Sabrina Caramanico: From Darkness

Words: Dean Brierly

A similar aesthetic informs the visual terrain of Italian photographer Sabrina Caramanico, who was born in 1985 in a town between the mountains of Abruzzo. The rural region in which she grew up and where she still lives could easily serve the location needs of a darkly beguiling horror film. Mountainous and forested, dotted with medieval castles and abandoned villages, alive with the events and spirits of the past, the area has always been a fertile source of inspiration. “The nature and melancholy of these places have greatly influenced my way of seeing things,” she says.

Caramanico began taking pictures as child with a camera given to her by her sister, impelled by an urge to “record everything.” She began studying photography seriously at 18. Her fascination with the natural environment around her initially led her to study geology, but the allure of photography proved stronger, and at 22 she made the decision to dedicate herself entirely to the medium. Yet her geological knowledge, eye for detail and passion for the natural world is evident in all of her images.

Her earliest memory related to photography was of coming face to face with a strange tree in a forest, but she is uncertain whether this actually took place or occurred in a dream. In a very real sense, it doesn’t matter. In fact, the ambiguity is wholly appropriate. The imagery for which Caramanico is becoming known is poised—visually, emotionally and otherwise—between dreams and reality. Indeed, her dreams, as well as her nightmares, provide ongoing creative stimulus. Of course, artists have long explored and exploited the power and mystery of their dreams, but few succeed as effectively—and unnervingly—as Caramanico. She uses photography to not only help exorcise her fears and visions, but to also express her emotions, connect with childhood memories and explore different aspects of her character in her many self-portraits. “The camera becomes a sort of mirror in which I compare and observe myself,” she says. “It becomes the best analyst to address some moods or special moments of my life.”

Though Caramanico’s work is dark and melancholic, its tone never becomes oppressive, and darkness alone does not define it. Even her eeriest, most disquieting images are imbued with an unforced, unsentimental, yet deeply felt romanticism. And they are often underlined with a sense of ironic humor and/or a touch of surrealism. The spirits of Buñuel, Cocteau and Carroll seem always to be hovering on the periphery of the frame.

Dark fears. Dark beauty. For Caramanico, there is often no distinction. There is a dark-light duality in everything and everyone she photographs. Alternatively, one can describe the effect she creates as a kind of push-pull dynamic. Consider the image “Boogeyman,” with its disembodied hands thrusting palms outward from a wall of dense shrubbery. The hands’ message could be: “Keep out, here lies danger.” Equally, it could mean: “Come into my parlor.” Like a character in a slasher film, we know we shouldn’t go near, but, of course, our curiosity will inevitably get the better of us.

The hands in this image also seem to imbue the shrub with a near-human quality. Caramanico often applies this anthropomorphic tendency to other woodland elements: bare trees that reach towards the sky, trunks and limbs twisted and gnarled, bending towards one another as if exchanging whispered confidences. She finds trees particularly eloquent, and has an ongoing series titled Silent Trees. For her, trees represent a profound duality, uniting the worlds of light and life (their above-ground existence) and unseen darkness (their extensive below-ground roots). She finds her own inner journey of self-analysis reflected in their solitude and isolation.

Such is the expressive power of her vision that even a woodpile seems more animate than inanimate in the photograph “Centipede,” in which the blunt ends of the logs protrude alarmingly out of the darkness like so many appendages. The image is rendered even more unnerving via the ghostly image of a girl standing before the stacked logs, her double-exposed figure giving her two sets of arms and legs. The visual doubling enables the girl to simultaneously clutch to her abdomen and proffer a bouquet of what appears to be dead flowers. (Push-pull again.) The doubling also speaks to the light-dark duality of human nature that she finds eternally fascinating. “There is always a comparison with our double; the good part or the bad part remains there in silence,” Caraminaco says. “I like to interpret this concept in the double exposures.”

Animals and insects also loom large in Caramanico’s ouevre. She is fascinated by their forms, their mentality, their behavior, and takes care to represent their duality and complexity. A state of unity between the human and avian kingdoms is suggested in the images “Bird” and “Owl,” yet one can sense a certain anxiety within the birds at the admittedly benign restraint of the hands holding them. Their patience and forbearance is granted reluctantly, one feels; the mood is delicate and fleeting, and will likely give way to the fierce independence on display in “Fly” as soon as those hands give release.

The creatures in “Ribs and moth” and “Snails,” in contrast, seem far more placid and complacent in their contact with Homo sapiens, and are in no hurry to flutter or crawl away. Insects are often used in films to inspire feelings of horror and revulsion (Dario Argento’s 1985 chiller Phenomena, for example), yet these reactions typically result from a lack of knowledge and familiarity on our part. For her part, Caramanico loves insects. She believes them to be possessed of something resembling our “soul,” and delights in rendering them poetically as well as morphologically. In the world conjured by her photographs, a state of symbiosis obtains between human, animal, plant and insect. “I’m attracted to all kinds of subjects; I make no distinction. I’m attracted to everything that fascinates, everything that’s possessed of a special quality.”

Self-taught, Caramanico easily swings back and forth between digital and analog. For the latter, she uses a Holga and old Nikon of her father’s. “Analog is a world apart; I love it. It makes you hold your breath before you click the shutter. Digital is more immediate. It’s just a matter of choice.” Image tone is also left to intuition. “Black and white and color have different communication channels and present different kinds of visions,” she says. “I make the decision while looking through the viewfinder before taking the picture. Black and white, of course, is much more mysterious, and I love it just for this reason.”

While Caramanico’s commercial work (she shoots portraits, weddings, rock bands) is highly polished and professional (while still reflecting her personality), in her personal imagery, she often allows uneven contrast, dust spots and other visual “flaws” to infiltrate her prints for atmosphere and effect. In horror trope photographs like “Shivers” and “Are you afraid of the dark?”—with their dead-eyed and faceless zombie-like protagonists—the visual detritus scattered across the image surface adds to an ominous feeling of fleshly decay and apocalyptic imminence. Caramanico, with admirable restraint, doesn’t insist on such readings, saying simply, “I find the imperfections most interesting.”

So while the abandoned tricycle on a deserted country lane in the photograph “Shining” (doubtless an homage to Kubrick’s famous film) may prompt us to speculate that Danny Torrance has finally heeded the call of the ghostly Grady twins to come and play with them—forever—he may in fact just be out having an enigmatic encounter with a tree as Caramanico did in her childhood. The ambiguity and strength of her images resides in their open-ended narrative possibilities, where darkness can be threat or comfort, or sometimes an enigmatic synthesis of both.

“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”
—Alice Walker

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