On the Enthusiastic Embrace of Commercial Photography, or Oliviero Toscani.

By Fernando Gomez Herrero,

I got to see Oliviero Toscani talking about his own photography at MIT in Cambridge between Charles, the river, and Charlie, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system card. I recommend you should try to catch him live next time he is around your corner of the world. He is a true maker of superb photography, and the generous feeling and keen intellect that goes often with it. Bearded, spectacled, neat and clean in the attire, European-looking, warm and affectionate, imagine a thinner, younger version of a Pavarotti with more hair on top, quick wit, engaging and alert, verbal and talkative in his limited, second-language English, prone to laughter, given to levity, which is different from superficiality, more Latin Venus than Anglo-Saxon Mars, more Fellini than Greenaway or Jarman, you will agree with American voters on this one and want to him for a drink or two and make him president for a good time. Good time he delivered at MIT without rehearsal. The session was delayed half a hour, “we will begin on Italian time,” to allow for time discrepancy. The ethos and aesthetics: that of a flexible bourgeois liberal? But this is unusual language, almost beyond the pale, “socialist” even, for your average American consumer of European goods (check out Beacon Hill on the other side of Charles river in the city of Boston for some of this American type of consumption of “Europe”). Toscani was, I found, easily likable in the pleasant night in the Fall in New England, appropriately clothed in light brown and orange, Fall-season colors. Never shy about seeking contact with the audience, he sought rapport and got a slippery question before the session properly started, “what kind of images for Amanda Knox (the recently released American student from murder charges in some sort of sordid affair on Italian soil)? He replied: “That’s a tricky one,” without elaboration. And hit the baseball back fast: “Why are you Americans so interested in this case in particular, because she is American?” You see. Right on. Smart man.

Toscani was genuinely open, as though he held no agendas, and consistently attentive to the responses of the audience, well before the question & answer period. His “self-fashioning “ –if you allow my piece of Greenblattiana here—appears to hide nothing shameful in the closet. And if he did, he would probably take out of it for a catwalk as his “anoxeria” photos make certain. But this is one controversial theme among many others. Our photographer is comfortable in his own skin, and his skin is comfortable with him. There is nothing of the twisted Almodoraviana of his latest good film which I could detect in him: relaxed, loose, joyful, there is joie de vivre here –feel free to nativize the foreign language as you deem appropriate– in this accented son of the catholic mother of civilizations, the Mediterranean, no doubt, thousands of miles away from Calvinist or Presbyterian-inspired fulminations of right and wrong in spoken language and visual imagery. Toscani would not be patient with the rules and regulations taped to the broomsticks and umbrellas attached to the spine of the self-appointed moralists sticking out from underneath the coat for extra verticality and rigidity. Toscani does not play stiff upper lip or hard, neither hard to get, or hard at being playful with some touches of theater. He is naturally smart, Italian in the good sense of the term, with so much Berlusconiana flying around, mocking and self-mocking, gently always, about the certainties, typologies and labels of identity that you may wish to throw at him: Italianness, Europe, Old World, fashion photographer… This guy can do high culture, if need be. But he is most natural at popular or commercial photography, and that is what he showed at MIT that night. He is the happy provider of glossy images of the commodity form. His “naturalized” professional circumstance: the inescapable world of consumerism. Fashion photography, escort service of the consumer society, whether you like it or not? And who does not? Toscani appears Falstaffian and Pantagruelesque in appetite, erotic and Casanova in the good Fellini sense of the term, with an eye for the possibilities of the silly or the grotesque (donkeys and pubic hair, for example).


He did not give me money to say that I liked the guy that Fall evening at MIT, and what is the nature of the association of this technology institute and our photographer who revealed photography of thirty years ago of some faculty almost posing as fashion models? I particularly like his superb fashion photography, despite my theoretical preference for the photo journalism of people such as Magnum. Be this as it may,  Toscani’s photography deliberately –even enthusiastically– brings with it the funny pair of commercialism and “social activism,” for lack of a better word, but you may probably stick to the first one, at least initially, and that is good enough, at least aesthetically. Toscani conveys good-European, sensible and “liberal” attitudes that will probablygo well with your easy conviviality around fine dine-and-drink habits. There is here a feeling of expansiveness, or exuberance. As mentioned, nothing twisted or “dark.” These are good things, aesthetically and non-aesthetically, even for broomsticking and sour, ugly lemon New Englanders proud of the New and the England. It was good to be exposed to this Mediterranean-sunshine aestheticism about which he cares primordially, may the politics of it all be what may. In a society of affluence, this is fine and dandy. In fact, it is plenty. In a society of diminished affluence, even post-affluence, would this also be the case, always? That’s a dark cloud that will keep us company in this winter.



