The Adriatic coast stretches down the heel of Italy from Trieste and Venice to Brindisi and Bari. In a country of extraordinary cities, the largely unremarkable town of Cattolica lies in the northern region of the coast, close to San Marino, and was once a waypoint for pilgrims traveling to Rome. Catarsi by Massimo Leardini is an intimate portrait of his hometown and the surrounding region. Represented as a shimmering mirage, Cattolica is a light soaked landscape of water and rock. If Catarsi, which translates as catharsis, is the purging of emotions in the effort to achieve renewal, then Catarsi is Leardini’s attempt not only to renew his love for his hometown, but also an attempt to renew his affection for the world photographed. Grappling with the beauty and light of the place, Leardini evokes a landscape full of mystery that is just out of reach.
More abstract and impressionistic than the fashion and nude photography for which Leardini is best–known, the images in Catarsi form a love poem for a forgotten or familiar hometown. Shot between 1996-2014, the book is composed almost entirely of black-and-white images save four high-tone bleached color images that blend almost seamlessly with the other rest of the images. Throughout the book, light takes on palpable quality — shadows are open and airy and the light infuses every corner of the images. The best images render his hometown with an uneasy strangeness — trees are wrapped in tarps and vents protrude from the beach. Two hazy religious icons make a brief appearance, obscured by reflections and shadows, suggesting the devout presence within the seemingly idyllic Mediterranean landscape.
The beach is a constant throughout the book, but always seems to hover outside our reach. Leardini refuses to show us Cattolica as the romantic beach town it is and opts instead for a landscape transformed and made strange. Leardini is far less interested in documenting the particulars of his hometown than he is in offering a world beyond. Even the hard-edged rocks and architecture suggest facades as impenetrable and diaphanous as the shimmering water or light fogged courtyards that reoccur throughout the book. The regular use of soft focus or shallow depth of field forces our eyes and perception to shift towards something outside or just beyond the frame. Blurry rocks jut into the foreground and hazy figures move into the distance or crouch to the ground, obscured by a curtain or veil. The presence of weather worn sculptures and rocks, human bodies, and buildings, suggest a history that is both geologic and cultural.
It is easy to run away from what you know. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least wary eyes, but it can also lead to profound insights and reveal something new. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in Savage Dreams, “To know a place, like a friend or lover, is for it to become familiar; to know it better is for it to become strange again. In Catarsi, Leardini has returned to Cattolica to wrestles with the idyllic familiarity of his hometown. Although little personal information is provided, it is easy to see why Leardini might be wary of its clichéd beauty. In Catarsi, Leardini grapples with light, pushing and bending it to his will, in an effort to penetrate the familiar and see it again with new eyes. Through the haze, water, and rock, we can see a world made fresh and strange.