Geoffrey James

Palazzo Braschi, Il Museo di Roma

Unexpectedly I am there, with at least two possible ways to go, to the right or to the left. The horizon or the sky is the next limit to the world. I recognize what surrounds me, seen through the horizontal aperture of an unusual photographic format. All is familiar to me: a leafy plant or tree trunk, slightly peeling architecture, or a moss-covered statue. It is Eden, the primordial garden, irremediably lost—I know I recognize it. The machine, the photographic machine, the time machine, brings me back to the eyes of memory, with the present in vertiginous flight. There is a nostalgia for a possible future in the lights and shadows of Geoffrey James’ “Giardini Italiani,” 1985; in the gardens’ half-lights and transparencies, in the obscure depth of the shrubs and hedges; in the clear extension of the paths and meadows; in the pearly reflections of the fountains and the hard texture of stone. This hardness is unique, and even it is mitigated by the silky softness of James’ eye as it looks at stairs and through porticos, at balconies and down onto terraces. The photographs capture a reality of subtle decay, of suspended abandonment, but at the same time they also capture the permanence of substance and quality For the “worldly” side of James, substance doesn’t exist without quality; in fact, quality is substance.

Photography fixes an ancient—a doubly ancient—moment in the singleness of the “still,” which on the one hand participates in the history of Western sensibility and culture and nourishes us, and on the other hand participates in our individual sensibility and our personal history—that that is, in that moment when the free joy of infancy joins with the new pleasure of adolescence. The “secret” side of James maintains a deep attachment to that happy epoch. Finally, photography reassures us by making possible repetition of the unrepeatable. The world is not only what is (as Ansel Adams’ work shows), but can also be something more.

Eugène Atget, stripping the stage of characters, records a misfortune; if nothing else, the misfortune of their absence, of their not being. Adams’ vision is an absolutely uncontaminated one, alien to any form of human conviviality; his puritanism is total and doesn’t leave space for even the most minimal trace of human passage. His world is not a stage, it is the world at the moment of its creation. James dilates the view of central perspective, Renaissance in origin, and renounces the centrality of the man/prince, opening out his vision so that point of view and point of flight no longer coincide. He conceives an empty stage which waits to be filled with presences, including ours and his, at the amiable discretion of the enchanter. This prepares the way for another evocation, this too an ancient one: a light that slowly explodes from above, through the clouds, and spreads out, in all its brightness, among things.

Finally, we are dealing with a romantic attitude, that of certain English writers more than artists, from Robert Louis Stevenson to E.M. Forster, as well as the ineffable James M. Barrie. But James’ sentimental journey unfolds as if it were taking place ten centimeters above the earth (somewhere between the realms of Peter Pan and Zen), rapidly gliding, without pleasant stopovers, without a sure base. He is a solitary tripper in a world that has acquired greater dimension and fullness. Solitary, above all, because the species he belongs to risks disappearing or, perhaps already having vanished, it lives in a clandestineness which he must first penetrate to see whether or not anyone is alive.

But we are also dealing with an analytical attitude, one of discovery and exploration of zones forgotten along the large caravan routes of today’s art, zones where new sensibilities and thoughts, pleasure, and research converge, and where energy reveals its true sources. If Atget is an old city dweller, full of nostalgia and more or less quiet resentments, and if Adams is a vigorous discoverer of the world in its greatest fullness, James is a contrary child, astonished and meticulous, with the innocent and extremely sweet obsession of the garden of Eden.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.