It all began in 2003, when Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin embarked on a project they called Ghetto. They travelled around the world taking photographs and interviewing inhabitants of 12 contemporary gated communities, from Tanzanian refugee camps to residents of the Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital in Cuba. Although their book is now out of print, some of its imagery has reappeared but in a very different guise. And all because one man hang on to some scarti, or scraps. The term scarti di avviamento is used by Italian printers for paper fed through a printing press to clean the ink drums between two prints. The result is an image comprised of two different photographs merged together. These are usually discarded but Gigi Giannnuzzi thought otherwise. The publisher of Broomberg and Chanarin’s photo book decided to keep them, storing them away for safekeeping. Following his death last year, they have been discovered among his files, and made into a brilliant, unusual book by the two original authors, simply titled Scarti.
To say that the images in it are haunting would be an understatement. They are also stunningly beautiful, accidental ‘collages’ weaving their own, mysterious narrative. For Ghetto, Broomberg and Chanarin visited such diverse places as a retirement home in California, a gypsy ghetto in Macedonia, the above mentioned refugee camp in Tanzania, and an old people’s holiday camp in the US. As they took photographs, they also asked the same questions of those they encountered: “Who is in power here? Where do you go to be alone, to make love, to be with friends? What are your hopes and dreams?” Photographed entirely on large format colour negative, Ghetto took three years to produce, becoming in time a popular classic in photo book history. Scarti is a more intimate offering, with the twice-printed sheets revealing uncanny, and often beautiful combinations.
Once separate, these photographs, and the stories they tell, have now merged into a stunning series of tableaux, compositions at times so pictorially sublime, it is hard to believe they are all accidental. They also have, in an eerie transference, combined the narratives, paired them as it were, into an entirely new reading. Because of the poignant nature of the questions posed by the two artists, the images, both in Ghetto, and Scarti, are permeated with a certain melancholy, their deep humanity unmistakeable, at times wrenching. But in Scarti another element is introduced, the incidental, the unexpected. For how to interpret an image of a group of young boys (Lukole Refugee Camp) against a backdrop of a note pinned to a wall, reading ‘lost necklace’, the tragic and the banal intertwined. In one bewildering composition, the arm of a South African prisoner extends casually into a scene of young Tanzanian refugees perched in a tree, while in another, a Cuban mental health patient is ‘projected’ onto a high-rise building. There is the accidental humour too, as in a scene in which an American octogenarian from ‘Leisure World’ retirement home sits almost perfectly on the knee of a Kurdish lorry driver. Two men in ‘pyjamas’, one a black refugee, the other a white mental patient, have ‘melded’ into one, four-armed figure in an image that was, quite aptly, chosen for the cover of Scarti. The almost perfect juxtaposition of the two figures has created an unlikely, multi-layered image, placing them in another time and space, or perhaps bringing them together in a moment outside of both.
Faces against mountaintops, faces ‘scarred’ by parched earth superimposed on them, faces from posters merging with real ones… Scarti presents a pantheon of extraordinary compositions. Perspective and dimensions are warped, scenes flow from one to the other, changing the reading of the images, as the eye tries to make sense of a winding wall morphing into a twisted trunk of a tree. There are also works — can these accidental images be called artwork? — that are purely graphic, stunning combinations of unexpected artistic merit. But whom should we credit? As impressive as Broomberg and Chanarin’s original photographs were, they have here been subverted by chance, by an invisible hand, the printing press churning out accidental juxtapositions. How fortuitous that they were preserved, by a man who saw beauty in these chance creations.
Scarti was published last year, ten years after the release of Ghetto. It was accompanied by an exhibition of the images at an art gallery associated with the publishing house.
Trolley Books & T J Boulting Art Gallery, London
January 30 to March 8, 2014