Gianluca Cosci inverts Ansel Adams’ and Fay Godwin’s approach by using an extremely shallow depth of field in his series Panem et Circenses. Slivers of sharpness reference the effect of corporate power on the public experience of urban space.OCA Expressing Your Vision course folder p.48
Images shown on this blog post are from gianluca-cosci.com and are shown with kind permission of the artist (permission given 17.02.21).
Gianluca Cosci’s conceptual photographic series ‘Panem et Circenses’ intrigued me. The images firstly struck me as visually split into distinct composition types which are linked only by the ‘Slivers of sharpness…’ OCA Expressing Your Vision course folder p.48. However, the quote in the OCA course folder, I feel does not reference the images correctly due to the fact that while a selection of images do indeed show slivers of sharpness others show much more, an example of this contrast can be seen below.
My first impressions of the series brought to mind the phrase, ‘What a mixed bunch!’ Mixed not in content but visual likeness. A number of the images show recognisable content clearly, with certain areas in the picture plane that are out of focus, while other images are of an abstract quality where colour and texture are the key elements. Again this comparison can be seen in the above two images.
Reflecting on the content my response is very positive. At first observations I am purely looking at the images aesthetically and I can say that I really do like the content, the low viewpoints are exciting visually, and the chosen subject matter is interesting. That which makes the series engaging is the combination of different approaches that Cosci has taken which enables the viewer to perceive his concept in the differing styles of abstraction and form.
The composition and technique within these photographs work together to create visual interest. Although I am drawn to specific places within the picture plane, my eyes always end up looking at the background, intrigued to work out the hidden information, hidden because it is out of focus, a tease, the blurred part of the images scream out to me, “Here we are!’ and I want to know more. I want to know why they are there, what is the meaning of these parts of the images? and how together, do they form a concept?
On Cosci’s website, we look at the images with only knowledge of their title. The fact that there isn’t any accompanying text leaves the task of deciphering meaning to the viewer.
In fact in an interview, Cosci states that, ‘
K.B.: Going back to your website, Gianluca, how come there isn’t any accompanying text to your sets/projects on the site?? Is that that “doubt” thing again?
G.C.: I guess so… in reality I have to confess that I don’t like that much talking about my work as I feel like I’m spoiling it when I talk about it…
K.B.: So true! I agree! Besides, it’s nice to leave it open to the viewer’s own interpretations too, isn’t it?
G.C.: Absolutely! As Pasolini once said “Truth is that thing that you feel deep down, but as soon as you talk about it, it disappears”.Kevin Byrne interviews Gianluca Cosci. April 2016
gianluca-cosci.com (accessed 19.02.21)
As an artist, I find Cosci’s response quite unexpected. When an art or photographic work is deemed to be ‘conceptual’ and the viewer is left to interpret the works without any guidance, depending on how obvious the information is within the content of the work, the viewer may or may not, ‘get’ the true meaning that the practitioner is trying to convey. Conceptual artworks, personally for me, are ‘speakers’ of messages, eye-openers to a part of the world around us, the artist the story teller.
To interpret and appreciate the series Panem et Circensesas, the viewer really does need to have read the interview presented on his website and know the meaning behind the title phrase. It is within the interview that Cosci explains the context of his photography work as a whole and for this series. The title context however has to be researched further. By reading these two pieces of information we are able to begin to build a picture of Cosci’s concept and visual representation of this concept.
Below are two extracts from the interview that give the series Panem et Circenses context, in the form of information on how Cosci saw and experienced London as a visitor from rural le Marche region in Italy. The two opposing environments motivated Cosci to create images ‘…largely based on that feeling of being an outsider, an alien who observes things from a distance, unseen.’
The Meaning Behind the Title
Panem et Circensesas
The title for Cisco’s series is important. It connects the visual representations of his images to the concept which is political.
Panem et Circensesas is the Latin phrase translated meaning “bread and games”. It was written by the poet and writer Juvenal who lived during the Roman Empire. During this period the public were kept pleased and pacified by entertainment in arenas with chariot racing, theatre, gladiator fighting, exotic wild animal shows, animals fighting each other or being hunted, as well as criminals being thrown to them alive. Other entertainments were celebrations such as birthdays and victory achievements. These forms of entertainment were a way for those in power and the wealthy to gain popularity with the people.
I believe Cosci is associating Roman politics and their use of arenas to manipulate the people, with Tony Blair’s Millennium Dome construction and the politics of the day. Is Cosci saying that Blair built the Dome which is now known as the O2, as a way of moving forwards politically and gaining the support of the British people? In the interview Cosci actually discusses how the photographs were around the Millennium Dome which were all ‘no man’s land.’ My mum actually worked on the site while the Dome was being built and it was a wasteland with toxic waste hidden beneath, she had to be suited up in white protection clothing and boots to work on the site.
Cosci states ‘It was Blair’s vanity project to boost his image as “presidential” prime minister’ and that it was built at a time when Blair was declaring war on Iraq. Therefore like the Romans, Blair was keeping the people in his influence and control by creating the Millennium Dome, the arena of entertainment, with hopes to counteract the negative impact of the probability of going to war. In other words the Millenium Dome was a political way of managing the population views on his actions.
