Commentary on a poem by Silvio Wolf

Arturo Carlo Quintavalle

in "Light Specific", monograph, Nuovi Strumenti, Brescia 1995
in "Messa a fuoco, Studi sulla Fotografia", I campi del sapere, Feltrinelli, Milan 1983
in "Spazio Mentale", solo exhibition catalogue, Galleria Mercato del Sale, Ilford, Milan 1981

In  order to help me to write these few lines, Silvio Wolf sent me a page, some verses, that give a precise measure of his work and I believe it is important to reproduce them here:

Mental space. / That which I represent / is visible image / of my thought. / Of thought that sees / and recognises itself / in that which already is. / Coincidence of position / Physical and mental. / Of being and space. / Places of transition. / Inside and outside. / Complementary opposition / of ubiquitous antagonists. / I unveil the world / of the unseen. / I represent that which I do not know.

Wolf’s framework of reference is not gestalt psychology as it might seem from a superficial reading but, if anything,  Husserlian investigation. We are therefore faced with the analysis of an event where the presence of the photographer-actor determines the reference system. Is this perhaps why Wolf’s images seem isolated, outside of time, suspended and motionless? Let’s take a look at them, these images, before returning to the verses, the lines we have just reproduced.

In Argentiera, Wolf tackles the problem of framing; certainly in Italian photography the basic notions for this type of work were established by Ugo Mulas, but the great Sardinian photographer, definitely more American than European in culture, based his work on an analysis of language and therefore, if you like, on the elements with minimum meaning and elements with no meaning (morphemes and phonemes to be precise) in literary linguistic culture. He had then mediated this experience through Merleau-Ponty on the one hand and an analysis of photography through “Art & Language” on the other. Then came the Verifiche (Verifications) which I have already analysed one by one and to which the  reader (1) is referred, keeping in mind the need to view Mulas’s thesis within the more general framework of photographic “writings” in the sense given to the term by Derrida (2). But how does the work of Wolf diverge from that of Mulas and from those connected with pop art and a subtle formal experimentation by Ghirri or from the conceptual works by Vimercati?  Let’s take a look at these images: the inside with the shots of the windows completely white because of the difference in the light and the landscape which, however, in the other photo is interpretable with the entire room, the rear, appearing dark. Or still in the same series (Argentiera 3)  we see the relationships between frames which, from a plan view of the image, tend to be a succession, narrating also with the sequence and therefore a path. Little by little, from the sea and sky you arrive at the edges of the roofs, at the window and the inside and moving progressively farther away, to the house as a whole, as far as the entrance of the house peering across the threshold at the very distant window. Like a backward tracking shot, where, however, the whole mechanism is based on memory of the layout of the environment rather than on the structure of the individual relationship between territory and frame closed by this frame. There is therefore no relationship, not even with the work of Cresci which follows on directly from the premises set by Ugo Mulas.

In other experimentation Wolf focuses on the light shade relationship and therefore on reflection, on the trace of forms. He shows the ambiguity of the contrast between the image of structures and their shadows, between light filtered by forms and the forms themselves therefore. And again he shows the ambiguity of the opposition between foreground and background, remaining with gestalt psychology, or is the analysis perhaps more complex? One piece Quattro Finestre (Four windows) or another entitled Le due porte (The two doors) shift the emphasis completely: the first, half way between behaviour, art povera and an exercise on writing, apparently reveals a sequence where a pile of stones progressively closes an aperture, a window in fact, a possible frame which is progressively closed. “The two doors” again contrast, in the area of islam, two cultures through the the virtuality of the limit, through the virtuality of two spaces marked out by the edge, the edge of the two doors. Wolf, however, focuses on light: a piece like Notte-giorno-notte (Night-day-night) shows the total ambiguity of convention and therefore the absolute conventionality of time. Time is in fact tied not to words but to the mental impact of its duration: this “night” and this “day” are assumed empty, virtual spaces of a mental action which alone can qualify them. Figure-interni puts the accent on this aspect too but also focuses on the duration and  the impossibility of a realistic image: these oblique cuttings of windows, these figures  like apparitions are forms of memory, barely marked out traces of gestures that appear but then can immediately disappear.

Explicit confirmations are given by Virtuale, a work where the space, the environment of memory no longer appears circumscribed. A white, white frame emerges in it or there is the other mirror where forms of people only just appear, but the place, the space is no longer determined. It is as if the place, the space were suspended, absent unless in a not directly narrative dimension. Ravenna, also provide a consistent theme: this time it is the stratification of memory. The focus is again on the border between light and shade and on the frame of the limit, all the architectures become a juxtaposition of these openings, symbolic signs of the inside-outside, unconscious-conscious relationship.

After this brief outline of an interpretation, which should be much more detailed, it is worth reading again the verses given at the beginning. Mental space, said Wolf, and representation as projection, he states immediately afterwards. There is an assumption of the “physical” inside the virtual, which, in so far as it is tied to the procedures by which an individual is aware of things, appears within a history that is never objective, but  always dependent on the convention of individual history. Inside-outside, therefore is a contrast that is above all symbolic between individual, its darkness, its unconscious (shade-light) and outside, external reality. The function of the photograph is to tell the story of the unconscious, that which does not know how to project its models onto the world, its experiences, its own choices.

But then if this interpretations of Wolf’s text is correct then the total representation of a single experience and of an external “fact” will be an event which no longer distinguishes Husserlianly between the inside and the outside, which no longer splits the unity between subject and object as the philosophic tradition of idealism suggests.


1) A.C. Quintavalle, Ugo Mulas, dall’oggetto al fenomeno, in “Ugo Mulas”. Parma, Centro Studi e Archivio della Communicazione dell’Università degli Studi, 1973.
2) A.C. Quintavalle: Il territorio della fotografia, in “Enciclopedia pratica per fotografare”, vol. I, Milan F.lli Fabbri 1979.