You may have heard of Toscani in relation to the collaboration with the preppy clothes firm Benetton. I must say that I found my natives a bit dazed and confused about the provenance of the foreign photographer, no surprise there, and also not exactly skippy about the ethical and legal implications raised by the association between publicity and advertisement tied up around the medium of photography, “still photography” in this case and the quotation marks highlight the almost “archaic” conditioning of this craft in our era of digitality and virtuality. But our brave Italian will have none of it, as the latter comment will make clear. In this neighborhood, the charge of exploitation is perhaps too easy to make and it is this easiness that should make one pause immediately on the rollerblades of the minima moralia in matters of ethics and images. Peanut butter and jelly? Or pasta and jelly? Or jelly and marmite? Toscani would have no problems with whatever side of the controversial issues you might wish to put your smiling face around, whether you purchase an expensive piece of clothing or not: death penalty, for example, being one, and our photographer, good European that he is, is against, this type of principled opposition always a shock to mainstream Americans, and yet his Death Row series may well put you ill at ease, not to mention the years-long collaboration with the immensely visible Benetton brand highlighting messy topics such as racism and xenophobia, war and violence, sex and pleasure, beauty and fragility, desire and shame, emotion, birth and death, faith and profanity, you know, nothing but the big, inevitable themes also for you and me. And, how to be certain, much less dogmatic, about any of this in the regime of visuality? Isn’t it true that the image refuses to be pinned down to any stable singularity or oneness of meaning in our postmodern global market society? No monotheism then, no one single or univocal “thesis:” call it the theoretical multi-directional paganism of the virtual overflow of the world of images –more cunning than foxes, more slippery like eels. Will the self-appointed judges of propriety hold tight to their broomsticks and umbrellas and hit these images in the fast flow of virtualized digitality without apparent boundaries? I remember the one line about Ronald Reagan and how the Hollywood actor often managed to come out of car crashes alive and standing and in one piece: same sort of thing for our larger-than-life Toscani. There were no accusations in the evening. You get the feeling he would have shook them off easily riding the ride of visual joy. Would you wish to stop him?



Some inspiration may have come from his father. Toscani junior mentioned Toscani senior being behind the famous images of Mussolini assassinated and left out there to the morbid scrutiny of the public eye, ours included. There are moments when images of the dead matter more than you would care to think about, particularly in moments of ugly politics and violence (you must have seen Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, imagine for a split second the explosive potential of high-ranking politicians in your own society so exposed, etc.). It is never easy to cut good, healthy demarcation lines among silly gore, gratuitous, excessive violence, increasingly graphic and “adult content” entertainment (where would you put Pasolini’s Saló for example?), and newsworthy rendition of collectivities going viciously at each other (ETA terrorism, Mexican Narco criminality, post 9/11, etc.). But this puts us on the side of photo-journalism that is not the main domain of our photographer, more creature of studio than street walker. There is “study” here more than spontaneity and split-second capture of the surprise. Toscani referred to the insecurity as a potential moment for great creativity. One can go all the way to “uncertainty” as fundamental condition of life in the Ortega y Gasset type of philosophical existentialism, the entire semantic field of the precarious and the doubtful, and consequently forcefully repudiate the emphasis on “safety” and “security,” typically recycled from Hobbes and hastily, unthinkingly pre-packaged into spheres of intellectuality and aestheticism, not to mention politics. Toscani invites you to walk this walk, visually, which may put you ill at ease. His mind shift was fast to the work done for Vogue, gorgeous to look at, obviously, and in the same breath line to the parallel “Communist Vogue” –the Russian version of the same magazine. Formidable images: no doubt about that. He makes you look, and want to look more, and the want and the look linger in the seductive images. Toscani does fashion seduction well, and there is a desirability in the association that surely makes some to want to buy and buy more with the kind of lusciousness and easiness that one may still want to call Mediterranean for lack of a better word. Toscani was laughing at his own joke of the Communist Vogue,  and you held your comrades in check and it was enjoyable to witness his delight in visual transgression of our theoretical post-ideological universe. In a generous evening of more than two hours, he gave us a fast-pace survey of his own photography. How many pictures: say, 20 per minute in about 120 minutes? 2,400 images? The session left you hungry. You wanted more. That’s a clear sign of genuine creativity: it goes beyond assigned limits of time and place. Toscani gets my respect, even when and if the quick verbal enunciation does not justice to the ravishing, distressing beauty of his own images inextricably tied up tight and around messy issues that will not leave us alone.

