Anna Di Prospero. Untitled, 2008. Self portrait at home series Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

IN THE EYES OF PHOTOGRAPHY

In conversation with Anna Di Prospero

Photography, from the moment of its invention, has been skilfully mixed with cinema. From the mid-nineteenth century, photographers such as Rejlander, Bayard, Julia Margaret Cameron, Henry Peach Robinson began to carefully stage stories, creating sets or composing the shots through collages of other negatives. 

Cinema welcomes this virtue of photography, not just being “the decisive moment” to quote Cartier Bresson but to create a new, alternative and even parallel vision of the usual, boring and sometimes cruel reality. Thus cinema makes photography less pure, and perhaps more fascinating, which since its emergence, in a push and pull, wanted to rise and be at the same level as painting. 

The notion of photography as a proof of the Hic et Nunc resists. Here it is not the image manipulated, but reality itself and the photographer is a director. Historically, the practice of staged photography has its roots in the tradition of the tableau vivant, which migrated from the theatre and then to the cinema, from the very first beats of its existence. 

Anna Di Prospero. Self-portrait with my mother, 2011 Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

Fortunately, it was not just reportage, for almost the entire twentieth century, photography was guided by notions of authenticity and objectivity. To quote Barthes, a photograph is always found at the extremity of that gesture; it repeats in a loop what can never be repeated, as a unique moment, and always leads us to what we are seeing. But what are we seeing? We are seeing a story, something that does not exist. Whatever it shows is invisible: what we see is not it. But is this really the case? 

After the first experiments, the first narrations, cinema and photography lead us to depths not yet experienced. Under the influence of the analytical investigation of the media by conceptualists and various postmodern theoretical approaches such as feminism, photography is enriched by the influences of film, theatre, sculpture and performance, the latter will play a decisive role. However, it was only in the late 1960s and 1970s that there were notable contributions to staged photography, citing the greatest of all artists, performers, and photographers Cindy Sherman. Initially, she was a painter and she said: I was meticulously copying other works of art and then I realised that I could just use a camera and devote my time to an idea. Other photographers who have distinguished themselves in this field and have enriched the collective unconscious with new images and stories are: Joel-Peter Witkin, Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Arthur Tress, Laurie Simmons, Herbert List, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun to which a separate chapter should be dedicated; Nic Nicosia, Emily Allchurch, Joan Fontcuberta, Julia Fullerton Batten, Lori Nix, Alison Jackson, Jung Yeondoo, up to authors such as Bernard Faucon, Eileen Cowin, Bruce Charlesworth, David Levinthal, Duane Michaels, James Casebere, others always in scattered order, Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Hannah Starkey, Luc Delahaye, Sandy Skoglund, Jerry Norman Uelsmann, the sumptuous David La Chapelle, the incredible Christopher Smith, Samuel Fosso and Zanele Muholi in Africa, “the Shermanian” – pardon the expression – Yasumasa Morimura, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Miwa Yanagi in Japan, Jiang Pengyi term and Nikki S. Lee in China, Paolo Ventura and Anna Di Prospero in Italy, up to the youngest Ryan Trecartin, Martine Gutierrez who invites us to ask about our image and the pink girl Juno Calypso, and how not to mention Gregory Crewdson, who was made in the same by various directors, but most of all, by the cinematographic genius Alfred Hitchcock, in the restless and apparent mind palette and atmospheres static. 

As you will notice, there are many photographers who have dedicated themselves to the search for alternative realities, to rarefied atmospheres, sometimes surrealist, and put their stories in front of us, unique from time to time.  

Once again, we will try to address three words: enjoy (see or observe), identity and body, because what is being questioned is precisely seeing, consuming with the eyes what is in front of me, trying to understand, on the one hand, expressing on the other, what in reality is unfortunately repressed by morality, and by an old common sense, not always right or in step with the times. What we consume most of all is our body, in showing us through our identity, who we want to be and who on the other hand is showing, telling us this or that uniqueness, true and dramatic.
Before setting out to try to find our sense of words through images, I would like to take up a name among the photographers mentioned above, that of Anna Di Prospero, a young Italian photographer who pursues a vision that is free from the simple reproduction of reality and use of photography as a means of expressing ideas, feelings and visions. 

