artist's book, Book Reviews, History of the Book

Bruno Munari and Photo-Reportage

Have you read Bruno Munari’s Photo-Reportage?  I discovered this book awhile ago quite by chance.  Sometime when traveling, somewhere on a bookstore table, I’m not even sure what made me pick it up.  And then I read it and didn’t know how I hadn’t known about it before—a book not particularly about artists’ books, but all about artists’ books.  I’m reading it again while I sit on an airplane, beside a window that has a large oval  whorl of stress cracks etched into it.  Apparently everything must have a fingerprint nowadays.

“Photo-reportage,” Munari declares, “is a means of expressing oneself more through images than words. The images can be sculpted, drawn, or photographed, the medium isn’t important. The urgent needs of modern publication have turned the cameraman’s chisel into a camera. In the past, to see the story narrated on the Trajan Column, everyone had to go to  Rome. Nowadays that column has become a roll of negative of which the most distant reader can receive a copy at home.”

What are the important words in the above paragraph?

I maintain they are “more” in the first sentence, and “cameraman’s” in the third.

Let us begin with the latter. What can Munari possibly mean about turning the cameraman’s chisel into a camera?   When was the chisel ever the tool of the cameraman?  Why, when the cameraman was a Roman sculptor, of course!  With this simple description, Munari has positioned the photographer in a long lineage of art-makers, the term cameraman inter-changeable with the term artist.  It is 1944 and Munari has subtly and cleverly bypassed the strained, defensive whining of the underdog photographers vying for a place in art world, and simply written as though it is so (something the book art world could learn from). This is not a book defending photography as art, it is a book on how photographic images work their artist magic.

But that, in fact, is a misleading statement, which brings us back to the first important word in Munari’s paragraph: “more.”  I haven’t really yet explained what this book is about.  To read Munari’s preface, one would believe it to be all about images, but he then proceeds to create a book where the words are integrally intertwined with the image experience and critically important to their meaning.  Which is what makes this books so interesting for book artists.  “More.”  More about images, but not just about images.  The force of the “more” comes in large part from the way in which images come first in Munari’s story-telling. First in time, though not necessarily in importance.  Photo-reportage is all about telling stories based on pictures – stories which, despite the implications of the term “reportage,” are completely made up (Munari sprinkles the book with parenthetical comments that “its not true”).  These are fanciful imaginings, written as though they were factual descriptions. The truth lies not in fact but in the meaning that can be drawn out of the images. Munari appropriates pictures and finds in them not the obvious story but surprising non sequiturs; stories that come more from the artist’s internal thoughts than the pedantic world of everyday occurrences.

Photo-Reportage acts partly as a treatise on art, partly as an exposition of a way to think about images, as well as an interesting example of how to weave together multiple narratives though textual hooks.  Each story begins where the last left off, though never as simple sequential follower. There is much more to be said about it, but you can see for yourself since it has been reprinted again. Photo-Reportage: From the Island of Truffles to the Kingdom of Misunderstandings.