Inspired by a poem, Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza responds to a world in crisis

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“Poetry allows instantaneous connections between distant thoughts or images, and transcends the logic we use to formalise the events of the world. Photography can do the same”

Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza describes himself as a “late bloomer”. Before photography, Rezza studied to become a pharmaceutical chemist, and worked for the army, and then in private pharmacies, for over a decade. “I always practiced art though,” says Rezza, who at the time was experimenting with found images from the internet. “I had this urge to express myself, and the more I got bored with my job, the more I got into practicing art.”

In 2005, aged 37, the Italian photographer decided to enrol onto a three-week seminar on visual culture, led by artist Katharina Sieverding, who advised Rezza to start taking his own photographs. “Meeting her literally changed my life,” he says. “I loved the loneliness one faces when looking into the viewfinder, a real room where the world would appear isolated.” Rezza wanted to pursue photography as a career, but needed more technical knowledge. When he returned to Italy, he worked night shifts at a pharmacy to make the time and earn the money for photography courses.

Now, Rezza is releasing his second photobook, Psalm, a project that began at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, in February 2020. “The virus took on a central part of our concerns, and these concerns got even bigger when the total lockdown isolated us from our previous life,” says Rezza.

In these moments, one poem, Psalm by Paul Celan, kept returning to him. In it, the Jewish poet refers to a God who has disappeared. “It offers a glimpse of the state of his inner loss and disorientation,” Rezza explains. But, rather than illustrating the poem, “I wanted the poem to stay in the background as a leading mood to inspire my photographs,” he says.

In the Q&A below, Rezza explains his motivations and the process behind the work.

© Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza.
© Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza.

How is Psalm a response to a world in crisis?

My book was inspired by the circumstances of the virus, which has overturned our faith in the progressive ideas of history and science. Italian philosopher and poet Giacomo Leopardi used to refer to the optimistic idea of constant human improvement as the “magnificent and progressive destiny” of men, which also aligns with the ideology we inherited from philosophers such as Giambattista Vico, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. This positive perspective has been quashed by the spread of the pandemic. The crisis is profound: it is above all epistemic [relating to knowledge], and therefore also ideological, since it flipped our trust in material progress. I think this is a type of crisis that may procure more instability than both the climate and the political crises.

Can you expand on the link between this body of work and poetry?

Poetry allows instantaneous connections between distant thoughts or images, and it transcends the logic we use to formalise the events of the world. Photography can do the same: it can relate phenomena and emotions in a blink of the shutter. I wanted my pictures to evoke perceptions, as in lyrical poetry. I did not want to describe anything, or comment on the physical world. I wanted to depict the world as it appears to us, devoid of any preconception, ideology or practice that informs us in advance about its structure, or its socio-economic relevance.

Being present, or being in general, is itself a miracle, at least that is what I think. Imagine one keeps their eyes closed for a long time and, all of the sudden, they open them, only for a microsecond. There, the images of the world form, stay for a few instants, and then disappear. What we have perceived of the world is impermanent but astonishing, touching.

This sudden, miraculous appearance of the world reminds me of the nature of a photograph. Jacques Henri Lartigue used to play a game he called “piège-à-l’oeil” (the eye trap), which consisted of blinking his eyes to freeze a scene before him. This game is the reason why he started photographing compulsively, from the age of five. Lartigue was in love with the world and wanted to remember it through photographs.

Photography has the power to reveal the miracle of sight, and the poetry of perception. When we are speechless in front of the spectacle of the world alone, the world alone has to speak for itself.

© Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza.
© Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza.

Where and when did you make these photographs?

The photos that merged in Psalm come from a small and reclusive world. They derive from my daily life experiences, and my walks, but they also are the result of my experience of living away from the city.

After many years of living in a big city, my husband and I decided to move to a small town between Rome and Naples. It is considered an uninteresting part of Italy, so I started to systematically document it day-by-day, to reveal the beauty that comes from its “secondary” importance.

The area I am documenting is about 30km wide, and I carry my cameras with me everywhere. Over the years, I noticed a visible transformation of my photographs and within myself. People and their surroundings took on another meaning, and provoked another type of reasoning in me. In Scholasticism, a medieval school of philosophy, there is a phrase ‘sub specie aeternitatis’, meaning viewed in a universal perspective. It refers to things as not responding to time and history, but belonging to all of us at all times. My photographs began to move towards this view on time.

What do you want your viewers to feel when they view this work, especially given the state of the world right now?

I hope the book can evoke emotion in the viewer. Psalm visually translates to a state of universal grief, and describes my mournful state of mind, but it also reveals a subtle hope; the hope that we will be able to voice and qualify our pain. We now have the chance to express a lament, an intimate, genuine, weak, voiceless chant, because we are mourning a loss: a general, collective, global loss. If the era of mass distraction has finished or is about to end, we can finally deal with the more grounded and capital questions of our existence. We have to face our finitude, our frailty. Giacomo Leopardi, the poet and philosopher I cited before, suggested that when men admit their mortality and their disorientation, they have nothing left but to rely on the “social catena”: the social chain.

Psalm by Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza is published by Witty Kiwi.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.