I probably should keep this to myself but it is a story I have to tell. In order to assure that I do not offend this friend of mine who is the subject of my story, I will disguise his name and refer to him as Giovanni, or Gio (I have given him this name because it sounds similar to that of his favorite artist Caravaggio). If you, Giovanni, happen to read what I have written here, I hope you will understand that I worship at the altar of literature like you worship at the altar of photography. I must feed these literary spirits with stories that need to be told, just like you must take pictures. It would be a sin for me to remain silent.
Giovanni is an artist whose medium is photography. He only takes photographs of his various body parts, which others and I have always thought to be a vain preoccupation. But like I said, he is an artist and some artists have vain predispositions. Unlike a lot of artists, Giovanni’s work has been published in various art magazines and he has had a few gallery shows in which he managed to sell a few things. However, Giovanni is still yet unable to escape from the ravages of that damming stereotype that haunts most artists- he is a starving artist. He starves more than any artist I know simply because he is fully committed to his craft and refuses to do anything else for pay.
At night Giovanni wonders the city streets with his camera under his arm like a gun that he will use to keep himself safe. He sits in bucolic cafes and writes in paper journals about his philosophy of art. He writes like a man who is writing a great philosophical treatise on the nature of the artist. From what I have read of his philosophy, I gather that Gio believes that the only thing an artist should pre-occupy him/herself with is the mystery of life. No television, movies, newspapers, books, friends, lovers or theatre should ever occupy more of an artist’s mind than the mystery of life itself. Since Gio feels as if he himself is the greatest mystery of all- “he himself” is his main subject. By pointing the lens of his camera upon his body, he is interrogating the nature of his material reality. He is asking the question, “What does it mean to be me?” and trying to make sense out of something that is impermanent (subject to the ravages of time) and unexplainable. This he believes is the ultimate purpose of his art.
This may also be the reason why he is poor. I try to explain to Giovanni that we are no longer living in Caravaggio’s time where an artist could be completely dedicated to his craft and still earn a meager living. We are aging men living in an age of technology, which demands that we learn how to compromise. Not many people are interested in buying photographs of an arm, foot, face, nipple, underarm, nose, eye, strand of hair, mouth and toe- I try to explain to him. However, he refuses to listen to reason. Gio is convinced that when he is long departed from this cruel world his work will greatly increase in value. “People will want a piece of me when I have crossed over into that other realm from which no one ever comes back,” he often explains. For now, Gio believes that living for his art is more meaningful than earning a living doing something he does not really want to do. But I understand that survival in our modern world costs money- so as a concerned friend, I was able to connect Giovanni with a gig as a wedding photographer.
The wedding was a good opportunity for Gio to make a few extra dollars, $375 to be exact. I knew that he desperately needed the money to pay his rent, buy some food and get a creditor off his back. I was also hopeful that this one gig as a wedding photographer could lean Giovanni towards other opportunities in the profession.
Instead, this may have been the final gig that Giovanni will ever get as a wedding photographer. Giovanni not only failed to get dressed up for the wedding (he wore a black t-shirt with a Salvador Dali print on it of three naked women dangling above a table) but he also managed to take photos of only himself during the entire wedding. He snapped photos of himself besides the bride and groom, besides various guests, in front of the Torah and with the Rabi (it was a Jewish wedding). He even took photographs of himself wearing nothing but his boxer shorts in the bathroom. At one point towards the end of the celebration, the bride’s father caught on to what Giovanni was doing. He approached Gio and pointed out that Giovanni was taking photographs of himself. The father of the bride became enraged and Gio yelled back, “I am a true artist and I do not compromise my artistic vision for anyone!” There was a few seconds of silence between them. The father of the bride was confused and caught off guard by Giovanni’s strange response. “But you have been hired as a wedding photographer?” the father replied. “Well then, I quit!” Gio screamed and walked out.
“How could you put me in such a situation?” was what I heard Giovanni drunkenly repeating on my answering machine later that evening. I knew something went terrible wrong. When I called him back he was drunk and enraged. I explained that I was only trying to help him out. “You have humiliated me not helped me! How could you? You know that I am an artist…. not a fucking wedding photographer!” Gio yelled. He repeated the word artist several times. “Okay Gio, but you need to eat, pay your rent and we live in a time that even the artist has to martyr themselves if they want to remain alive.” Giovanni then hung up on me.
I have probably made the mistake of making this too personal already. If I were absolutely certain that Giovanni would never read what I have written here I would tell you more. Some things are so sacred that not even the sword of a writer’s pen should offer these pieces of information up to the altar of literature. Like my grandmother often said in response to my constant need to say too much about myself, “some things are better left unsaid, my little babushka.” I will tell you this- I have not seen Giovanni in over three months and we have not spoken since that belligerent phone call. I have heard from a mutual friend that Giovanni no longer wants to speak with me. He is locked away in his studio, taking continuous pictures of himself, which he tapes all over his brick walls. He has only been seen in public once, and at that time I am told he looked frighteningly pale and thin. Even though I have written here about one man’s private madness, there is no question in my mind that Giovanni is right about one thing. Years after Gio is dead his photos will be studied by art historians, shown in galleries around the world and collected by the rich (such is the absurd nature of the world in which we live). It is my hope, that at this future time, what I have written here will be of some help.