Underwear Lightning


My creative process works in two ways, which can work together or separately. One has to do with what I’m focussing on. It might start with something I encountered: an argument, a text, a film, anything, that inspires me to start a project. The whole time I’m drawing on things I encounter in life and putting together, developing, processing, focussing, especially through my life experiences. It’s a process like breathing, where things come in and other things go out.

A lot of the way I put things together relates to my childhood: the opportunities and constrictions my family offered or imposed on me cause continuous short circuits. When I get in touch with a short circuit, the idea for a project emerges. Sometimes I let go of my creative process, and get in touch with the unstructured, free, way I used to create as a child. I try to dive down deep into what appears to be a nonsensical process. The images that come to mind are clear and clean and all derive from my experience as a child, because the childhood way of thinking is the energy, the gasoline that starts the process.

I remember playing billiards with some friends when I was a teenager, in a house in the middle of the forest in the night. That night thunderstorms raged around the house with so much lightning that the whole house and the forest surrounding it were illuminated as though it was daytime. But the light of the lightning was different, a cold, artificial light, like the light of a photography studio or the light of the nighttime city. We left the house and walked about in the forest because everything felt surreal. It was fantastic. The lightning illuminated everything so powerfully that we began to feel like doing some kind of daytime activity, so we started up the tractor and began ploughing a field. Suddenly the tractor stalled because we had hit a trunk. We got down from the tractor, opened the trunk and found inside it pot smoking paraphernalia and a disassembled hunting gun. So we took the trunk back into the house, smoked some of the grass and continued our game of billiards. After a while we started throwing the billiard balls and some of them broke the glass of some pictures. The thunderstorms became stronger and stronger, and the sound of the crashing balls added to the sound of the thunder created a cacophony of sound.

Then we noticed that some trees were falling down, so we began to worry about how we could get home since the trees had fallen across the road. We went outside, found a couple of chainsaws and started cutting up the trees in the middle of the road. The sound of the chainsaws, the cracking sound of the trees, together with the thunder was almost like a John Cage concert.

Once we had cleared the road we re-assembled the gun and walked out to the swimming pool which was covered with ice. I was firing the gun into the night sky as I walked towards the pool. I continued firing as I walked out onto the ice that covered the pool until suddenly the ice cracked, and I fell into the water. I was half in and half out of the water, still holding the gun up and still shooting into the air, adding the sounds of the gun to the thunder, another element of the orchestra.

After I got out of the pool, my friend and I climbed onto our vespas and set off along the hillside road towards our homes. The hillsides on either side of the road were terraced with olive groves. In the night all kinds of mountain animals wander about and my friend crashed into a porcupine that unfortunately chose that moment to cross the road. I tried to avoid the animal and was thrown off my vespa and dived headfirst down to the olive terrace below.

“I must be dead” I thought, “I can’t see a thing. But I can hear the thunder.”

I suddenly realised that my head was stuck into the ground like an ostrich. Eventually I managed to climb back up to the road and my vespa. By now it was so late that I decided to drive all the way to Florence to the university for my university ID. This was my first significant photo.

So now for me, thinking about snapshots: what I’m focussing on; or setting up an image: the creative process; both have the same meaning. My process of building up an image has to do with something that happens in that moment, and then it develops in a photography setting. The lightning on that night was like so many frames in a film. My process is like putting all those frames back together and looking at them separately. In order to do this I have to work on my memory, my past, and obviously it won’t ever be exactly the same. It mixes with my experiences today and new things develop with the same intensity of that original experience.  

© Robert Pettena 2022