Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Photography Professor Andrea Modica is known for using a distinctive technique to photograph her subjects that requires a great deal of patience. Eschewing the latest technology, Modica uses a large-format camera that was state-of-the-art in the 1920s and a platinum print-making process that was popular the mid 1800s. In a moment when digital photographers can instantly review their shots and have limitless options for editing and retouching, Modica’s process stands apart for the time it takes — both to make the photograph and to make the subjects feel comfortable enough to forget about the big camera in the room.
Modica, a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar whose photos are part of permanent exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art and have been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker and TIME magazine among others, puts in the time to build trust with her subjects, whether they’re minor league baseball players you might recognize, Italian high schoolers, or Mummers in South Philadelphia. Her latest work, on display at Unique Photo in Philadelphia through June 30, is a series set in an equine hospital in the small town of Budrio di Bagnarola in northern Italy. Modica spent eight years photographing the caregivers and their patients, ultimately producing a book recognized as one of the best collections of photography in 2022.
Modica discussed her work on the project at length in an introduction for the book, that she excerpted below for the Drexel New Blog. She also took a moment to discuss the challenges of teaching a new generation of photographers and the benefits of a more deliberate process.
Three years ago, I began photographing with my 8X10” view camera at a horse hospital in the small town of Budrio di Bagnarola in northern Italy. The facility is owned by the prominent veterinary surgeon Fabio Torre and it attracts remarkable and, generally, very valuable horses for a range of procedures. I became aware of the hospital through Dr. Torre, who is also an art enthusiast. I was immediately drawn to the contrast of these magnificent animals rendered so vulnerable.
I began photographing the horses in their post-operative recovery rooms: simple padded stalls with overhead windows, which produce lovely, filtered light. The floors are covered with the doctor’s recycled shredded junk mail, medical journals and art magazines. The stalls are at once theatrical stages and humble boxes. In my photographs the horses are in a state of post-operative anesthetic sleep. They are recovering from operations that include, among other things, fracture repairs, complicated dental work and castrations.
The second facet of this project is comprised of still lifes of the tools of surgery prior to procedures. I spent many hours photographing Dr. Torre’s extensive collection of spectacular tools, choosing to use the recovery stalls as my studio, thus employing the same light and atmosphere as the prior group of photographs. These images include the marks on the walls, made by the horses as they awaken from their post-operative anesthetic sleep. These platinum prints are titled with the name of each tool, which often refers to its inventor and the procedure for which it is used.
The next group of photographs in this project includes still lifes of the tools of surgery after the procedures. I made these photographs in the operating room, where I utilized the lights of the surgical theatre. I was particularly drawn to the manner with which the tools were returned to the table after use, often reflecting the type of surgery performed. For example, after a routine arthroscopic surgery the instruments are often returned in neat piles, while a post-colic table may convey a sense of a more dramatic emergency procedure. The titles of these platinum prints include the date and name of the surgical procedure.
The final part of this project is a series of short films. I filmed each horse’s eye while the horse was being sedated before the operation. The films can be quite abstract, referring often to landscape. The soundtracks are comprised of the horse’s heartbeat, the doctors’ conversations and the staticky radio playing contemporary Italian pop music and advertisements.
For all the images in this project I produce 8×10” contact prints on vellum, utilizing the 19th century, hand-coated platinum process. The delicate tones created by this process illuminate the details in the horses’ powerful physiques and the sensuous light in which they sleep, as well as the odd piles of shredded paper on which they lay.
Inspired by the region’s High Renaissance art, the mannerly structure of the photographs in combination with the soft platinum tones are in direct contrast to the aggressiveness of the procedures the horses have endured and their anesthetic vulnerability. I am transfixed by their slumber; they appear comfortable, yet fragile, both powerful and compromised. This induced sleep marks the end of their operation and the beginning of their recovery. It is at once terrifying and hopeful, always moving. The title of each of these photographs includes the horse’s name and breed, the date and the type of operation the horse has undergone.
In the end, all the images from the horse hospital project are highly descriptive, yet not illustrative of any specific idea; they will be absorbed and interpreted by the viewer. The extended tonal range of the platinum print in combination with the formal elements I employ welcome a broad audience, as well as a great variety of complex and impactful interpretations. Both the films and the platinum prints can be deceptive in their seductive beauty, finally presenting potentially unsettling information, perhaps inviting us to ponder our own vulnerability and temporariness, strength and endurance. As with much of my work, this project is not documentary in nature, but truly conceptual.
Modica is now teaching students who have lived their entire lives in the age of digital photography. And while these tools enable photographers to record places and parts of life that were previously inaccessible, Modica and her colleagues emphasize the value of learning and maintaining a deliberate process.
“The fast pace of producing digital images can be challenging, in fact. In the Photography program we are committed to teaching the students to slow down the shooting process and be more decisive and informed practitioners,” she said. “To assist with this, all our majors start with mastering analog techniques, including working with a large format camera, hand processing film and working in the darkroom, as well as getting a deep understanding of the history of photography and contemporary trends in both fine art and commercial applications.”
For more information about Modica’s work, visit: http://www.andreamodica.com/
Reporters interested in speaking with Modica should contact Britt Faulstick, executive director, News & Media Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.895.2617.