Anna Di Prospero was born in Rome in 1987.  She studied photography at the European Institute of Design in Rome and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her photographic research is characterized by the introspective sign with which she explores everyday life and the relationship between man and space. Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Italy and the United States, including Les Rencontres D’Arles, Month of Photography Los Angeles, La Triennale di Milano and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. Her awards include Sony World Photography in the Portraiture category, People Photographer of the Year at the International Photography Awards and Discovery of the Year at the Lucie Awards 2011. In 2022, her first monograph, In my eyes, published by Contrasto.  

Marika Marchese: Hi Anna, welcome and thank you for this interview. How did this journey in photography begin? 
Anna Di Prospero: The first approach to photography took place at the age of fifteen when I participated and won a competition for high school students in the city of Latina. The prize consisted of a course on analogue photography and one hundred euros to spend on photographic material. Then I studied painting for three years. I started photographing again at nineteen when I discovered the photo-sharing site Flickr, a great source of inspiration for my first works. 

M.M.: What was the first shot you shared? 
A.D.P.: I honestly don’t remember, maybe a photo of my eye. 

M.M.:  Can you tell us how you develop your creative process? 
A.D.P.: I usually create a moodboard for each series and spend many months of study, reflections, and often second thoughts, before starting to shoot. Once all aspects have been evaluated, from the creative to the organizational, I make the photograph. Then I move on to post-production, in particular to colour correction. This is the most chaotic and instinctive moment of my work, but also the most exciting because it represents the fulfilment of my work. 

M.M.:  Indeed, a characteristic sign of your photos, which I find, is the colour red, why is that?
A.D.P.: When I make a self-portrait I wear red. Many women photographers wear red when they take a self-portrait. This trend fascinates me a lot because there is no logical or rational reason behind this choice. On a technical level, I don’t use red filters either during shooting or in post. 

M.M.:  Photography: truth or fiction? (Also thanks to post-production). 
A.D.P.:: It’s interpretation. Post-production represents an extension of my strictly personal creative process, to which I have dedicated and continue to devote great attention, study and research. 

M.M.: Can you give us some previews of future projects? 
A.D.P.: Yes, after the summer, an important project commissioned by Istituto Luce Cinecittà on the Italian railway stations will be presented. Senescence, and the deterioration of the body, especially when the body belongs to a woman, are undeniably one of the leitmotifs of contemporary culture. In our mass-media society, age and gender are defined in a complex system of references, and conspire to make the woman’s body exploited also visually through the ideals of beauty imposed by the mainstream. Many of the artists mentioned above transform their bodies, with hours and hours of makeup, to explore issues of gender, sexuality, race and class, in short, questioning the archetypes of beauty and identity. Other times, altering one’s appearance to the point of confusing it with that of mannequins, along with the boundary between reality and artifice, appearance and deception, to explore constantly changing issues of gender, intimacy and desire. Your own portrait vanishes to leave room for other characters, so, image after image, the appearance of someone else, the mask appears. 

Anna Di Prospero does not use masks, but she is herself in all the photos, she does not show her face to leave room for the viewer to be able to identify with that character. 

M.M.:  Anna, how did the desire to self-portray come about? There is some kind of power in the portrait, right? 
A.D.P.: The self-portrait is a powerful tool for inner investigation. I have grown a lot thanks to my photographs, every time I see my first works it is like leafing through the pages of a diary. Today my approach to self-portrait has changed. I don’t experience the self-portrait as a representation of myself but as an interpretation of an identity or a collective message. 
Furthermore, I conceive the self-portrait as a small performative act. This is a fundamental part of my creative process and it is the moment of my work to which I am most attached. 

