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George Tatge: Italia Metafisica

Updated: Apr 2

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the photography books and other items on my shelves here. This time it’s . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

Sometimes it feels like there are photographs inside me, waiting to get out. I just need to be in the right place at the right time (with the right frame of mind) and the magic happens. The photographs exist already, before I find their equivalents in the real world and before I lift the camera to my eye. The act of photographing is simply a case of opening the door and letting them out. 

If all this sounds a bit strange, perhaps even metaphysical,  then we’re on the right track.  There are mysteries in the world. Or at least in the way we perceive the world. 


I went to see George Tatge’s exhibition, Italia Metafisica, a few years ago and that’s where I bought this book. I didn’t know Tatge’s work before but the images on the wall made a connection, as if some of them were also 'mine', I just hadn't found them yet. This happens a lot when I'm looking at the work of other photographers. It is, I suppose, a kind of recognition of a certain way of looking. A shared perception. In these cases I always feel a bit frustrated that the other photographer found these images first (and got them on the wall of a gallery) but I'm also happy that there's a connection at least on some level.

George Tatge was born in Turkey to an Italian mother and American father and he lived in the United States, Europe and the Middle East before moving to Italy in 1973. Tatge spent many years photographing around Italy in his role as Director of Photography at the Alinari Archives in Florence and I imagine a number of the images in this book have come from those travels. He is above all a landscape photographer, by which I mean cultural landscape or perhaps the landscape shaped by human activity (which is what ‘land scape’ means).

For me Italia Metafisica explores how our visual perception is limited to physical matter: to the material, to the light that falls upon it and the shadows cast across it. But at the same time behind this physical reality lies a mystery that we cannot see. There’s a reference here to the Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico, founder of the Scuola Metafisica art movement in the early 20th century. His paintings depict a world of architecture, light, shadow and impossible perspectives that take the viewer on a journey within themselves to a disquieting half-dream half-reality. George Tatge has described metaphysics as a way of discovering, “..the mystery that is before our eyes, behind the most normal aspects of life”. That reminds me of something I said about the Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi, a few weeks ago (read it here) and the 'mystery' does emerge from George Tatge's images too, albeit in an entirely different way.

There are a couple of themes running through Italia Metafisica. The first involves the purely physical: earth, rock, stone, brick, wall and building. Solidity and shelter. Volume and void. The photographs seem to celebrate the material, often revealing beauty in the most humble surface or structure. The second theme takes us beyond the physical: Tatge shows us light and shadow playing with the material world,  juxtaposing what is with what might be. As Giorgio de Chirico himself said, “There are more mysteries in the shadow of a man walking under the sun than in all the religions of the world, past, present and future.” 

As well as psychology there is also a good deal spirituality here. Temples, angels and icons are an inherent part of the landscape because we’re in Italy after all. In fact the title of the book suggests that this is a particularly Italian journey, and a particularly Italian Metaphysics. Diego Mormorio says in his accompanying essay that “.. every landscape is the result of the fusion of Nature and Culture”, yet while this is certainly an Italian landscape, I think the message, the ‘hidden enigma of the object’, is universal.

There’s one more theme which is touched upon in Carlo Sisi’s essay, Borderlands, when he describes the idea that, “the ancient, the modern and the future coexist” as a legacy for our perpetual reinvention. There are photographs in the book in which layers of history, both cultural and geological, are present in a single frame. It brings to mind the work of Swiss photographer, Stefania Beretta, whose urban landscapes envelop multiple historical strata within them. As she says herself, “I take apart to recompose… so that the present is the return of a distant origin.” 

I’ll maybe talk about Beretta’s work another time, but for now suffice it to say that Italia Metafisica is worth taking a look at. The images are thought-provoking and have been beautifully observed. As a book it is not immediate in its meaning, there are a number of themes weaving around and it needs to be studied a few times before the ideas emerge. But I think that's a good thing and it will ensure the book gets taken off the shelf more often.

George Tatge, Italia Metafisica. Published by Contrasto 2015


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