“Reality does not shock us anymore, photographs do.” It sounds Braudillardian enough and quintessentially Virilian and this is the world Toscani was fundamentally peddling around the marketplace of visual ideas –call it conspiracy theory of Franch-Italian origin if you wish. It is the paradoxical combination of great looks and unlookable displeasure, and you still may want to take a peek. Toscani wants to be placed in this copulative, this “and.” Toscani is both and “and.” His photography is maximalist, more “more is more” than early modernist “less is more.” You judge for yourself in relation to the theme of anoxeria and the osteoporosis photos against the aforementioned contrast with Vogue, for instance. Care for the “baroque” contrast? I got from him the sense of a healthy, mature “European” moral sensibility, never reluctant to make a buck, and a quick buck at that, yet not necessarily in an anti-artistic, anti-photographic manner. What others do with these images, it is up to them, up to a point, I suppose. I got the feeling that I would side with him in relation to most “ethical” issues, the anti-death penalty stance, the sensibility towards AIDS patients, the denunciation of the fashion excesses, of the historical and social violence, the anti-racist egalitarianism, etc., wouldn’t you?, but there is no guarantee that this “nice” ethics-and- “fetching” image correspondence will always hold true. And why should it in relation to what kind of phantasmatic, trans-cultural rule of proper morals and congruent visuality? The sneaky suspicion is that the image may function a-moralistically, thank you very much, yes, incongruously, in various degrees of occasional fixity of meaning with the appropriate language and the occasional referentiality, or “ad hoc” contextuality, but that it may just as easily “take off freely” and swirl around “messing around” context(-free) and (de-)referentiality. What prevents the centrality of the image to go many different moral and immoral ways? The use, the function, the content, the commodity anchor? Does the language “anchor” the image? If I say this image over here is a “pipe,” then it is ontologically such thing, and my language is always already my house of being inside which I am caged? I will not be the only one who has the feeling that a certain kitchiness and campiness have pervaded the entire field of vision of the world, certainly the commercial world, and with it a certain lightness of being, which you may deplore or not. Think of juxtapositions such as Jesus Christ superstar, Jesus Jeans, the Rocky Horror Picture Show of your Halloween holidays, the brand called “Philosophy,” Banana Republic, the cheap beer Screaming Bitch, but also the brand names of houses of university education and vehicles and gadgets, and what is not around you that is not bought and sold. Any perambulation in your favorite city will leave behind the “seriousness” of the common activity of shopping around. It is clear that we are less “serious” now. Are “we” any more “tolerant” and more welcoming of meaningful differences, any less repressive? I find Toscani’s photography to go splendidly well with the moderately critical renderings of the French sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky.







Toscani talks and willingly walks a thin red line: the production of disturbing and catching images, often beautiful, of controversial subject matter in the advertising vicinity of the commodity form. He invites the provocation of controversy and perhaps the charge of manipulation in the irresolution of the controversial subject matter. Who out there and in the name of what would like to impersonate the role of judge passing aesthetic criteria of severe punishment? One early example, Susan Sontag in relation to Leni Riefenstahl in the collection of essays titled Under the Sign of Saturn discussed in a previous culture bite, but the context of defeat of Nazi Germany makes it a bit too easy ( There are myriad examples of image control: the bad publicity of this or that brand name and the mechanisms of clean-up (the cereal brand and the world-class swimmer who was caught smoking marihuana, the silenced suicide of the foreign language instructor in the Ivy League institution, etc.). So, some control obviously happens whether we are conscious of it or not is another matter. Our dilemma is: how to pin the charge of manipulation or profiteering on the lapel of the photographer who does not hide that his authorial intention is part and parcel of the entire operation, yes, but a precious little one of individual self the larger, post-individualistic world picture of capitalistic image saturation in a world wide web going in many directions… How could you be make a living as a photographer and a fashion photographer at that and not participate in this game? What does “game the system” mean in this context of image signification and saturation? Take the previous topic of disease (aids or osteoporosis): Are his images enunciation, denunciation, manipulation, profiteering, a bit of each, a combination of each, none of the above? Pick your favorite subject matter: there will likely be a picture by Toscani: same situation? Toscani spoke of the collaboration with the phenomenal Greek director Costa Gavras in the film Amen, which I will have seen by your next blink of the eye. He also spoke of the “Children Remember” project, in which old Italians deal with their childhood memories in a concentration camp. It has a Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah feel and this is my feeling of our photographer, that no matter how “messy” the topic, he is willing to take a plunge, whether satisfactorily or not, that is another matter. I commend him for bravery. I wish academia had half the strength in the finger to shoot away and then publicize some of its findings. Art for sale? Hasn’t art always already been close to power? Think of the Sistine Chapel! Who ever said that beauty has to be easy or comforting? One dramatic example mentioned by him: what’s beautiful about a mother holding in her lap her dead son? (allusion to Michelangelo’s Pieta!). How else to look at his pubic-hair photography, or the “silly” collection of rural Portuguese with their donkeys? But it is not obscene, much less pornographic, and I don’t feel the same way I did with Koons and Cicciolina’s “Made in Heaven” included in a previous culture bite ( Splitting hairs of (im-) morality? Who wants to go puritanical “don’t do it” and “keep your distance from it” in a culture of apparent free-for-all and anything goes? Should one put the “moral” in some box and hide it in the closet somewhere? Toscani defends that he photographs “the beauty of the imperfection in humanity.” His defense may have you convinced, or not. He called himself a photographer, without adjectival markers (fashion, landscape, etc.). He put himself on the testimonial and documentarian side of social and creative things, but is this entirely the case? He confesses to liking changing the subject matter, and you get the sense that the pleasure lies in the variation game. Keep the image superficial or read in it as much as you want. Up to you.

