Book Review : Charles Traub: Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980s
By LYNN MALISZEWSKI, May 2014
I can admit I have no first-hand experience of Italy in the early 1980s. My mental impression of the pedestrial mass is nostalgic, transplanting me to four days I spent there in high school. As a sixteen-year-old, Florence was a terrain like I'd never seen. I became obsessed with the landscape, with absorbing the glistening marble at every turn and the crusty vineyards we ventured to explore. Finding Charles Traub's Italy in La Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980s, a recent release of photographs commemorating sojourns to Italy in the 1980s, makes me wish I wasn't so predictably intrigued by the flowing wine and satisfied urges of rebellion. Traub's dreamy impressions render a national temperament that finds little more than texture in the inanimate surroundings. He departs from the cultural and historical capital, turning his lens upon the souls who stuck it out through the Years of Lead. His treks between Milan and Cosenza, Rome and Venice, pulse with sensuality that is a screen upon which larger dynamics are projected. The quarter-century following World War II was especially kind to Italy, submerging tourist and native alike in leisure. When consumerism and class distinction rammed horns, the likes of several political parties began to spar for social and political superiority.
The photographs featured in the series emerge from 1980—the height of Italy's thirst for blood. This may account for the sound-stage desolation of a majority of his scenes, where the romanticism of an open promenade around the Trevi Fountain or vacant steps on the Cathedral of Siena sculpt contemplative spaces. Fountains emerge with regularity, imparting an angelic silence to the sitters he finds reading, bathing, sunning, and napping. Skewed cropping draws further attention to the disorientation of the scene, where the closed eyes are only the beginning of these impenetrable portraits. Any sexual charge radiating off his subjects, whether is be a seductive shoulder or well-kept apple-bottom, are organic.
His full-body portraits of adolescents, although more traditional, possess similar contradictions. They exude an outward maturity that oxidizes into poised, elegant sexuality. Traub's compositions are quirky, his emphasis on this sexuality distilled. Two tweens in Venice, dressed nearly completely in red mid-bite on their respective ice-cream cones, have an aged air that melds with the comedy of a visualization they probably don't know the mechanics of (yet).
The balance between sensuality and eroticism is a visual theme that heavily populates this series. Photographs that harp upon the stereotyped affections of Italians are more bologna than prosciutto in the first half of the publication. Couples kissing in parks or on benches are anti-climactic, giving an insight into the natives' caves of coitus that doesn't translate well. His recurring depiction of bums and backs, however, contradict the seamless perfection of the marble magnates and Madonnas.
They are total spank-bank material. His subjects' bodies are clumsy, human. A sprawled nude female on the beach in Ostia looks like she could have been dropped from a UFO, undiscovered by passersby as Traub patiently awaits her mythical revival. He mocks Italy's sculptures and facades with his own definitions of perfection, of desire and strength. His color-coordination is a sneer in the face of the monochrome tradition in the plastic arts.
Often preconceived as lazy and uninspiring, Traub uses this Minimalist ploy and reinvigorates it with motion and action. From a quick flip through this publication, one may infer that Italians dressed exclusively in primary colors. A bevy of young boys who grip the side of a dingy in Naples are literally swimming in blue. Beautiful ladies in yellow dresses abound, and entire red ensembles can be found outside bars and beside water banks. This serves predominantly as slapstick comedy, confirming that Europeans adore dressing in head-to-toe color, rather than a serendipitous indication that everyone is on the same page.
Traveling around a somewhat dangerous country (at the time) requires a flexibility and humor that seeps out of Traub's imagery. Little old ladies near Milan are perhaps the most metropolitan individuals in the book, toting cameras that they flip on him. The elderly hold court or mirror Traub's enthusiasm for observing their precocious surroundings. They exude quiet pride and interest in his photographing them. He does not pit old versus young but rather male versus female with his photographs.
Although several predictable glamour shots of stunning women shopping or smoking occupy the pages, the females he captures have a general disinterest in being photographed. The men, on the other hand, exude vanity and skepticism simultaneously. Be it pride or suspicion, there are several street scenes where a single male can be found peering directly into Traub's soul out of the corner of his eye. In a moment where national wealth facilitated the torturing of political and innocent natives, these side glances express a healthy suspicion of documentation.
Despite the authority of the men in the primes of their lives and a cavalier confidence among the youth, the men no doubt encapsulate a sensuality that trumps that of the ladies. Traub certainly appreciates the curvature of the female form, in several shots seen from behind as they bend over toward itchy ankles, but the men are effortlessly seductive. The sway of an older man's hips peering across the bridges in Florence, the shirtless men fresh off the beach, the teen boys in Speedos— all are worthy competition for the glorified Venus.
Traub's strongest work in this series focuses on continence, on how people hold themselves. The necessary mentions of consumerism and economic cash-cow tourist centers are as boring as the filler romantic shots. They feel as drab as his interest in capturing them. One can see, however, that the young are adapting to these toxins and redefining themselves as such.
By placing importance on body language rather than traditional portraiture for this series, Traub emphasizes the national evolution in collective consciousness rather than fetishizing horror stories or fabricated projections. He captures the dynamics of a nation struggling to reclaim its sanity that cannot help but covet the glamour of the past. Like the individuals that hold his fascination, however, sometimes not knowing all the details makes something more desirable than anything else.