Fine Art Photography

A New Exhibition Celebrates Italy’s Small Businesses

May 4, 2018

By Jon Feinstein

While it may be convenient, online commerce has cast aside the human connections that revolve around small business. This economic and cultural shift and the desire to preserve the memory of small businesses, if not the businesses themselves, inspired Francesco Pergolesi’s “Heroes” and “Tableaux”—two distinct, yet intertwined photographic essays showing this month at Chicago’s Catherine Edelman Gallery.

“Heroes” is a series of portraits of Italian small business owners and their shops, while “Tableaux” depicts their intricately arranged tools and ephemera, taking a close-up, poetic look at the process and personal imprint of generations of daily work. For Pergolesi, these shopkeepers and their tools characterize the humanity that is disappearing every day from the urban landscape. Exhibited together, the projects form a monument to the people and objects behind businesses that once served as social, cultural and community forces.

Pergolesi began “Heroes” in 2012 when he encountered a second-hand book shop in the small Italian village of Macerata. Gastone, the shop’s owner, reminded Pergolesi of people he knew when he was growing up in the ancient Italian city of Spoleto, and they quickly became friends, sharing their love of art and literature. One year later, Pergolesi made a portrait of Gastone, his first “Hero,” and the project was born. He began photographing independent shop owners throughout Italy and Spain, focusing on those that triggered childhood memories.

On the surface, Pergolesi’s pulled-back portraits of owners in their bookstores, hat shops, butcheries, pharmacies and other small businesses might seem typological and documentary. The images highlight the architecture of the spaces, their urban environments, and the visual distinctions between them. But his use of light elicits a warm connection between subject and viewer. In his artist statement, Pergolesi calls these shop owners “Temple Guardians”: They are protecting something sacred and irreplaceable. “These people preserve human relationships with their customers,” he tells PDN via email. “This is rare in this era when everything is becoming automated.”

© Francesco Pergolesi/Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery

“Moira, 2017” from Francesco Pergolesi’s “Heroes,” a series of environmental portraits of Italian shopkeepers. © Francesco Pergolesi/Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery

“Moira, 2017,” for example, captures the owner of Modisteria Florencia, a women’s hat shop in the Italian city. Shot from the street, at night, it shows the inviting glow of the hats and fluorescent sign above the window. The real glow, however, lies in the picture’s true focus: Moira, who sits peering out at the street, her wry yet inviting smile illuminated by a quiet beam of light. Instead of appearing as a stranger, an object of our gaze, she feels like family, not someone who just wants us to buy a hat. Pergolesi develops a close connection with many of the people he photographs, often returning to cities to build his relationships with them. “I can tell you,” says Pergolesi, “that many of these artisans I collaborate with feel like my own family. In order to create sincere images, it is essential for me to feel an intimacy with the subjects.”

“Tableaux,” which Pergolesi began in 2016, complements “Heroes” with its intimate details and carefully constructed arrangements of tools, materials and other objects from some of the same small shops. Pergolesi uses these images to show the quality and traces of the shop owners’ daily work, and ultimately, to represent the memory of their fading practice. For Pergolesi, the materials he photographs are a physical manifestation of the childhood memories to which he clings dearly. “As they are under a loupe,” Pergolesi says, “every detail magnified, these photographs emphasize the worth and uniqueness of the artisan work. These range from elaborately staged still lifes to more straightforward arrangements.

“Composition #0, 2017,” for example, transforms the surface of an artisanal framer’s table into a pastiche of time, labor and history. Photographing it from above, Pergolesi exposes generations of cuts, marks and drawings made on its surface. Adding another layer to the experience, he’s mounted a bold red angle, cut from a “passe-partout” picture frame—a common presence in these types of framing shops—to the face of the print. It’s both grounding and disorienting. As viewers, we’re unsure of whether we’re looking at a table or a wall, but we can feel time’s imprint. Another image, “Skin #1, 2018,” is made from a shoemaker’s various discarded scraps of black leather. As in “Composition #0, 2017” Pergolesi’s abstraction pulls our eyes into the photograph’s surface. It’s more than a descriptive still life; it’s a carrier of soul, time, and sweat soaking through.

In the past, Pergolesi exhibited these images as straightforward prints on the wall. The exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery marks a shift to something more sculptural and installation-oriented. Encouraging viewers to have a closer relationship with the shop owners and peer in, he exhibits “Heroes” in small, backlit LED boxes. This also emphasizes each portrait’s controlled, psychological attention to light. “Tableaux” takes this layered approach a step further with images displayed in a range of formats, from large traditionally framed prints to wall installations and intimate “memory boxes” that include the images alongside actual tools.

From Pergolesi’s straightforward, yet emotive portraits, to his still life photographs and elaborately crafted presentations, these intersecting series may soon become relics. Pergolesi’s photographic process and installations make his own labor and process—and the craftspeople he photographs—hallowed, yet accessible, elevating them to something we can’t overlook. “They are like paintings,” he says, “just finished before being exhibited.”

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