frames Blog Federico Serrani

The truth, please, about love

20 January 2024

by Jasmina Trifoni 


The title of this post is borrowed from a collection of poems written in the 1930s by the immense Irish poet W.H. Auden. There are just ten of them and each is so distinct from the others that it can only be described as shocking. At the two extremes, there is exaltation and the deepest desolation, one is almost annoyingly joyful, and another, titled ‘Blues in Memory,’ became famous even among non-readers for being recited in the unforgettable film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral.’ You will certainly remember these lines:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

All together, they reveal the essence (and also the transience) of the most ineffable of feelings. Speaking of this collection, another great poet, the Russian Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, wrote: ‘These poems have as their theme love and dishonesty, the two poles between which we find ourselves living (…), ready to glory in their occasional divergence but very good, even when we are unlucky, at reconciling them with each other, at blending them together.’

Forgive me if I have dwelt on an art, also evanescent, like poetry to introduce the topic of this post, the photography of intimacy. If in recent times, and through social media, legions of amateur photographers impose their (often falsely beautified or, at least, sweetened) private life, professionals, perhaps too caught up in their role of documenting the ‘other,’ seem less inclined to pulverize the distance with their subjects, showing the chiaroscuro of their intimate experiences to represent their own amorous or family context and confront their deepest emotions. In short, by laying bare using – to put it in Henri Cartier Bresson’s words – the lens as if it were the psychoanalyst’s couch.

If the first great photographer to make himself and his family the main subject of his work was the Frenchman Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), often remembered as the master of happiness, and, subsequently, some great names have exposed their intimacy, making it, so to speak, a brand – Nan Goldin, Francesca Woodman, Alessandra Sanguinetti, to name a few, and they are women, often more free towards introspection – in the last year some extraordinary photographic books have been published that explore intimate feelings in a plethora of declinations.

Lartigue – My family in bed

Published in autumn 2023 was ‘Love Songs: Photography and Intimacy‘ (Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, and International Center of Photography, New York) which brings together the work of 16 artists from the 1950s to today and questions the role of photography in the representation and understanding of love, as well as physical closeness, sexuality, and thus intimacy. It includes, among others, the masterpiece of the aforementioned Nan Goldin, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (since 1983), an intimate representation of New York’s underground scene in the pre-AIDS era, and her magnificent series ‘Sentimental Journey’ (1969) and ‘Winter Journey’ (1989-1990) in which the Japanese master Nobuyoshi Araki documented his love story with his wife Yoko from their honeymoon until her death from cancer. Yoko always appears, while cooking, while traveling on a train with a pensive expression, during an orgasm, and then in the hospital and even composed in the coffin. And also interesting is the work of the younger American photographer Leigh Ledare (born 1976) who has put the representation of social relationships, desire, and taboos at the center of his artistic research. In his series ‘Double Blind’ (2010), he portrayed his ex-wife inside an isolated house in the state of New York, then persuaded the woman’s new partner, Adam Fedderly and also a photographer, to do the same, and finally combining the shots of both, giving the observer some clues to discover which of the two the shots belonged to.

Araki – Sentimental journey

More soft and comforting is another recent collective book, ‘Love Story: New Photography on Love and Intimacy‘ (Hoxton Mini Press) that collects the projects of 25 international photographers called to question what it means to love, and what is the perception of love, in the 21st century. The result is an anthology that shows in a remarkable and often unexpected way the deep relationships between partners of every sexual orientation, friends, family, and communities. Among the most interesting works are ‘Modern Love’ by Curtis Hughes, with a series of portraits of couples who have built their relationship after meeting on social media, ‘Mother and Father,’ a moving tribute by Paddy Summerfield to his parents’ love, and ‘Touching Strangers’ by Richard Renaldi which has interpreted love in the entire human family, representing the feeling of solidarity.

The last book of this selection is instead a solo, often included by critics among the best photography books of 2023. The title is ‘Another Love Story‘ (Mörel) and the author is the young French-Dominican Karla Hiraldo Voleau (1992). The artist’s initial idea, that of documenting love with her partner, had taken a different turn when she discovered that he had another relationship. And, therefore, she started from the assumption that if reality is a lie, probably fiction is the cure.

She thus reappropriated her story and told it with hindsight, highlighting the mechanisms of the couple and the signals that she could or should have picked up. In the photographs, each garment, place, and stage composition has been constructed with the meticulousness of an entomologist and, in addition, the book also includes a series of written annotations made on the fly. All this manages to annihilate, or at least to blur, the boundary between reality and fiction, as well as between her personal story and the collective experience.

Because, perhaps, it was not so true what Lev Tolstoy wrote in the opening of the novel Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.”


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