Fine Art Photography

Travel and Darkroom Processes Inform Deanna Pizzitelli’s Project on the Complexity of Human Emotion

January 27, 2018

By Conor Risch

There are parts of our experience as human beings that we struggle to describe—things we know we feel, but that are beyond definition. Deanna Pizzitelli uses photography to visualize the “feelings in the pit of your stomach that are always kind of there but you can’t quite reach them.” She wants to “find a way to articulate those inexplicable qualities” of humanness, what she calls “the nature of affect and in particular the feelings that exist underneath what we would consider recognizable feelings.”

Pizzitelli’s work consists of portraits of people and animals, and of landscapes and still lifes, which she makes while traveling. She made her latest project, “Koža,” while living in Slovakia for a year, during which time she traveled around Europe and participated in a residency in Iceland. Rather than forming a linear narrative about a specific place or specific characters, Pizzitelli sees her photographs as “a set of intersecting stories” that “come together to make an emotional statement.” She showed the project this winter at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.

Pizzitelli uses paper choices and darkroom techniques such as toning, solarizing and lith development to “reflect or emphasize the emotional narrative of the work,” she says. “The process [used to print the images] is often a metaphor for the incomprehensibility and the instability of human experience.” One print might be sharp and untoned, while the next could be toned brown and abstract. The prints often look weathered or aged. “I have these sort of rises and falls that I think speak to what the work is really about, which is the changing nature of the emotional landscape.” She says she doesn’t have a specific formula for which process to use to evoke a certain feeling. She offers her prints in “variable editions,” which means in an edition of five prints, each print may be processed in a different way.

© Deanna Pizzitelli/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

“Holy Water,” 2015, from Deanna Pizzitelli’s series “Koža.” © Deanna Pizzitelli/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

While her work isn’t a travelogue, Pizzitelli says the images reflect “my life as I live it,” and that traveling is an essential part of her picture-making process. “Because I go around gathering stories and questions and feelings, it’s important to have that stimulation [of traveling],” she explains. During the year she spent in Slovakia, she was experiencing the anxiety of being a recent MFA graduate. “You’re trying to figure out where you stand in relation to all these new things that are happening, so I think that mood was definitely in the work.” When Pizzitelli met a woman while traveling in Iceland, she says, she envisioned an image of her outside, naked, being buffeted by the wind. She knew it could make “this big emotional impact in the work,” yet she didn’t have a clear sense of the story she wanted to tell. The woman became an important character in “Koža.” There are several images of her in the series and we assume from her bare shoulders she is naked. Her hair blows in the wind and she looks down or away from the camera tentatively.

Her models, both male and female, are often nude or their nudity is implied, which adds eroticism to the work but also strips away some of the information a viewer might use to date or place her subjects. “I generally like to leave those specifics [of place and time] open to interpretation,” she says, and also to focus the viewer’s eye on her subjects’ gestures. Pizzitelli wants her work to “celebrate the erotic” while also putting that eroticism into a broader context, as one part of the complex emotions she wants to describe. Nudity for the sake of nudity is a common pitfall in photography, yet by showing the nudes alongside images of a variety of subjects, Pizzitelli avoids the superficiality and objectification common to nudes, especially those by male photographers. Pizzitelli says it’s important to her to “cultivate natural, open, honest relationships with my models,” and that she’ll offer to let them see the images before they sign a release.

Animals are another important subject in her work, she says, because, they offer a sort of shorthand for emotional content as they have throughout the history of art. While animals “exist as independent beings,” she says, “when we represent them in art they tend to be myths or symbols for the stories we’re trying to tell.”

Pizzitelli’s project offers a sort of fiction-nonfiction hybrid. The people she photographs —herself included—aren’t simply actors, and her landscapes aren’t just sets for a drama she’s constructing. For instance, her residency in Iceland, which took place during the winter, “really fed” the project, she says, and the climate became a metaphor for “the emotional realities of the work—loss, longing, anxiety, uncertainty.” She also recognized those feelings in some of the people she photographed. “With some of the human subjects I can definitely say that their affect is part of what caused me to ask them to model,” she explains. “The photographs themselves represent a certain reality, but the treatment of the images and the collections around them create an emotional arc that probably surpasses that reality.”

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