It might be tempting to see Paola Ferrario's photographs as happy accidents, as serendipitous. Except that nothing about her pictures is accidental. Only a seasoned eye would see a picture in that orange wrapper haphazardly stuck in a crack in the cement, and only Ferrario could have made one with such a quirky resonance and compositional rightness. Taking up where predecessors like William Eggleston or Stephen Shore left off, her photographs explore "the expressive possibilities of the detail," as John Szarkowski put in his introduction to William Eggleston's Guide. What they show are fragments of graffiti, parts of posters, fleeting bits of advertisements, reflections and shadows that produce curious puzzlements of color and texture, but what they are about is another story altogether.
A photograph no matter how abstract, is always tied to something in the world, but that only enriches its metaphorical potential. For instance: the inexplicable triangle of red the upper left corner of the photograph of a cigarette butt perched on the edge of gray table. This image is exhibited directly above a photograph of an inverted view of a black and white poster in a window that recalls at first a "missing" poster from 9/11. It is, in fact, an ad for headshots and model portfolios. The rhythmic geometry in one group of photographs that draws out the patterns in fragments of fencing and flooring is as sophisticated as the smiley face on the side of the soccer ball is absurd. We are, in fact, regularly rewarded by Ferrario's sly humor. A garbage can that appears to be eating a helpless white balloon; a poster of two red cherries between which a graffiti artist has quickly sketched a penis. And just as regularly, we are offered up images that are utterly dreamlike: several shots taken through a train window that has been sprayed with graffiti, the paint looking like nothing so much as surreal, organic blooms of blue and red.
Though she works with a small digital camera, Ferrario's photographs are more like the images one might expect from an 8 x 10 view camera. They have little in common with the kinds of photographs by Cartier-Bresson's descendents intent on capturing a "decisive moment." Ferrario's photographs favor meditation over action—like Weston or Minor White, or better yet, like Eggleston. Only Eggleston with a more playful personality, someone who would search out a close-up of two Warner Bros. Tweety Birds, one winking coyly; or find through her lens a man's torso, his unfashionably flowered tie pointing down at a little green iPod Shuffle clipped to his belt.
If her photographs are about anything, they are about looking, and more to the point, about looking through the camera, about seeing photographically. One remarkable image shows what seems to be the eye of a giant child peeking through an opening in a gate. The eye is actually part of a UNICEF poster on the side of a three-wheeled truck in Ferrario's hometown in Italy, but we might regard the photograph as an extemporaneous sort of self-portrait. The photographer represented as the all-seeing, ever-alert eye, peering through the lens of her camera, her vision perfectly in sync with her medium.