Franco Fontana

Rondanini Gallery

Italian Photographer Franco Fontana has earned an international reputation as one of color photography’s most original exponents. Time-Life “discovered” him in its 1975 annual, publishing a group of his landscapes—elegant abstractions of nature in which details are eschewed in favor of color fields: bands of sky, sea and sand, horizons blurred into stripes from a moving car. Now Fontana is aiming a longer lens at the city and producing equally elegant urbanscapes. His new photographs, the fruit of his first trip to the U.S. and the result of only ten days’ work, bear not the slightest sign of culture shock. On the contrary, one marvels at how Fontana was able to isolate and manipulate the scenes so confidently, to suit his own temperament.

Fontana is a painterly photographer. His prints are large, made to be hung on walls and seen from a distance, and they owe an obvious debt to American hard-edge painting. Constructed as absolute entities with little relation to objects of the visible world, his images are most often composed of large monochromatic shapes (walls, roofs, car bodies) that overlap in strictly geometric patterns.

Geometry is the key to Fontana’s work, and everything in the pictures functions two-dimensionally. He is fascinated by the line and its power to create or confound depth. Planes are flattened not only by the long focal length of Fontana’s lens, but also by his uncanny ability to maintain a very tight picture frame, cutting it just before the lines begin to point to a perspective. This keeps the picture angle acute and directed toward few essential shapes. Massive shadows often interpose as shapes and further disrupt any sense of depth.

Robert Delaunay wrote that “color alone is form and subject.” It seems that this was never more evident to Fontana than when he was in America. Though he has always preferred rich, saturated tonalities (he uses no filters, but instead underexposes transparencies and then prints from an internegative), Fontana’s earlier Italian pictures are faded, timeworn compared to these American images. Against an indigo sky—recurrent in his photographs—he slaps the shocking-yellow brick storefront of a Brentano’s, or a loud fragment of a billboard. It is as if Fontana had shaken off the stultifying traditions of bel pittura and thrown himself into the mainstream of the American abstractionist experience.

The pictorial allusions one invariably detects in Fontana’s photographs—commendable as they are—raise a Crucial question regarding photography’s identity and autonomy. Does it not make more sense for photographers to work with the inherent capabilities of the camera rather than try to camouflage them? The medium draws its particular strength, its magic by coming to terms with the physical world. Fontana still occasionally ignores this, and the results are photographs that stand for little more than imitations of painting. When he does achieve a balance between abstraction and representation, the images have an effect that is uniquely photographic.

George Tatge