Take “cacas” and “burros.” Would you disqualify ipso facto ab initio, which is double Latin for immediately from the beginning, such type of photography for the in-your-face “silliness” of the content? Or, would you instead be leaning towards an all-inclusive impulse, even a redemptive one, that welcomes anything any time, at least visually? Would you to try to “philosophize” about scatology, and the anthropological meaning of “dirt”? Would you hasten to make connection with other artists, the Honduran-Afro-Cuban Nuyorican Andres Serrano, for example, or the Majorcan Miquel Barceló, to cite but two famous examples? Make connections with the “excessive” visuality of film makers such as Greenaway and Jarman, previously mentioned? Or, would you prefer to join political forces with your petty-bourgeois relatives in the provinces and the likes of former New York city major Rudolph William Louis “Rudy” Giuliani and cut the public funding of such exhibits? Remember the pictures of assassinated politicians in the old country by the Mediterranean waters? What about the gore of cheap magazines in countries such as Mexico for example in which scantily clad female bodies trying suggestive poses share the page with the mutilated victims of Narco violence? No limits to visuality then? Is it fair to say that Toscani’s popular visual culture does not go down to such gutter levels, that he can claim versatility?

Does the self-mocking “save” him? Toscani did not hesitate to mock Europe, “the old continent.” He recalled the commission to capture the idea of the European union. He produced a line of good-looking, diverse toddlers in the buff, and they liked the idea, but “could you put them in diapers?” The unequivocal judgment of our artist about the official decision: “Mediocre, crazy, sick.” There is obviously fresh air here. The famous –or notorious, depending on your aesthetic compass—collaboration with Benetton, 18 years’ relationship, is less easily cut and paste for your mental comfort, and mine. My bet: he would be the first one to defenestrate comfort and timorousness is out of the question. The juxtaposition of shocking image and the brand name –typically with no other language—works in its blatant incongruity. What does the brand name have to do with an image of violence with no editorial framing? Is your response willing to grant suspension of disbelief in relation to what exactly? In any case, your individual decision does not appear to matter very much, not even if you are not a faithful customer of the said brand. The power of the images somehow remains in you, however. They remain in me with no perceptible sense of violent stimulation, sexual or bloody gore titillation. There is opportunity for expressive creativity afforded by commercial venues, at least in high places and among those brands solid enough, that “should” make you and me pause for a fleeting second. But “should”? I find the ethicality of the issues thinning out towards some vanishing point, particularly in relation to the photographic production of images. Genre differentiation gets me in the hot water (would videos and film be any different?). Toscani: “Listen carefully and do the opposite of what marketing people say.” Shock the signification code up to a point? Our artist did not hesitate to highlight  a certain normality of art and creativity in the proximity of power with its seductions and corruptions to be sure: “no war, no power, no Sistine Chapel,” as he put it.

