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SB5 Archive (2010): Camera Obscura

12 September 2017

Words by Ben Perdue

Photography by Adrian Wilson

The walls of Maurizio Anzeri’s unassuming South London studio are covered with works in progress and his table is a kaleidoscope of cotton reels. Hidden in amongst the tangles of embroidery thread are the tools of his trade; a patternmakers’ tracing wheel and homemade perforating implement, bodged together from a thimble and sewing needle. The Italian artist is preparing for a group show at the Michael Hoppen gallery in collaboration with Saatchi Online. Putting the finishing touches to a collection of his embellished found photos being exhibited alongside other pieces that take pictures as their starting point. They only make up a fraction of his output, but these reworked family portraits have become something of a trademark, thanks to recent high-profile exposure at The Photographers’ Gallery and Soho-institution, The Riflemaker. Demand is understandably high and Anzeri is trying to keep up.

The immediate appeal of his work combines complex geometric shapes reminiscent of ‘70s string art, and the sense of mystery associated with antique photographs. Closer inspection reveals more about the relationship between these patterns and the subjects they obscure—a connection that explores the ritualistic nature of his repetitive methods and the origins of the images he appropriates. They represent the importance of photos in the context of a family unit and how over time this bond is lost. "I come from a very old-fashioned family from the south of Italy so I grew up with these shrines of old photographs,” he says. “Especially to dead people. Sleeping at my grandmother’s was always a nightmare because she even had these little lights that never turned off for them. They have this real power, and suddenly this power ends up rotting in a flea market somewhere. They stand for what we stand for. We all think we are at the centre of the world, and we are, of our world. The rest of the world keeps going with or without you. At the end of the day our destiny is that of those photographs.”

Searching for old pictures has become an obsession that draws Anzeri to the flea markets and junk shops of every city he visits. Rooting through boxes of old memories left to decay in the pouring rain. “When I ask for these photos, no matter what country I'm in, I always get the same response: ‘we don’t keep them, who would want them if it’s not their own family?’” His most fruitful hunting ground has always been Berlin; a success rate that we speculate must be due to people from the East discarding their family histories prior to 1989; attempting to make a fresh start after the Wall came down.

Dysmorphic masks are the mainstay of his photographic pieces and they always radiate out from the eye. Initially he would never wander beyond the outlines of the face due to respect for their natural parameters. But over time Anzeri began breaking down these self-imposed barriers, as his amorphous multi-coloured shapes and intricate geometries began to migrate across the prints. And though it feels organic in its freeform outpourings, the embroidering process involves a huge amount of preparatory sketching, experimenting with colours, and hours of actual stitching. “With some photos it’s easy, you look at them and you know exactly what you want to do. It’s between you and them,” he says. “But it can turn into a nightmare. You can plan so much but you only know if something works by actually doing it. What happens on the back is as exciting for me as the front. Something weird happens at the back and I like it because I find it as powerful as the front. And you made it but you had no control over it. You can see something else all together.”

We can never know who most of the subjects in his photos are and a vast majority of them are long dead, so in a romantic way much of what Anzeri does by channeling his creativity, time and love into these pieces is an artistic form of resurrection. But he prefers to see it as celebrating the lives of people who he knows nothing about, other than the information in their faces. “When I started collecting them I began visiting the cemetery back in Italy a lot when I was staying with my mum. It’s her way of keeping the family together,” he says. “I realised that you don’t put photos on your gravestones here, just the names. We do. It looks like a Boltanksi installation. If you’re rich you have a little mausoleum but most people have council flat graves, everyone layered on top of each other. And they all have a photo. Every time I went, I met someone new because there are so many amazing faces. For me you are a stranger and this is how I meet you, just the essence of you. Your photo, a name and date. But they’re like stills of a film that is playing constantly. Because they are photos they have the power of being past, but the moment you look at one it becomes the present again.”

For this exclusive collaboration with Sang Bleu, we gave Anzeri a series of candid portraits shot in his studio by Adrian Wilson, along with a simple brief asking him to apply the same techniques to his own face for the first time. The results speak for themselves.

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