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photo-eye Book Reviews: The Automaton

The Automaton. Photographs by Paolo Ventura.
Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
The Automaton
Reviewed by George Slade

The Automaton
Photographs by Paolo Ventura
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012. Hardbound. 52 pp., 22 color illustrations, 9-3/4x9-1/2".

Once upon a time in Italy, a Milanese child grew up amid stories and situations that led him, later in life, to construct his own realities and tell his own tales using a medium famous for its factual tendencies. How this boy, Paolo Ventura, came to terms with photography's descriptive stubbornness has been borne out in his work since the mid-aughts.

The Automaton shows the adult fabulist Ventura in peak form. The story opens with a full-length portrait of an elderly Venetian wanderer, an ambulatory ghost of the Jewish ghetto during World War II. The portrait is a brilliant gambit in this game of fact and fantasy; our sense of reality—indeed, the desire for reality that photography promulgates—is tweaked by details that seem unavoidably "true to life" while others challenge veracity. This paradoxical image engages us in a story presented like a child's picture book—a sentence or two on the left side of a spread with an illustration on the right, both pages working to advance the narrative, both descriptive systems functioning economically and expressively.

The Automaton, by Paolo Ventura. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
But do not pigeonhole The Automaton as children's literature; text and image activate dismal emotions. Ventura evokes a shrouded, subdued city; describing the old man, one text reads "His solitude was also the solitude of Venice during the winter of 1942." Ventura's earlier books demonstrate his capacity for capturing hibernal atmosphere, particularly in his renderings of Milan; here, the aura of winter is as much emotive as meteorological. The people of Venice are literally disappearing into the dark brown and green shadows of Ventura's meticulously messy dioramas.

The Automaton, by Paolo Ventura. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
At the center of this dissipation is a bold gesture of creative will. The old man decides to build a companion, an automaton that will ease his solitude with one companionable gesture, a toast of friendship each evening. Strikingly, the automaton's head, "found…in a thrift shop," caricatures Ventura's otherwise immaculate attention to verisimilitude. The completed project, Nino, is introduced just as the old man was at the story's outset, in a full-length portrait. Seated in a chair (Nino is a sedentary automaton), the old man's drinking buddy is topped with a cartoonish head, the one element in the entire book that is clearly artificial. Nino nearly causes the old man's demise, but one should read the book for that story; it is enough to say that the face of comedy bears another one of tragedy.

The Automaton, by Paolo Ventura. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
Flash back to that "rigattiere," or junk dealer. Nino's head is there, though it is a small element in a gorgeously conceived tableau. See a bicycle wheel, complete with front forks and a handmade sign reading "si comprano mobile" (we buy furniture), and an anomalously lovely pair of wings—symbols, alternately, of escape, mobility, permanence, and transcendence. All under the banner of "junk" and with light emanating from within the shop as though it was, itself, a passage to another world.

The Automaton, by Paolo Ventura. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
Look at the other photographs in The Automaton. See other signs of angels. Notice the posters and advertisements. Look into the shadows. Ventura fashions detritus with virtuosic control. He modulates chaos and decay with perfect visual pitch; readers hover in the space of myth and hold truth and fiction in the same frame. Ventura is a story-teller of the highest order; he embraces artifice to construct belief.GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at