Toscani “plays” with the cognitive dissonance of image and text, even if the latter is the name of the brand being promoted. And this is “serious play,” with or without the consistent levity, which is far from being lightweight silliness and much less mindlessness. Toscani conveys the opposite: warmth and care in the production of phenomenally seductive images that often welcome synonymic permutations inside the semantic field of “beautiful.” Call it disharmony, or better “provocative” juxtaposition, working in more ways than one: multi- or poly-referentiality. Consult your Foucault’s post-modernist, Magritte-inspired “pipe” reflections! The increasing sophistication of the consumer culture makes the brand name (coca cola, apple, etc.) function visually by themselves following a logic that does not feel the need to work its way through argumentatively coherent or intellectually persuasive narrativity, much less dignified by literary quality. Visuality will take you in the direction of the commercial literate, simply watch the American natives orient themselves in “Rudy” Giuliani metropolis by the signs of brands, stores, etc., and not by its historical monuments or ethnic continuities or religious sites, etc. And what remains in place in this site of eminent impermanence? What if the undeniable Italianness of our photographer must be adjusted to the overflow of the visual world consumption of the commodity form with little sentimental attachment to this or that locality? You will have to go back to Deleuze’s Cinema books. Toscani spoke of the power of images such as the (Christian) cross, the swastika, the Coca Cola bottle…

Again, “incongruous” Europe: Toscani mentioned the accusation that his images produced violence, in relation to the handcuffed black-and-white Benetton ad, and how he had to attend court in Thatcher’s Britain, while in the same day, or was it for theatrical effect?, he crossed the English channel to Amsterdam to receive the award for best picture of the year (the same picture of the handcuffed black-and-white Benetton ad!). His laughter was contagious as if the joke was on somebody else not at MIT, as if we were in the joke with him against the background of European incongruity, but the issues are obviously not small and cross the Atlantic waters. “Stupid: people who see beauty only in beautiful things. There is beauty in tragedy: What is beautiful about a woman with her son killed in her hands?” Who can disagree with this general assertion? He wanted to keep commercialism, which appears to banalize everything under its thousand artificial suns, at some distance, and maybe he has managed to have done so, already with the name that he has made for himself. Toscani held nothing back: “Commercial is important. Mozart, the most commercial. I got nothing against the market.” The transition was, for him, not problematic. He wants “to show the human condition: You cannot photograph something that does not exist.” Commercial art and the human condition go well together, at least for him, for the most part. I do not doubt his sincerity of skippy piece of Lipovetskiana for our postmodern, post-narrative condition. I have some doubts about the “humanistic” assertion handling two dissimilar dimensions.

When I asked him what to make of the medium of still photography losing ground to the acceleration of motion pictures, to virtuality and digitality, he refused nostalgias. “For me, photography is history.” He defended the potential, transformative impact of “one” image. He said he did not care about the technical virtuosity of the image-making process. I wish I could believe him on this one, and I think I can see the impulse behind the catchiness of the simple sentence wanting to climb up to the ontology of being. My disbelief does not matter: his photography is still glorious. His provocation is moderate at best, I find, compared to other visual things that are out there.

I got out of the session as though I had been in a good pub with a good friend having a nice couple of drinks and exchanging perceptive appreciations about the role of photography in the eminent domain of an international society of customers and consumers. My mind was spinning in the direction of Baudrillardian de-/semanticization and how signification processes, particularly in environments of consumerism, may allow some “crazy play” with referentiality and intelligibility. And yet I felt as some of the images pushed the thinking from the balcony to allow for the possibility of their enjoyment. It appears true the language of the commodity form may be quite playful and incongruous. The image may well function, thank you very much, without the textual anchor, or the editorializing clarification. In fact, “text rich” is always already too rich, and who has time for other than “texting” into a world wide web flow of images running around faster and faster claiming attention to themselves, asking for their (fetishistic) consumption in their own right and “real-thing” status. So, I say “apple” and you think first and foremost of the famous “computer” brand and the recently deceased “Steve Jobs” and less so of the delight in my eyes looking at you and the green, tart pieces of fruit that your mother used to bake you in the middle of the cold New England winter. And she says “avatar” and you visualize, typically, not the Hindu deity, but snippets of James Cameron’s mediocre film. Isn’t this the stereotype of the American English idiom always already thoroughly colonized by postmodernist late capitalism in the line of the great American (post-)Marxist intellectual with a soft spot for utopianism? But the sign “Marx” conjures something foreign and distant, not even the “Marx Brothers” as the recent educational experience in the small liberal arts college corroborated (


Something has already happened in your immediate bureaucratic-institutional setting around the post-literacy corner, never mind “literature,” around signs such as apples and avatars, and accelerations of images, some of them glorious, such as the ones produced by our Italian photographer in question. I repressed the anti-humanities denunciations. I did not want to go there. I have no problems embracing the commercial photography of Toscani. He does not claim clairvoyant powers. His luscious photographs raise more than one point even for the monotheists and while I am sure that not everything must be fun around ethical twists and legal turns of visuality, photography included, I do intend to keep his warm laughter in the meantime in the back of my memory in the most likely cold New England winter to come.













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