I am reminded of the full-length portrait of August Sander’s pastry cook, feet firmly on the ground, looking squarely into the camera, hands busy with the tools of his trade – a man in the fullness of his career and master of his profession.
And then I see the half-length portraits of Tommaso Bonaventura’s pastry cooks in their typical white aprons and even more typical chefs’ bonnets, their hands and working environment out of sight, eyes looking everywhere except into the camera. The figures stand out against a black background, helping to emphasize the details and expressions on their faces which are highlighted by the photographer’s skill and the power of his camera. It would be interesting to interpret the scene by completely eliminating its context, and consequently the mundane familiarity of the craft, thereby elevating it to the status of an ancient body of wisdom. The distinction of an elite class that doesn’t belong to any specific category of craftmanship, but rather to a gathering of the elect – the guardians of a valuable tradition threatened by the ways of our modern consumer society. Furthermore, this interpretation would also match the choice of Bonaventura to work explicitly in the classical portraiture style, presenting his collection in a gallery of personalities. A sort of “Let us now praise famous women”, to paraphrase the title of the Walker Evans book, but more likely in a Renaissance key, or even better, the golden age of Flemish art (it could be the bonnet that reminds us of other times and other places and, consequently, of a bygone artistic genre. But if this is image culture, which Bonaventura manages with passion and sensitivity with respect to both traditional and contemporary techniques, there is above all the physical presence of his subjects – these splendid figures, each of whom occupies their own uniquely individually space which cannot be reduced to a generalisation, however laudable it may be. It is doubtlessly the result of long and accomplished experience – achievement born from an ability that we can read in their eyes, in their expressions, in the suspension of time that emerges as a common feature of all these portraits.
It’s as though each of those gazes, staring at an undefined point, reaffirms the lengthy sequence of required handywork and technique. But if you ask a sfoglina (pastry cook) what the correct measurements and baking times are for any specific task, she’ll never answer you with any precise, quantifiable terms. She’ll answer as though it’s obvious what the correct quantity of a certain ingredient and its corresponding cooking time should be, because it’s simply a question of experience and not theory. It’s about traditions that go way back in time, but which can and must be repeated in the present, irrespective of the context. And it’s to Bonaventura’s credit that he was able to comprehend this dimension, which can only be described as classical, and to illuminate the beauty and individuality of each of these faces.