Alex Majoli’s Opera Aperta – The Brooklyn Rail
Whether covering everyday moments or humanitarian emergencies, Alex Majoli, longtime photojournalist and member of the Magnum Photos collective, has an aesthetic signature: to use powerful artificial lighting outdoors. This creates stark graphic contrasts that imbue his images with an epic feel despite being anchored in realism.
Penultimate Majoli project to date, Scene, was a 2019 publication and exhibition (by MACK Books and at Le Bal in Paris, respectively) that brought together photographic images taken over eight years across Europe, Asia, Brazil and the Congo. In Majoli’s new work, Opera Aperta—A composite project commissioned by the Fondazione I Teatri in Reggio Emilia — it incorporates ideas about performance and the pandemic into a narrative that artfully straddles realism and symbolic exaggeration. Majoli acknowledged that, even as a photojournalist covering “real” events, performativity is a factor in his work. There is a propensity among photojournalists and image editors to select images with intensified facial and body language as a means of magnifying socio-political situations. Majoli points out that reporting always contains subjectivity, which makes storytelling difficult to differentiate from non-fiction. This ambiguity reflects the status quo of our time: disbelief of the facts, a sense of spectacle instead of truth, and rapid shifts like a whiplash in how to frame the information we have received.
Opera Aperta, translated as “Open Work”, verifies the name of the show troupe that Majoli presents in the book. It’s also the name of a 1962 essay book by Umberto Eco, in which he argues for an open approach to storytelling – a concept that Majoli’s unconventional portfolio of unrelated images honors, thematically and formally. Opera Aperta has multiple components at different scales, functioning as a mine of documents rather than a traditional tidy tome, the various elements of which are all wrapped in a cardboard envelope. The bulky format requires conceptual engagement and a lot of leeway, as its deconstructed design, imagined by Silvia Castagnoli, makes it fragile and unorthodox to handle and navigate. it takes place asymmetrically: half archive to decipher, half labyrinthine paper sculpture experienced as an upside down origami.
Opera Aperta began when Majoli started working with two Italian actors, photographing them as they improvise amidst the cityscape. When COVID-19 disrupted the project, Majoli pivoted to chronicle his ravaged native Italy. The actors that Majoli collaborated with finally started rehearsing The Barber of Seville to distribute the production online. The performance was no longer just a symbol but a literal frame, as Majoli photographed characters on and off stage.
Out of respect for the theme of the theater, Majoli structured the work into three acts (which are labeled as such and physically distinct), in addition to separate zine-like publications interweaving visuals and texts (such as academic writings on the French playwright d ‘avant-garde Antonin Artaud). “Act I” brings together oversized black and white horizontal images (in a tone that critic David Campany has described as seemingly defined “at the end of the sunless day”): dark figures in alleys, in interiors stilted, on slabs of rock. Each image is discreetly marked with a “#Scene” number at the bottom, apparently without a timeline. “Act II” takes the form of a magazine-type publication on matte paper, easy to flip through and with more continuous character study. In “Act III”, the oversized horizontal format of “Act I” returns, with a set of images in which Majoli stages a scene of a bedridden patient crowded with doctors in protective gear – a dystopian trope that has become the norm. 21st century pandemic. (Although here the patients wear stage costumes.) “Act III” ends with a text by Confessions of Saint Augustine, third book (Le Confessioni di Sant’Agostino, Libro terzo). The theologian asks: “Why does a person wish to experience suffering by witnessing painful and tragic events that he himself would not wish to endure?” It is a reflection on the role of the witness, in turn parallel to the role of the photojournalist – and to any spectator of the work of photojournalists. Why do we watch – and even sometimes willfully pursue – sadness beyond our own?
In the middle of all the folds of Opera Aperta is a unique leaflet, a xerox of pages from Bertolt Brecht’s book Poems from the Crisis Years, 1929-1933. These lines seem to have a partial answer to the above question: “to visit some time / At this theater whose setting is the street.” / The everyday, a thousand times, without glory / But alive. This seems to be Majoli’s modus operandi: to give visibility to subjects “without fame” and to make their realities as “alive” as those of anyone else. It permeates these scenes of grandeur, prompting the viewer to take a more thoughtful look at difficult circumstances.