by Daniela Mericio
Poetry is everywhere. This is the title of the shot that, in 2019, won the third prize at the Fine Art Photography Awards and is also one of the best known among Monia Marchionni’s. An image in which multi-coloured hula hoops twirl by the sea while an enigmatic female presence with her face covered shares the scene with a Rottweiler who, motionless like a sphinx, seems to question the observer directly. The image summarizes the poetics of the Marche-based author, a rising star of Italian photography and winner of the last edition of the Ghergo – Young Talent Award with the Primo Amore (First Love) series, to which the aforementioned shot belongs. The approach is that of staged photography, which means that reality is not “objectively” recorded or described, but built, staged, as in a theatrical or cinematographic performance.
Primo Amore is dedicated to Porto San Giorgio, the town where Monia Marchonni (Fermo, 1981) returned to live after some time away for study: “The project is the visionary narrative of my little town, but above all of the memory that I have of it and the way I perceive it. A place that I have now ‘recognized’ with an authentic and more mature outlook. Only with maturity do we come to look at the things we have always known from another perspective and rediscover them as unique. This is why I chose the title Primo Amore, because my first love was my sea, my village where it all began, where all my relationships started and still endure” explains Monia, answering my obvious question about the genesis of the title.
A long-term project developed over a period of time spanning two summers, that of 2019, a bathing season like countless others, and that of 2020 dominated by the pandemic. Far from the news or from a documenting intent, the images simply convey the difference in atmosphere of the two moments – empty spaces and solitude instead of lightheartedness – but refer to something else, following the thread of a completely personal narrative.
The inaccessible places of entertainment where the presence of a lifeguard seems to overturn reality have replaced the games on the sand, the empty boats have taken over the flights of kites, the relationships interrupted by the distancing are metaphorically re-tied in the braiding of hair. The beach, the sea, the context are always evoked, never described, they are a stage where feelings, emotions and suggestions meet up. There is plenty of photographs set in winter too, cloaked in a subtle and evanescent aura of mystery instead of the explosion of light and colors that pervades the shots of summer. The visual impact on the viewer is strong, sometimes alienating; the gaze is captured by scenes bordering on the surreal, the oneiric, however there is never a lack of irony which manages to accompany the surprise with a smile.
With extreme stylistic coherence, Monia Marchionni narrates visions and builds plots with many facets and an open ending, taking portions of reality, grasping its most unusual side, meticulously reconstructing the situation that she has conceived and intends to communicate. Set designer, director, storyteller, her photographic practice alternates and unites a whole series of roles and skills. Through her gaze, photography becomes a ductile tool for storytelling, capable of representing reality in a poetic way, open to symbols and metaphors.
Her encounter with photography took place during her honeymoon in Chile in 2014, when Monia took her camera with her, never to leave it again: Never Again the fog in the desert, a series that has received several awards, is her very personal tale of the Atacama desert, pervaded by the ghostly memory of the desaparecidos, victims of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. Sensations translated into rarefied images, hidden by fog, where the pain of women and mothers is recalled – and reconstructed, once again symbolically – through photographic representation. The artistic path of the Marche-based author, in fact, starts from contiguous fields yet different from photography: studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, a second degree in Literature and Philosophy, the choice to express herself through installations where to set sculptures. “A kind of language that was no longer enough for me. So I approached photography, a perfect way to achieve everything I have in mind. There are no people in an installation. It’s not real, it’s something you create and then take apart, while a photo contains a brief instant – real or imaginary – that has been experienced and that, thanks to a snapshot will exist forever.”
Monia continues: “I use photography to tell stories. When I am at a beach I don’t see a seaside or tourist resort, but a potential set for a story in which characters act. In a way, I create installations with people.”
The narrative follows intimate inspirations, but at the same time sketches a portrait of a territory, albeit filtered by what the imagination can see there. The preparation and implementation involve an entire community, in a virtuous circle of friends, relatives, acquaintances, collaborations, casual contacts, which often contribute to the success of the shot. Sometimes, the characters are awaited patiently and stubbornly, like the local fishermen who have agreed to impersonate themselves, in a poetic version, in the Pescatori di Stelle (Star Fishers) image.
The design is essential, the shots are preceded by inspections and studies, each idea is fixed in a sketch that serves as a canvas for the shooting phase: “I can’t move without sketches. Then, when the shot is taken, everything takes place in half an hour, an hour at the most, also because, photographing in natural light, I have to take into account its variations. And of other factors too. An example? The moon, which in a certain photograph was planned in a precise position and there it had to be.” Everything is defined, but nothing is immutable. The unexpected can break into the scene and if functional to the story, the photographer is quick to grasp it and integrate it into the composition: “Sometimes chance helps me and you have an unexpected factor.”
Currently, Monia Marchionni is working on the second chapter dedicated to Porto San Giorgio: after the sea, attention will focus on the town center of the ancient village and surrounding areas. The images will have the brown tones of the earth instead of the turquoise shades of the sea, but the approach will be identical. The challenge is to frame postcard- like places by transforming them into an unusual set for amazing stories. “I will need time, as usual, to take everything into the right account … because the extraordinary is always around the corner. After all, the beauty is perceiving the changing light and the passing seasons.”
It is not the first work dedicated by the photographer from Marche to her territory: Giaconi Editore has just published Fermo Visioni Extra Ordinarie, the book that collects the long-term project carried out, between 2016 and 2019, in Fermo, the birthplace of the author. A series in which, through historical sites, parks, palaces and libraries, we are taken on an itinerary to discover an unexpected town, with almost surreal traits.
Some themes and elements are recurring in Monia Marchionni’s photographs: stars, multicolored balls or hoops, elements caught mid-flight or characters located in an elevated position: “The suspended characters are dreamers” comments the author “representing them, it is a bit like talking about myself “. In Primo Amore there are also some self-portraits. Among the most evocative, the one that started the photographic series, taken at dawn on an autumn day, in which the author represents herself “like a fish out of water” in front of the fish market, beating heart of her little town.
All images: © Monia Marchionni
July 12, 2021