It is a dark lecture hall at the back of the bottom floor of the National Gallery of Canada, next to the gift shop and an atrium lit by the koi pond, which serves as its skylight. The hall is full of murmurs and silhouettes. They move with a light anticipation, and the conversations I can overhear are of what is coming up. The crowd is composed of art aficionados, and we are all waiting to hear a series of three lectures given by the winners of a new award, the New Generation Photography Award, given to three Canadian young photographers by Scotiabank, in partnership with the Canadian Photography Institute. The crowd hushes as a young woman walks to the podium. She is dressed impeccably, with long flowing hair, and makeup that verges on heroin chic. If she is nervous, it doesn’t show. She holds herself with a composure that betrays a level of comfort conveying her work to crowds. She is, of course, Deanna Pizzitelli.
The enveloping darkness of the room seems to suit Pizzitelli’s subject matter, as she explains that her new series, The Story of You, was shot largely in just as little light. Artists are known for seeking out the extraordinary experiences, places and moments. There is a mysticism to this romantic conception. People think that the artist’s imagination is always at work, and that if left long enough alone, they will come up with the next big idea, or at very least the next exceptional place to go and find it. In this mindset the artist is romanticized as a bottomless well of creativity. Pizzitelli, however, like most artists does not quite fit this fanciful mold. Instead, in her confident tone, that only occasionally hints at the self-conscious, self-effacing mindset common to nearly all good photographers, she explains that it was a professional opportunity from her work that led her into this land of darkness. After accepting a residency at Listhús Artspace, Pizzitelli found herself in the Icelandic town of Ólafsfjörđur.
Ólafsfjörđur is a small fishing town once sustained by a booming herring business in the 1940s, which has since dried up. Still, a few fishing trawlers call its harbour their home port, and since the opening of an ambitious tunnel passage in 2010, the town has been accessible year-round by car. Situated in the northeast, it sits in the Icelandic mountains, in a fjord of the same name, some sixty kilometers from the arctic circle. The winters here are cold and long, with frigid winds whipping over the mountains, and frequent heavy barrages of snow. The town during the coldest of these weeks is plunged into near constant darkness. The local festival presented by Listhús is an homage to this: known as Skammdegi, or Dark Days, it refers to a time when the sun never rises above the mountains and shines, in the darkest of weeks, for under four hours each day. Pizzitelli joined the festival’s offical creative team, and exhibited her work alongside eighteen other artists taking part in the festival. Like any of the artists, who used these dark days to fuel their creative endeavours, Pizzitelli found inspiration within the darkness.
So what, in this dark once desolate fishing town, did Pizzitelli create? Darkness certainly, but also uncertainty, desire, and regret manifest in the emotional landscape of The Story of You. In the above photo we get a twofold conception of landscape, both the physical and the psychological fused unneatly into an existentially phenomenological being-there. The dark snow feels enough to suck the sound out from the air. The underdeveloped pockmarked print enclosing the viewer. And the reader should note, that these are indeed prints, not scans of the negatives. For Pizzitelli is almost as much a printmaker as she is a photographer. This master of the red-glowing darkroom is obsessive over film and paper types, and all the chemical magics of the analog printing process. As one becomes familiar with her broader body of work, you will come to notice her reuse of images– the reprinting of a single negative in various ways– so distorted from each other by her precise processes that they prove sometimes near opposite in effect.
You will also notice a range of motifs. Pizzitelli a committed conceptual photographer, does not feel tied to consistency of subject matter. As her work ranges from the erotic human body to the forlorn look of a farm animal, silently screaming of decay. What seems to tie together The Story Of You is above all mood. This palate of mood that ties it together is dark and discomforting. Above, the overly close glutinous bite of lips, that make one certain the eyes are looking towards you with consumptive delight, pares uneasily, yet perfectly, with the goat below. It’s eyes stare out and down, the wooden beam betraying a sense of captivity.
These suspicions feel almost confirmed as we move to her next portrait. In the person without any discernible features, the subject is unidentifiable. There is simply a landscape of skin, and the gaping black holes, done to the photo and not to its subject, give the work an unsettling feel. The creative interference inflicted here is intensely physical – almost violent – and it emphasizes the psychological nature of this work. It also gives insight into what it is to work in the darkroom. A messy and hands-on process, it is a space of creation and destruction that indicates an irreparable human force of will. We see, clearly, the hand of the artist.
This question of control carries into our next photo, as a reaching hand descends upon the camera, upon the viewer, and thus upon you. Here Pizzitelli’s use of texture is at its most precise. Her choice of paper is apt: there are ripples through the shadows, bringing to mind waves, and television static. Combined with the minute detail of the fingertips, we are provided just about as physical an experience as visual media allows for. Everything here is absolutely bodily with no room for photoshopped smoothness. Just as the lips brought us in with the overt near-repellant intimacy, the wetness of the tongue a little too real, the details of this image betray a realness too palpable for comfort. Though here there is not the raw emotion the lips revealed. We knew then of a level of intent of the hands. Here we only wait indefinitely for the hand’s touch. The heavy upwards angle makes sure of that, it instructs us clearly we are not the actor here. The hand is always an inch away.
If the photo of the building set the scene for us – a darkened fishing town full of artists and oppressive cold – then this last photo serves somewhat as an appropriate end or release. Like the hand photo, this is heavily textured. This time, however, the texture feels friendlier, perhaps an amplification of the warming fire. There are no easy clues as to what is happening in this photo, whether the fire is a funeral pyre, a bonfire, or part of a celebration. Yet we are left with a few things. Though it is untrue, in this case, that a fire only suits the end of a day, as indeed all the days were dark, we feel naturally that the fire signals an end to activity. A light in the depth of the dark icelandic winter, this fire instructs us to take pause. Its controlled nature, a plume in the blackness, promises safety and warmth, and it releases us from the anticipatory darkness that plagues the viewer throughout this series.
Deanna Pizzitelli is a Canadian photographer originally from Toronto. She holds a BFA in photography from Ryerson University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. You can find her work on her website, at Stephen Bulger Gallery, and her on her instagram.