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Site Specific: Introduction by Christopher Phillips

site specific_ROMA 04 from Site Specific. All photographs © Olivo Barbieri and courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

Olivo Barbieri is one of the world’s most restless photographers. Between 2003 and 2012, while working on his Site Specific series, he photographed more than forty of the world’s cities from a helicopter hovering in midair. The geographic scope of the project took him to every corner of the planet; his artistic ambition prompted him to employ an unprecedented range of photographic techniques in making his images. Temperamentally, Barbieri has never really been a documentary photographer, and he has never been convinced that straight-forward images can fully convey the hallucinatory qualities that he finds in modern urban spaces. During the first five years of the Site Specific series, he used a special tilt-and-shift lens that enabled him to drastically alter perspective and scale within his photographs. Later, he used digital post-production techniques to modify the color balance, tonal relations, and even the pixel structure of his images. If Site Specific provides an almost anthropological commentary on the human drive to create and inhabit densely layered urban environments, it is simultaneously a stylistic tour de force that takes photography’s visual language far beyond its customary boundaries.

An engagement with the built environment and a need to expand photography’s expressive means have characterized Barbieri’s work since he began seriously photographing in the early 1970s. Living and working in the vicinity of Modena, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna province, he was in his early twenties when he met Luigi Ghirri (1943–1992), one of the most significant Italian photographers of his era. Ghirri made it his mission to introduce younger Italian photographers to the heritage of classic photographers such as Eugène Atget and August Sander, but he also made them aware of vital contemporary directions, such as the new explorations of color photography being carried out in the 1970s by figures such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Barbieri’s early familiarity with photography’s past and present, and his fascination with modern painting, prepared him to recognize that his own sensibility was not well matched to the documentary style of even so sophisticated a practitioner as Walker Evans. He was drawn instead to the dreamlike visual spaces created by painters like Giorgio di Chirico and photographers like Man Ray. “I started out from classical photography,” Barbieri has recalled, “from an attempt to describe the world around me as objectively and aseptically as possible. It turned out the results of this approach showed a world which seemed absolutely phantasmagoric and unreal.”

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From the outset, Barbieri felt that the aim of Site Specific was not to produce an objective document of the world’s cities but to somehow push photography’s language into new territory. He was captivated by a vision of the twenty-first-century city as a kind of site-specific installation—temporary, malleable, and constantly in flux—and he sought a photographic corollary for the radical mutations of urban form that he saw taking place. By using a medium-format camera outfitted with a tilt-and-shift lens, he found that he was able to register enormous quantities of precise visual information and at the same time throw whole sections of the image disorientingly out of focus. The resulting photographs made modern cities appear to be reduced-scale architectural models—a vision, as Barbieri put it, of “the city as an avatar of itself.” He was also keenly aware of the deadly events of September 11, 2001, which had revealed the shocking vulnerability of such architectural monuments as New York’s twin towers. “After 9/11,” he observed, “the world had become a little bit blurred because things that seemed impossible happened.”

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In Rome and Las Vegas Barbieri used his tilt-and-shift lens technique to bring an air of unreality to his images of those cities, but for Site Specific SHANGHAI 05 he decided that a different approach was called for. “Shanghai,” he said, “is so much like a model that it was not necessary to use the lens.” Surprisingly, he paid little attention to the most celebrated buildings, making no photographs of the lavishly renovated neoclassical buildings along the Bund, nor of the thicket of glass-and-steel towers crowding the new Pudong business district. Instead Barbieri presented Shanghai as an immense, amorphous terrain packed with clusters of indistinguishable twenty- and thirty-story residential high-rise developments. These mega-complexes, built to house Shanghai’s eighteen million inhabitants, spill over the city’s peripheries and stretch as far as the helicopter-borne eye can see. From this vantage, Shanghai suggests what Barbieri called a barely controlled “biological experiment”—an organism whose pure expansive energy was pushing relentlessly up to the heavens and out to the horizon.

Olivo Barbieri, site specific_SHANGHAI 04.

Such a wildly sprawling urban form, which represents one of the latest turns in the evolution of the modern city, can be grasped fully only from the air. It has been described by the architectural historian Kennneth Frampton as marking the transition from the age of the metropolis to that of the “megaform.” This is Frampton’s term for the city type produced by the contemporary urban explosion set off by the unleashed social forces and vast accumulations of capital in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, sending waves of new built structures sweeping over entire regional landscapes. Barbieri’s decision to extend the Site Specific series beyond his original plan was made in part to allow him to photograph such emerging centers as São Paulo, Istanbul, Bangkok, and Mexico City. The transformative dynamic that he found in the developing world also prompted him to revisit and photograph a number of cities in his native Italy, such as Milan, Florence, Genoa, Venice, and Naples. In the recent changes he discovered there, he could now perceive echoes of larger processes occurring around the world.

Because Barbieri never regarded the Site Specific series as documentary in intent but as part of his continuing effort to enlarge photography’s visual language, he continued to seek out new means of picturing the cities that he scrutinized from his aerial perch. He was quick to notice that new, Web-based imaging technologies were providing fresh ways to portray the world we inhabit. Google Earth, for example, began in 2005 to put on-line high-resolution satellite views of much of the planet’s surface. Google Street View, launched in 2007, offered interactive panoramic photos of virtually every block in most world cities.

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Olivo Barbieri, site specific_HOUSTON 12.

The boundless visual inventiveness of the Site Specific project ultimately masks a cautionary message, as Barbieri himself acknowledges. “Today,” he said, “we humans are surprised at how good we are at doing impressive construction. But we’re also a little afraid of what we’ve done. We’ve created a new kind of urban sublime that combines the elements of awe and fear, just as the nineteenth-century sublime regarded the great mountains of the Alps.” In the end, his successive reimaginings of the look of the twenty-first-century city teach us to regard it in the distanced manner as an architect or city planner: as a set of essentially impermanent, transformable spaces awaiting the imperious intervention of the urban designer. It is this calculated ambivalence, which lies at the heart of the Site Specific project, that makes it something more than a decade-long exercise in photographic virtuosity. “I’ve never been interested in photography,” Barbieri says, “but in images. I believe my work starts when photography ends.”


This piece is excerpted from a longer essay included in Site Specific: Photographs by Olivio Barbieri (Aperture, 2013).

Writings by, and an interview with, Christopher Phillips are also included in Aperture magazine issues #184 and #191.