The platform 9 ¾ of the story
Written by Monica Camozzi
Seven young men of the French resistance surround a priest with an ironic and calm air, the munitions like a bandolier, the cigarette slackly resting on the lips, a bit like an American film. The context was tragic until just before but here, on that 25 April 1945, Paris is breathing the air of liberation. And the photography of a 32-year-old Robert Doisneau, captures the small gathering with that humanism destined to tell the story of man by photograms. The priest is Camil Foyer, who died shortly after the liberation following years of struggle and commitment.
Photography chooses the expressive register that will imprint on the film of consciousness. In a Platonian world of ideas, i.e. of the archetypal perfection from which the contingent descends, there could also be the niche of Condé Monrose Nast, the young publisher who in 1909 took over Vogue, laying the foundations of a publishing empire destined to tell the elites of taste, of society.
Over 400 images drawn from the immense Condé Nast archive (partially acquired by the Pinault Collection in 2021) dig into history, passing through its portals of epochal change. Like Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾, which only exists for those who see it. A path that takes you to your destination without apparent emotional jolts, accompanying you with the language of photography that becomes an exegesis of individual narratives.
Chronorama, this is the name of the splendid exhibition set up at Palazzo Grassi, under the curatorship of Matthieu Humery, reveals the intent right from the etymon. As the curator recounts, Chronos refers to the divinity of time according to Orphic tradition, but also to the chronometer, which implacably marks it.
The suffix rama, or rather orama, means vision. Hence, vision through time.
And here, running through the time that permeates the rooms, you wonder if photography doesn’t have the same legitimacy as a philosophical thought, the same power as a descent into the unconscious.
Cecil Beaton, in his shot Debutance in evening dress, imprinted on film shortly before the Second World War, portrays four young women in evening dress, with sombre expressions, weighed down by the sinister shadows of gentlemen who seem to prey on them rather than welcome them: the cruelty of the conflict looms on the horizon of human representation. It is the same atmosphere at the Vandebilts’ dinner, organised in ’41, which levitates lightly and seemingly unconsciously over a fabric already steeped in the impending tragedy of war.
Here, the photographer contaminates the images with the same anxieties that Sigmund Freud substantiates by talking about the unconscious, while the art opens up to the surrealist avant-garde.
The prerogative of the space-time tunnel created at Palazzo Grassi is the ability to stop the camera, allowing the spectator to descend and immerse himself in the historical and cultural context that the image encloses like a shrine: from the light-heartedness of Debora Kerr and David Niven in Givenchy clothes, icons of the Fifties, to the eroticism of the model Lisa Taylor, from the limpid intimacy of the relationship between Susan Sontag and her son David, to the destiny of Bjorn Andersen, the Tazio of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, the object of an almost persecutory idolatry that would end up ruining his life, still celestial when he was immortalised with his hair still damp and his handsome face contaminated by gaiety.
The photos conceal the seeds of impending revolutions, but they know how to narrate them without tragedy, with a patina of dutiful beauty.
The figure in trousers portrayed in the New York of 1911 by Paul Thompson is that of Mary Edwards Walker, who for those trousers (and the men’s hat, which she insisted on wearing as a sign of freedom and emancipation) would even go to prison, die in 1919, at the age of 80, a year before women gained the right to vote.
Jean Cocteau, immersed in the gigantic phonograph at the age of 22, already anticipates the evolution of the man-machine relationship, while Einstein subverts the assumptions of Newtonian physics.
The muscles of a 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, photographed by George Batler against a backdrop of austere architecture, foreshadow the new sculptural aesthetic that indulges in the excesses manifested through the body. Just as David Bailey’s Swinging London projects us into a capsule of hedonism, worldliness, lightness.
Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina in an almost metaphysical pose, she looking up inspired and he looking straight into the lens, concrete and earthly.
The stunning Lauren Bacall lying on a flat surface contrasts with the images of a shaven-headed woman questioned in the course of liberation front activities in France. But the drama flows subtly and almost frozen, as the tribute to composure and expressive elegance is de rigueur.
A journey through time with Baron Adolf de Meyer, Lee Miller, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Margaret-Bourke White, before the digital brought its evanescent dust to the printed image and diluted it in the archives of memory.
You can dig into Mme Chanel’s gaze by going beyond the institutional narrative, to search for your own feelings.
Well, Chronorama with its comprehensiveness allows this: everyone, as always happens in photographic exhibitions, through the images chosen, fixed, taken in their own perimeter, makes a journey within themselves.