Critique by Roberto Mutti
In approaching the counter, there is a hint of an aroma and one moment later the cup nears the mouth for one of the most beloved rituals celebrated around the world, taking a sip of coffee. Easy, right? Yes, but without ever considering the long road that is travelled long before delighting us with a product that is so closely linked with socialisation to have generated – see you for coffee? – or expressions used by someone aiming for a break so they can address issues that are more or less important. That cup is offered to a friend or a stranger (the renowned “suspended coffee” in the Neapolitan tradition), provides a stimulating effect, is a companion during a moment of reflection, concludes a meal like it should, or begins the morning in the best fashion possible. Coffee is so much a part of our lives that it has become an assiduous co-star in countless films (it is mourned by Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” and consumed in the morning by Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, celebrated by Eduardo De Filippo in “The Gold of Naples”, accompanied by suggestive metaphors by Totò in “The Band of Honest Men”), until becoming a stereotype like in many American films when it is accompanied by forgettable donuts to keep policemen awake and/or investigators busy all night at stakeouts or appears on the menu of any diner as “the best in the county”.
Well aware of all of this attention, and in light of his education and experience in film direction, the Canadian photographer, Jakob De Boer, in creating a project based on a plantation in Tanzania for La Marzocco did not consider classic reportage, but preferred to focus on a search that creates an atmosphere of rare suggestion. Consequently, he chose to proceed in black and white, maintain all tonal shades of grey, like a metaphor for the realty where every aspect of everyday life hides many facets. To manage this, the photographer’s choice, albeit in contrast with generally widespread rhythms and techniques, depended upon the use of film which was then meticulously hand-printed in the darkroom of Parisian printing labs according to classic methods. Nature is the real protagonist on this journey, from the very first shot where a sky full of clouds is reflected in a puddle so that it bursts, however, with a metallic light that provides an unexpected attraction. Trees are present, even when they do not appear directly in the images, but there are elements that make their presence felt. When they are captured by the photographer, they are like a multitude of magnificent beauty: the light that flows between the branches and filters through the leaves falling from above draws spectacular geometric shapes worthy of a cathedral, inviting the viewer to enter into a world marked by gestures rendered absolutely rational by their repetitive nature. There are those of the young woman who works resolutely among leaves partially hiding her face and, on her shoulders and wrapped in a sheet of cloth, steadily carries a small child, who before the lens of the photographer, shows a solemn gaze that is also serene, as if to display pride in what her mother is doing. Even without knowing much about the stages of processing coffee, in the presence of these images one grasps moments from which you can intuitively recognize the importance: harvesting, drying in the sun, sorting, bagging for transport. Jakob de Boer rarely gets close to his subjects, like in the portrait of a young beauty captured in profile, opting instead for shots of the whole scene or from above, which better evoke the sense of the collective work carried out in a specific area. In observing these photos we realize just how empty statements are about the disappearance of manual labour, which instead appears here in a positive light, man’s ability to creatively intervene to improve its reality, as well as all the inevitable power of fatigue, a term that we should recall is synonymous with work in several languages. It is a challenge which, in some cases, is confronted with the strength used by the porters or, in other cases, with elegance, like the women who manage to hoist even considerable weight upon their heads with perfect equilibrium. In being a keen observer of the activities that involve the inhabitants of the area, the photographer does not document a classic reportage, but searches for harmonies to be uttered. Like the shot taken above a woman, intent on stitching bags filled with coffee: also in virtue of the flattened perspective created by the lens, the folds of her clothing are tangled with those of the bags in a striking play of similitude. Jakob de Boer, intent on sharing with those observing his work, does not know how to forsake the poetic dimension. In a particularly happy image, he captures a girl while crossing a stretch of forest with a bundle of firewood placed on her head – while dwelling on the power of expression that black and white conveys about the delicacy that nature is sometimes capable – it seems like we can feel the warmth from the first rays of the sun.