In late 2020, American photographer Mike Slack began new body of work about Milan and the difficult and dramatic period of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-21. In collaboration with Micamera , Slack explored, and will continue to explore, the city and its environs on foot, working within the constraints of current lockdown mandates and health protocols, seeking out poetic details as well as echoes of the well-known history of plague in the city. The photographs will be made across several seasons of the year: begun in the winter of December 2020/January 2021, they will continue in the spring/summer and autumn of 2021, and will ultimately take the form of an artist book, exhibition, and workshop.
The primary inspiration for the project — the thematic focus of Slack’s exploration — is Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century novel I Promessi Sposi, the essential Italian literary work of which 2021 celebrates the bicentennial, set against the backdrop of the Spanish occupation and the harrowing 17th century Milan plague, which Manzoni describes in extraordinary detail near the end of the book. The uncanny resonance of this classic story as the catastrophic 2020 contagion overtook Milan has been widely cited by critics and journalists, and the parallels between the impact (and mismanagement) of the plague on the city then and now are readily apparent, but the novel has yet to be mined as inspiration for visual art. Slack takes a loose and indirect (non-journalistic) approach to this task, using the locations, minor details and major themes of Manzoni’s text as a starting point for investigating the city at ground level and collecting images that depict the ambient backdrop of the pandemic — the sensory atmosphere and cohesive secondary noise within which everyday narratives can unfold, the overlooked nuances and turns of phrase hidden in plain sight, the possible continuities between past and present, as well as the visible ghosts of previous pandemics lingering today. Particular attention is paid to the plant life of the city, as Manzoni hints as various points in the novel at the analogy between life and vegetation (and processes of death and renewal).
A matter of some urgency: This project will coincide with the April 2021 publication by The Modern Library of a new English translation of I Promessi Sposi by renowned translator Michael F. Moore. The first new translation in over half a century, this is a much-anticipated literary event that will introduce Manzoni to a new readership in America, and will renew interest in the book in general. Mike Slack has already been in contact with Moore about his translation, and will make specific use of the new text in the project.
The concept of translation itself is already central to Slack’s work as a photographer (how does the world of objects and ideas translate to the language of images?) but is also the entire premise of Manzoni’s novel (which purports to be a retelling, or a new translation, of an earlier literary work). All of this offers opportunities to promote the Forces in Place project, with the discovery of Manzoni novel at its center.
Variant I: Walking in plague
photographs: Mike Slack
research: Gaia Giani
in collaboration with Micamera
Mike Slack, born in 1970, lives and works in Los Angeles, California. After an undergraduate degree in English literature and linguistics, and concurrent with a career in book publishing, he began his self-taught practice in photography in the late 1990s, and later co-founded The Ice Plant publishing imprint in 2006. Primarily a maker of artist books, Slack’s photographs are also in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and other periodicals.
Gaia Giani lives and works in Milan. After studying philosophy with a MA on aesthetics, she moved to London. Back in Italy in 2001, she started to work as documentary movies producer and director assistant. Giani started her own artistic research in 2009.