Anna in her shots brings her affections, her family, creating intimate portraits, but at the same time surreal, precisely because as the photographer says “she was escaping from reality or perhaps looking for her place”, she first took photos in the corners of hers new home, for three years to look for a link, thus becoming, precisely that house, the set of his first photographic series. 

Other series of photographs have gone outside the protective walls and have chosen the August dawns of the city of Latina, in Italy, her hometown, to photograph themselves in the centre of empty urban landscapes. At that moment the photographer understood that she did not want to portray the moment, but to portray her emotions, to photograph herself inside her. This bond with the city, with herself and with her loved ones, has moved in her the desire to create new connections between physical and mental places, often unknown.  

So after returning from her studies in New York, she focuses on involving her family in the shots, letting them decide the place and the clothes to wear, to create their family portrait with several hands. The first suggestive shot, which the photographer tells about, is the one with her mother. In a sudden gesture just before the click, her mother puts her hands on her eyes, as if not to show something or to protect her from the vision itself. It is the most iconic shot by Anna Di Prospero, which she has included on the cover of her first monograph of her In my eyes published by Contrasto. The volume collects the most famous series of her and is enriched by the text of the American writer Francine Prose. 

Anna Di Prospero. Untitled, 2008 Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

Enjoying, as we have said, is something decisive, and involving, but not seeing at times opens up other sensations, new paths and new ways of thinking and acting. Precisely what Anna Di Prospero thought through the photographic medium, creating authentic contacts also in the series of shots with unknown individuals, making these protagonists perceive also how much the photographic medium can make a good introspective analysis. 

Two other determining elements in Anna Di Prospero’s stories are her identity, we have seen how the house, the family members, and the others, were fundamental for her photographic research but above all for her inner research; and her body as a woman. The character we see in her photographs is a woman, often from behind, who represents more women, as the photographer has repeatedly said, not just her self-representation. The choice not to show her face is to give space to a story made by a female universe, a choral, universal representation. 

Anna Di Prospero. Untitled, 2008 Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

Since then, photography has been her medium of choice, a form of art chosen because it is mobile, faithful and deceptive at the same time, devoid of the male presence, except in very rare shots that she dedicates to her husband and a few other family members. This medium allows her to explore the theme of identity, of the feminine, maternal and welcoming universe into which she can descend whenever a detachment from the true and sometimes oppressive reality is sought. A small performative act that is an integral part of her creative process and of addressing those places, heterotopias, using a term of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, to indicate those real places, found in every culture of every time, structured as defined spaces, but “Absolutely different” from all other social spaces, where the latter are “represented, contested, overturned at the same time”. The function of these special spaces, veritable “situated utopias” concerning all other spaces, is to compensate, neutralize or purify them. (Treccani, Lexicon of the 21st Century – 2012) 

Anna Di Prospero. Rush #2, 2014 Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

The introduction to this photographer started with a special combination, photography and cinema, which she finds in staged photography, a material to express both mediums, stealing, however, subjects and objects that are sometimes non-existent from painting. Anna Di Prospero wisely mixes these two mediums, one because she has taste, she also attended the Dante Alighieri high school in Latina, with a particular, classic-cinematographic address, and the other because she places clear references to one of her beloved photographers, Gregory Crewdson, who she defines and how to blame her, is the god of contemporary photography. 

Anna Di Prospero. Fiery #6, 2014 Courtesy Maria Livia Brunelli Home Gallery

This interview was made possible thanks to the kind intercession of Maria Livia Brunelli and MLB Home Gallery.

Marika Marchese

I have been living and working in Milan since 2016 where I teach and write about contemporary art. I follow my passion for art always, not only for my career, but also for my hobbies, in fact, I define myself an art lover. I also love to travel and read. I have been writing for Made In Mind since 2017, I have been manage the Streams column since 2020.

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