PORTRAIT OF A CROWD, The Work of Denis Masi

Amna Malik

‘And in the development of mankind as a whole, just as in individuals, love alone acts as a civilizing factor in the sense that it brings a change from egoism to altruism.’

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1921

In his account of the dynamics that contribute to group formations, Freud turned to love as a way of conceptualising the emotional bonds that bring people together in the interest of higher ideals than the satisfaction of personal and individual concerns. Though the word was too closely associated with romantic coupling to serve his purpose, Freud’s attention to its civilising effect on groups was intended to intervene on the largely negative view of crowds that dominated the literature. Freud was particularly concerned with Le Bon’s highly influential 1895 study Psychologie des foules, a psychological view that the group or crowd was largely passive and in thrall of the ‘prestige’ of a leader and later amplified from a biological perspective by W. Trotter’s notion of a ‘herd instinct’. In the present context Freud’s intervention provides an important connection with the subject of Denis Masi’s photographic series Strength and Splendour (2003). In these black and white silverprints Masi has attempted to convey the comradery and fraternal friendship of the facchini who, each year, come together in a test of strength to raise and carry la macchina in celebration of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the city of Viterbo. Though the event commemorates the original procession of four cardinals carrying the exhumed body of Santa Rosa, its present day significance has other associations. Masi’s desire to document this ritual through portraits of individuals is not so much driven by a concern with social types than with sociality. Since 1998 Masi has been taking photographs of individuals in groups or crowds at public events, most notably the Palio in Siena. More recently he has photographed a street protest, football match, funeral and the public appearance of the Pope on Easter Friday, many of these images draw attention to the nature of ‘spectacle’ by focusing on its effect on spectators.2

In this essay I want to examine Masi’s creation of a specific kind of ‘visuality’ through these portraits that reinforces the connectivity and social cohesion created by these kinds of rituals. The presence of this visuality I want to argue, allows traditions like the celebration of Santa Rosa, to be seen as forms of resistance against the more dominant account of modernity in which flux and change is valorised over fixity. To this end I want to draw on Kaja Silverman’s emphasis on love in her re-reading of Freud’s theories in World Spectators (2000) where she puts forward a form of celebratory spectatorship that can be useful in understanding Masi’s practise.3

The genre of portraiture has traditionally been used to idealise heroes or favoured in its photographic form by a rising bourgeois class to immortalise its accumulation of wealth. I should stress that Masi’s images are not portraiture in the conventional sense

1 Though Le Bon describes the tendency toward group behaviour as common to both a herd of animals and a collection of human beings it is Freud who refers at several points to the ‘herd instinct’ and draws this term from W. Trotter’s Instincts of the herd in peace and war (1916). For an extended discussion of both texts cf. Freud’s Group Psychology and the analysis of the Ego, pp. 72-81 and pp. 117-121, Leipzig, Vienna and Zurich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag (1921), translated by James Strachey, London and Vienna, International Psycho-Analytical Press (1922); reprinted, vol. xviii of Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vintage, 2001 pp. 67-143.

2 Many of these later photographs were taken in 2003 and brought together in an exhibition at the British School at Rome.

3 Kaja Silverman, World Spectators, Stanford University Press 2000

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