If my conclusion for Cosci’s concept is correct then how does the visual language interpret this? What is the narrative connections with such clues as low viewpoints, trash, focus and unfocused areas within the picture plane?
The Visual Narrative
Technique: Cosci uses a shallow depth of field which allows him to choose to keep some of his picture plane in focus while everything else is out of focus. By choosing a focus point and keeping it sharp while the surrounding composition is blurred, Cosci is drawing our attention in. I feel however that in his images the blurred background is just as important as that which is in focus, the two work together, because it makes the viewer study the relationship between the two sections which in turn makes you think of the content and encourages you to ask questions of it.
Using the technique to add blur to the image adds both visual and conceptual depth strengthening the concept of distance between the two distinct parts of the picture plane.
Visual Content: The content within the images are buildings, barriers, walls, weeds, dead leaves, peanuts, light, seats, bridges, pavement, street signs, cigarette butts and the usual dust and dirt found on the floor. I am not one hundred percent sure but I think two of the images have the Houses of Parliament in them, one with Winston Churchill’s statue and one shot has the Millennium Bridge within it. The reason I believe that the Houses of Parliament and the Millennium Bridge are within the images is because I know the areas very well because I hang out within them with my own camera.
Viewpoint: The viewpoint within the images is ground level which is the lowest viewpoint that we can achieve. By shooting at this viewpoint Cosci has achieved two things. Firstly he is emphasising a view that the viewer is not use to which will interest them and encourage a longer look around the image for details, and secondly, and most importantly, the low viewpoint symbolises the feeling of being dominated. The viewer is in a vulnerable position, low with the feeling of the power of the surrounding elements baring down on them.
Colour: Although there are a few natural coloured images there are also some that look like they have had a blue tint applied to them. I believe the colours are how they have been shot in camera and do not symbolise anything in particular connected with the context or concept of the series.
Concept: Panem et Circenses – If we take all of the evidence from the above we have a very good inclination of Cosci’s concept for his series. I say inclination because apart from the visual information within the images, the series title and the interview which can be found on his website, all deductions are on my behalf have been worked out by extra research and my intuition.
On Cosci’s Panem Et Circenses page on his website, he has written,
Panem Et Circenses
I think my work has a certain political atmosphere, even though, perhaps, it is not immediately detectable. I try to put the same emphasis on both the subject of my photographs and the way in which it is photographed.
I am interested in the point of view of the excluded, the marginalised. Often one is forced to have only restricted views, in awkward positions, difficult to maintain. Nevertheless we could take advantage of this apparent fault to observe and understand things in a different, unexpected way.Gianluca Cosci, 2006
In conclusion I believe that the series Panem Et Circenses is a political statement about two opposing statuses in society. We have the title meaning and The Houses of Parliament within the images which relate to the Government and politics. The Millennium Dome and the Millennium Bridge both grand and overly expensive gestures paid for by the Government and constructed for public use, gifted to the public to win favour, a means to win votes and ways to take away the attention from other main focuses, for instance Blair’s Iraq war.
The viewer’s eye level is forced ‘low’ and the man-made buildings and constructions of notability are representing wealth and the Government, these areas in the picture plane are towering above the eye level.
By taking the photographs at a low view point, Cosci puts the viewer in a vulnerable position. Looking into the image the viewer is towered over by buildings or surrounded by trash and weeds, fences and walls. The buildings and bridges suggest wealth and politics both of which are power symbols. Fences, walls and barriers make us question our safety and we ask, are we being fenced in or out for our protection? or to keep us segregated from those with higher statuses and authority?
If we also view what is found in the foreground the weeds and trash, the desolation and abandonment and the pavement slabs which reach out to the blurred buildings, we are made to feel dirty and worthless and the buildings beyond our reach. We aren’t even allowed to see the buildings with sharpness and clarity we are kept blinded from the other life, segregated and unable to step into their world.
I enjoyed looking into this series especially as deciphering the concept was a little like becoming Sherlock Holmes for the week and trying to work out possible messages within the images from the visual clues, the title and the little text available on the website. Whether I have stumbled on Cosci’s intentional concept of not, I do not think matters. I have had pleasure looking at the images and researching the series title and in the end I am happy with how I perceive Gianluca Cosci’s Panem Et Circenses.
Terry Barrett states,
Images attract multiple interpretations, and it is not the goal of interpretation to arrive at single, grand, unified, composite interpretations.
… One interpretation shows us this aspect of the work of art, while another shows us that aspect.Barrett, T. (2010:159) Principles for interpreting photographs in The weight of photography
- Barrett, T. Swimmer, J. and Deneulin, L. (2010) The weight of photography: photography history theory and criticism. Brussels: ASP
- Cosci, G. website https://www.gianluca-cosci.com/panem-et-circenses (accessed Feb 2021)
- The Free Dictionary https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Panem+et+circenses (accessed 19.02.21)