New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 11 March 28 to April 3, 2012

Mountains or Manipulations?
Olivo Barbieri
The Dolomites Project
Don Burmeister
The Dolomites Project (#7) by Olivo Barbieri. Source:
Olivo Barbieri, "The Dolomites Project (#7)" 2010

Documenting the landscape has been a prime activity of photographers from the very beginnings of the art. Nineteenth century adventurers traveled the world documenting ancient ruins and exotic scenes. Although their photographs were perhaps not held in as high regard as drawings and paintings, the veracity of the photograph was always its trump card. “You may not believe what I say, but just look at what I saw!” Photographers knew perfectly well that their images were distortions at best and total fabrications at the extreme. First they had to overcome the limitations of the technology. But then, if they pushed things a little more, it could be justified as capturing the ‘essence’ of the place.

Over the decades a sort of landscape arms-race has taken place, both in the field (being at just the right place when the clouds break to reveal the moon rising under a rainbow on the vernal equinox) but also on the technical side: dry plates, film, faster films, smaller cameras, color. And then, in 1990, the Hiroshima of modern photography, Photoshop, arrived.

Olivo Barbieri brings the equivalent of a nuclear-powered battleship into his “Dolomite Project”. His large high-resolution images pack a wallop. The white mountains are all encompassing, amazingly sharp and detailed, the clear Alpine air almost felt, the colors crisp and intense. After a minute or two I realized that there were small human figures walking or climbing on the mountains in some of the pictures. Yet all the while I had a slight uneasy feeling about them; I could feel my inner Photoshop-nerd turning over restlessly. At first I thought that the perspectives were manipulated in the computer, or perhaps in the camera. They may well have been, but, more importantly, it turned out that Barbieri took his pictures with a large format camera, while hovering over the mountains in a helicopter! Dizzying indeed. The supernal crispness of the mountains was probably just ordinary over-sharpening in the computer, and when you look closely you could see the characteristic ‘unsharp-mask’ halo at the edges of objects.

The Dolomites Project (#3) by Olivo Barbieri. Source:
Olivo Barbieri, "The Dolomites Project (#3)" 2010

But there was still something else odd about the pictures. Not until my second circuit of the gallery did it become clear. The Dolomites were indeed giant white mountains as they are in real life, but in these pictures they were white in the wrong places! The areas of the mountains that should have been brightest, like the sunlit tops of pinnacles, were dark, and the places that you would expect to be shaded, like crevasses and shadowed areas, were white. Areas more easily assimilated to our eyes, like the tiny hikers on the glaciers, or the snow fields themselves, were kept within ‘normal’ color and density. Adding to the confusion was the color of the mountains, apparently retained with normal ‘positive’ values.

Is this in anyway shocking? Well no. Barbieri is not reporting from the streets of Homs, or discovering ‘hidden sites’ harboring weapons of mass destruction. In a way his manipulated images are more honest than that of many other photographers working today, the obvious comparison being with Andreas Gursky. Their images approach the same scale, but in Gursky’s case the photo manipulations reach the point of almost total invisibility. Gursky’s use of multiple images, his sensitivity to the irregularities of photo collage and their removal, are the heart of his art. Barbieri’s manipulations are up front and easily recognized. For example, one image, rendered in a totally unreal black and blue, has a small view of the sunlit plains beyond the mountains, kept presumably, as a touchstone to the fact that what you are seeing is not exactly what you think it is.

In a sense both artists are seeking to produce ‘sublime’ images – Gursky in the 99 cent store, Barbieri in the mountains of Italy. Gursky is burdened with an almost pathological fascination with the banal, which one hopes reached a low point with his recent 10 foot high images of flowing sewage in the rivers of Bangkok <review here>. On the other hand, Barbieri focuses on a more traditional subject in these images––one with a more traditional transcendent goal. Has his blatant Photoshopping hindered or helped? I think it might be too early to tell. In 20 years will we look back and see the mountains or the manipulations? Not to mention the small hotel! The perspectives are dizzying.

Olivo Barbieri
The Dolomites Project

Yancey Richardson Gallery
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Thursday, February 16 to
Saturday, March 31, 2012
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