Romano Riedo Documents Life in the Hinterlands

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We are pleased to release August's print from Romano Riedo. Read more about Riedo’s work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Romano Riedo   Bergbauer Herger Toni und sein Hund, Urnerboden, 1996  Archival inkjet print 8 x 11.5, signed and numbered edition of 5 $150

Romano Riedo
Bergbauer Herger Toni und sein Hund, Urnerboden, 1996
Archival inkjet print
8 x 11.5, signed and numbered edition of 5

Imagine a time before photography, when storytelling was paramount in the oral tradition of perpetuating culture. Passing family lore from generation to generation, grand moments of the past became embellished with each retelling, to the point of myth making and legacy building. Our firsthand knowledge of the past went back only one or two generations at most. History was a belief system of trust.

In earlier days it was primarily painting and sculpture that recounted the major markers of the times (coronations, epic battles, religious allegories, portraits of the wealthy, majestic landscapes, and the like). For centuries, our history relied on these three traditions to sustain collective memory. The expense and painstaking skill needed for detailed expression made commonplace events difficult to justify recording. Daily life, once passed, was often lost to eternity.

Enter photography. From its inception, photography took on the role of storytelling with greater immediacy, clarity, and longevity than any of its predecessors, and quickly displaced them as the keeper of truths and continuity. Photographs assumed the cultural mantle of memory for the masses, linking even the most common moment to a more vital history. Specifically, documentary photography stepped in to give voice and distinction to daily life, revealing the heartbeat and soul of humanity.

Im Ziegenstall, Hirschberg, Appenzell, 2006

Im Ziegenstall, Hirschberg, Appenzell, 2006

It is in this rich tradition of storytelling that Romano Riedo has concentrated his creative efforts for the past three decades. His ongoing series, Hinterland, investigates his homeland in Switzerland. In this work, Riedo gives us images of intimacy and unassuming magnitude as people of modest means create their lives from the land. His images not only record ephemeral moments, but also invite the viewer to delve into to a deeper place of meaning and understanding carried within those moments.

Riedo turns his lens on the rural farmers and their daily practices. His subjects haul milk, cut hay, make cheese, move livestock, and mend fences. We are invited to witness these lives in all seasons, and we feel Riedo’s pulse as an observer and storyteller throughout. Each photograph is purposeful, and brings respect and dignity to the work of hands and lives inextricably linked with the earth.

Riedo embraces the square format in Hinterland. With each dimension being equal, it does not benefit from the built-in energy of a strong vertical or a pastoral horizontal thrust. What the square frame offers is a neutral presence, in which the action unfolds without subtext or coloring of orientation. Riedo understands this tool, and because of his experience and intuitive response, we can pay more attention to the suspended animation of the young boy at the family table during mealtime. We can appreciate the non-sequitur nature of the running swine as it passes the weatherworn, wooden cross on the crest of the range. We can feel the central struggle of farmers carrying a heavy milk container over the edge of the hillside into the low-hanging clouds.

Alpaufzug, Brülisau, Appenzell, 1995

Alpaufzug, Brülisau, Appenzell, 1995

These images are complemented with close-up textural meditations that rely more on structural composition and the graphic balance of light and shape for their strength. They give density and grit to his more contextual and deeply layered environmental portraits. Yet Riedo’s strength in these accumulated stories emerges when he stands back and sets the scene for us, allowing the environment to contribute needed information, demonstrating the impact of the land upon these people.

In a winter scene of a lone cow trudging up the path home, it is the majesty and starkness of the distant mountains that creates contrast with this vulnerable, lumbering creature, dutifully returning through this highland valley. In the photograph of two men scanning the local scene from their second story window perch, the sure line of bells above them carries the weight, order, and symmetry of their lives, in resonant tones you can almost hear.

What gives documentary and environmental portraiture their strength, is the feeling of connectedness, and empathy portrayed, between the subject and the photographer. Riedo, through his familiarity with his subjects and region, and his seasoned approach to reportage, elevates these images above the simple documentation one might record as a photojournalist in an unfamiliar land. This work is made from within. Riedo understands this life—we can practically feel the dirt under his fingernails, and see the love in his eyes for this place and its people.

Handmelken, Poganggenalp, Mürren, 1996

Handmelken, Poganggenalp, Mürren, 1996

There is often a temptation in documentary photography to tell too much of the story; after all, that is what cameras with sharp optics were designed to accomplish. But accurate recording in photography also encourages passive acceptance, and the unengaged, dutiful nodding of heads, with nothing more. The delicate balance then is not to give too much. A photograph should ask more questions than it answers. In this way, the viewer is transformed into a more curious and active participant in the image, always searching for more. Strong photographs will have a beating heart and will outlive centuries of recognition. They will remain alive in every moment, in every era, with new questions to offer, and deeper understandings to unwrap.

In Hinterland, Riedo does just that. We are invited into a scene to experience its pulse, but always left eager for more. In one image we look over the shoulders of two men in the foreground in a field to witness their companions bonded in singing. This does not take place in the village for tourists to see, it is for them to experience together. It is personal, revealing, but not encapsulated. We are privy to this moment, and our witness bears the responsibility of engagement.

Riedo moves us forward for a closer look. To touch this instant is to appreciate the importance of the small events of our lives in building culture. Photographs, like Riedo’s, ironically extend the life, and deepen the impact and resultant meaning over time, of that fleeting experience.

This article first appeared in Issue 8.

Franz Carl Nicolay is a photographer, ceramicist, writer and teacher of over four decades. He also directs the Edwards Art Gallery at Holderness School in New Hampshire, and has curated numerous exhibitions in all media for that space.