When truth is told, so is fiction. A series of events described is both a recounting of facts and an act of imagination. How those events are spoken of; the order in which they are retold; the emphasis on particulars; the intonation of voice; the pauses in between, all are the work of fiction. The same is true of written words. Note the adjectives, the dashes and the commas, where the paragraphs begin and end. Truth and fiction, outer and inner, history and imagination, always pitted against each other in false dichotomies when in reality they live in the same house.
In photographs too, truth and fiction are inextricable, expressed quite beautifully in Angelo Vignali’s Flattened in Time and Space, a novel of vernacular images that dance patiently around the figure of his late grandfather, Concetto Drago, born in Sicily in 1921. In the elliptical postface, Vignali states that the photographs were in fact taken by him, his mother, friends and strangers over a lifetime, in Sicily, Tunisia and Venezuela. None of the photographs, however, are accompanied by captions. In Vignali’s book, each photograph’s history is irrelevant – not in the sense of lacking significance, but in the sense of possibility that emerges when those histories are reordered, unfettered by detail. With specifics erased, Vignali has been free to write and rewrite the story of his grandfather until he could remember with new coherence – a fiction for healing, built from truths.
Flattened in Time and Space arranges these gathered memories in five chapters, but the subject of each chapter is uncertain. At the start, aerial views of sprawling architecture precede entropic monuments, and they in turn cascade into arid hillsides, perpetual tarmac, motion-blurred landscapes and olive plantations. It is an inexplicable experience, knowing that these photographs are so disparate in origin, yet are coalesced here with such grace that I am utterly convinced by this story. Occasionally, if one looks closely, the patina of time is visible, yet only in relation to another photograph. On one page, two photographs look up at the same monastery taken from near-identical vantage points. One photograph looks older; the colours more faded, the image less clean. At the same time, there is a tree that is taller than in the other image. If that photograph is indeed older, would the tree not be younger? Accepting, perhaps even revelling in these perplexities, however, is necessary. Preoccupying your time with one photograph in Flattened in Time and Space is like repeating a word until it doesn’t make sense, its meaning and cadence only realised when you resume reading.
In Chapter 3, the book moves away from open skies and endless roads to wander through a town. It is as if the story slows down, proceeding with newfound patience. Even the dislocations in time seem less evident – the Fiats and Peugeots all look the same. I wonder what this place means to Vignali and its relation to his grandfather; why has he slowed his storytelling to meditate here? But Flattened in Time and Space was not written for an audience – it was a way for Vignali to heal and consign imagination to history. With this in mind, what are, for me, photographs of an anonymous town, are a reservoir of memories for Vignali. Yet that anonymity doesn’t render these photographs powerless. On the contrary, it is the knowledge of their purpose that makes them irrefutably poignant.
From here, Flattened in Time and Space enters the house Concetto built. Several diptychs appear as if they were taken moments or hours apart, prolonging the time we have in this private interior. The photographs step close to the details that make the house a home; unworn clothes, a calendar, a bedside clock, recently bought fruit, a moka pot left on the kitchen surface. They are deeply personal pages. It is also where I first glimpse Concetto, sitting in his bedroom, partially veiled by shadow. Whilst I can’t see his face, there is a photograph of him just outside of the room where I can, albeit a younger him. Past and another past yet again shoulder to shoulder.
It is only towards the end of Flattened in Time and Space that photographs of Concetto are laid bare. A man with an affinity for open shirts, round glasses and the sea, he is pictured both candid and posed; swimming, smiling, working and relaxing. As I have come to expect and relish, the photographs oscillate in time, unconcerned with linear narrative. It seems fitting that these photographs form the final paragraph of Vignali’s novel, a resounding finish with the protagonist at the centre of it all. And it feels apt that the last photograph is Concetto as a younger man, closer to Vignali’s age. Perhaps in doing so, Vignali could end at a point of near self-recognition, somewhere he could feel closest to his grandfather.
Flattened in Time and Space is a deliberate, elegant work of fiction, written through photographs of land and sun and water. Truth and fiction as tools of memory, put down when remembering makes sense.