There is something remarkable about the reciprocal intimacy between an artist and his photographer, and the partnership between Pietro Consagra and Ugo Mulas was not at all an exception. Consagra delivered himself up to Mulas with complete and utter trust, for it was he who, more than any other collaborator, helped Consagra to understand and know himself. Mulas took a cognitive approach that sought not to deny or obscure the organic emotion experienced upon the contemplation of Consagra’s works, but rather to use the properties of photography to contextualise them within the sculptor’s ongoing practice.
For Mulas, art photography was first and foremost a way to establish and understand the artist’s intentions, and by documenting Consagra’s work with objective, yet discerning, eyes, he offered the sculptor another medium through which to examine his own. Consagra himself agreed; in his opinion, “the [art] photographer is the professional who, more than anyone, [truly] looks at a work of art.” Yet, the term ‘art photographer’ often refers to someone who takes pictures of other people’s art, and such a simplistic exchange lacks the analytic component so central to Mulas’ métier. Rather than allowing his craft to be subordinated to that which it detects and preserves, he felt that his photography should also add another dimension, simultaneously capturing a work’s essence while tracing it back to the initial gesture out of which it materialised.
Indeed, what made Mulas such a unique photographer of art was his capacity to function as a critic, as neither a reproducer of existing work nor the creator of something entirely new. In his opinion, the photograph itself was a discourse on the strategy of production, and photographic criticism was not so much about the documentation of the final product as it was about seizing upon what the artist had intended to do in the first place. This was a central pillar of Mulas and Consagra’s professional relationship; the sculptor engendering the project early on with a conception of its final significance and the photographer figuring out how to express that initial intangible ethos in his images.
Mulas believed that the photographer’s critical ability rested within his capacity to help others look beyond the surface of a work and the often visceral emotions it might trigger. He sought not to deny the feelings we experience, but instead to explain why they were triggered. Describing his collaboration with Consagra, Mulas was constantly “fine-tuning the mechanism, the photographic operation, and then becoming [a] spectator of what happens, in such a way that it is reality itself which enters in and fixes on the film.” His photographs, then, are not of works of art; they are of artists at work.
Consagra’s famous two-dimensional sculptures impose a specific way of reading and experiencing his art; the adroitly emphasised frontality establishes a sense of a predefined vision upon which the mind is tempted to settle. Yet, by photographing the sculptor in his studio, seeing while striving not to be seen, Mulas was able to develop a sense of Consagra’s unconscious artistic objectives, and by experimenting with different angles of vision, to elucidate ideas he may have unconsciously desired to project. Such was the partnership between Mulas and Consagra, the sculptor stripped bare by his photographer’s penetrating gaze while both men developed stronger senses of the artistic self throughout years of friendship and collaboration.