The Real-Fake Photographs of Olivo Barbieri

Since the late 1970s, Italian photographer Olivo Barbieri has been producing pictures that confound perception—some of these images he manipulates, others only appear to have been altered. Perception, in fact, is a driving force for the artist, who has been seeking to deconstruct and question how we see since he first pointed his camera out at the world, and took a shot. Through November 15, a retrospective at Rome’s Museo Nazionale Delle Arti Del XXI Secolo (MAXXI) takes a long look at Barbieri’s prolific career and traces the development of his imagery since 1978.

It is eye-opening to compare his earliest works with his most recent ones and to realize that his vision has remained remarkably consistent. As his photographs from the early ’80s attest, Barbieri has always had an exquisite and mischievous sense of the power of the camera’s frame and the effects of light on film. With his deft cropping and focusing, he makes the ordinary seem strange.

Among his best known series, one in which he makes the real look fake, is “Site Specific,” which he began in 2003. Consisting of photographs and related films, this epic project takes viewers on a romp around the world’s major cities—including New York, Rome, London, Tel Aviv, and Bangkok—all of which appear miniaturized, filled with dollhouse buildings and minuscule pedestrians.

Barbieri achieves this effect with the help of a helicopter, which allows him to hover like a bird over each city. From this vantage, he chooses a single building, monument, or other distinctive urban feature, upon which he selectively focuses, leaving the rest of its surroundings blurred. This effectively throws off perspective and largely eliminates a sense of depth, making these otherwise unaltered photographs look entirely unreal. This is just as the artist would have it. As he has claimed: “I’ve never been interested in photography, but rather images. I believe my work begins where photography ends.”

He achieves this effect with the help of a helicopter, which allows him to hover like a bird over each city. From this vantage, he chooses a single building, monument, or other distinctive urban feature, upon which he selectively focuses, leaving the rest of its surroundings blurred. This effectively throws off perspective and largely eliminates a sense of depth, making these otherwise unaltered photographs look entirely unreal. This is just as the artist would have it. As he claims: “I’ve never been interested in photography, but rather images. I believe my work begins where photography ends.”

Karen Kedmey


Discover more artists at Yancey Richardson Gallery.