The Slow Movement and Flat Film

Editor’s note: Carl Honoré spoke about the Slow Movement at PopTech 2007—watch his talk for more background on how slow creates meaning and happiness.

I first knew Douglas Gayeton as the creator of Molotov Alva, the digital avatar who explored the meaning of life in Second Life. Now, some three years later, Gayeton is pushing the boundaries of multimedia and interactivity once more, but this time in a distinctly un-digital context. With SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, his first book, Gayeton introduces the people of Pistoia and their progressively rare, digitally unfettered way of life in rural Italy—which emerged from a year Gayeton spent five years ago in Pistoia. But Slow also marks the debut of a new and richly engaging, journalistic form of remix storytelling—a kind that merges the organic and synthetic and turns a photographic moment of time into an image that contains a fuller story.

Using what he calls “flat film” techniques, Gayeton layers most of his portraits of Pistoia with his own, handwritten notes, anecdotes, recipes, quotes, and historical facts, bringing context and color to each. Each image from his time in Pistoia is actually comprised of multiple photographs taken over the course of time, from 10 minutes to several hours.

Gayeton explains his technique:

Gayeton cover

I caught up with Gayeton during a book-signing for Slow in New York earlier this week. Here’s an edited version of my interview with him:

What was the genesis for Slow and for the flat film technique you used to make it?

It was really something that happened by chance. I began to make photographs of the people in my town and the first few of them were for PBS, which ended up on a Web project that PBS did that won a Webby a few years ago. And after I did the first four of them for PBS, I kept on going. The basic principles that I used for the photographs were born out of the fact that I’m a filmmaker and not a photographer. What you do as a filmmaker is tell stories – stories that have beginnings and middles and ends.

I was never really attracted to photography because photography is, really, just a moment in time that is frozen and I wanted to get so much more into a photograph. I also felt the mechanism of the photograph, the camera, was too small to capture all that I could see when I saw the world in front of me. So I approached this project interested in two things at the same time: one, trying to introduce time into a photograph, and two, trying to find a way to express something as visually vast as the world that I would see before my eyes.

The first time I tried to put that theory into practice, I found myself at a Sunday lunch in Pistoia; I took about 500 photographs during the course of a three-hour lunch, and afterwards, I looked at all of the people who had been there, the matriarch of the family and her children. And for each person, I found a photograph that captured my memory of them during lunch that day and then took each of those photos and combined them to make a simple photograph, one that ended up being three feet long and two feet tall. And I then began to write on top of it, the most memorable things they had said that day.

I was drawn to a lot of narrative strategies that are employed in pre-Renaissance art, the idea of the saint having rays of light coming out of his head or the stigmata, the blood lines coming out of the palms of someone’s hands, or the date of the saints’ birth being written across his chest. So I took all of these narrative notions I’d seen in pre-Renaissance art and I applied them to the photograph. And when I was done, I looked at the photograph and I thought that this would be the way you could actually create a film in the course of a photograph. I think this is a way to graphically represent three hours in the course of the life of a family on a Sunday afternoon.

What happened next?

After I did the first photograph, I realized I had processed a way to introduce a filmmaker’s story into a single image and from that, my journey began, really, in earnest. For the next five years, I continued to document the people of this town. Initially, I was just writing their stories (but then) one of the people I’d photographed used an old Tuscan saying to describe the narrative they were reading in the finished piece and I realized this Tuscan saying perfectly described the photograph that I’d made with them. And from that moment on, every photograph in the book has a large caption written across it which is an old Tuscan saying — and which, when translated, explains what you’re looking at. At the heart of this approach is a desire to tell people’s stories in their own words and to decode what you’re seeing in an image. I think these Tuscan sayings bring it all together.

You mention your inspiration from pre-Renaissance art but this work also has a feeling of multimedia, of links and of meta-data available in a single view. Did you have Internet technology in mind when you worked on this format?

Sadly, I’m not very technical person. I wish I were more technical, because the work would certainly have taken another interesting direction, perhaps. But one of the things about the work from the very, very beginning was that all the writing was done on layers of Plexiglas that would be placed in front of the image, three layers, so that when you’d actually look at the photographs, all the words would seem to be floating in space. I used that approach because I am really interested in the relationship between different ideas and to create this movement from one idea to another.

That sense of spatiality is also the hallmark of hybrid storytelling that we see in new media, where a narrative has a beginning, middle, and end but is deconstructed by the new media maker and left to the audience to piece it together. In a way, these photographs function the same way. There’s no correct order to them in a linear sense but collectively, all of the stories and anecdotal data in these images, collectively tell a story. You have an experiential relationship with the photograph because you are putting that information together in a different way than might someone else who would look at the same photograph.

Why this town?

I was living there at end of 90s. I bought a place there and restored it and then continued to live there for the next five years. When I moved there, I didn’t know anyone in the town but by the end of my time there, I was really integrated and very much a part of the community.

You mention in the book that this is a way of life that is fading.

There’s this fear that there is a lot of peasant knowledge around the world, not only in Italy. Certainly, this is not just an Italian story or a Tuscan story but a story we are witnessing around the world. It’s the idea that there are certain cultural aspects of lives that are under assault; that are disappearing as people lead increasingly urban or industrial lives, and as they become distanced from their agrarian roots. And so certainly there is a theme that runs through the book, this idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is in danger of being lost, possibly forever.

But at the same time, a reviewer recently commented that this book is about the lost arts. Actually, though, it’s really a book of the almost lost arts, because I think what we are witnessing now is that people are returning and reclaiming the knowledge that’s been lost. It’s definitely the case in the United States. We live in a country primarily of immigrants. In my case, my mother came from Spain and on my father’s side, my grandparents came from Italy, and there was a great fundamental need to assimilate, to become part of the American culture, and that meant leaving the language and leaving all of the cultural touch points behind. So I didn’t find myself being raised as a person with strong connections to Spain or to connections to my family in Italy because there was such a strong desire to become part of this new country.

So the result of this was that I was completely cut off from the cultural traditions of my family. So for me, the book gave me an ability to reclaim what had been lost. What I’m seeing as I travel with this book across the country is that my story is not unique. I think people all over feel a disconnection from their culture that is their past and now understand the importance of reconnecting to it – and not only to the culture of their past but to the culture all around them. I think people want now to be more connected to the land, to the food chain, to the things from which they are increasingly divorced as they live increasingly urban lifestyles.

You have expressed great interest in the Slow Food movement. Is that where the title of this book originated?

The book began as an exploration of what the slow food movement meant. The movement began in 1980s, in Rome, after McDonald’s put in its first restaurant right near the Spanish Steps in Rome. And Italians, rightfully so, realized they were now under cultural assault, that the introduction of American fast food culture in Italy could be disastrous to the national identity. So the slow food movement was an attempt to protect a lot of aspects of indigenous culture tied to food and now it’s a movement in more than 100 countries around the world. It has also taken hold in the United States, primarily with Alice Waters as its major spokesperson.

This past year, slow food had its first really big event, Slow Food Nation, in San Francisco. Its founders gathered 50 or 60 of the photographs in this book and showed them there. Alice Waters wrote the introduction to this book and the founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, wrote the preface.

What next?

I’ve always been interested in merging the organic and synthetic and that’s always been my greatest interest and I will continue trying to find more ways to bring those two together. I’m very interested in areas of sustainability and my next book will be a continuation of the themes of Slow and the lexicon of sustainability.

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