Bill Travis: Caserta

I love photographing places that don’t exist.

The places I’ve taken my camera are real enough, but the idea of simply reproducing a view doesn’t appeal to me. The original already exists in nature. What I want to do is make an alternate original.

Where I set up my camera is more a jumping off point than a point of arrival. I may walk through a landscape and take a thousand shots, but the real work begins when I’m back in the studio and can spend time with my favorite captures, transforming them into personal statements. The picture depicts a place that exists and does not exist, because it’s become an image of an image, or a fantasy, or a dream.

For the past few years I’ve been interested in historic parks and gardens and have carried my camera through some magnificent landscapes. In 2011 I visited Caserta, a small town known for its royal palace and splendid park, both modeled on Versailles by an eighteenth-century King of Naples and distant relative of Louis XIV.

The lower park has many points in common with Versailles, but unlike the original, where even the ghosts retain a sense of grandeur, much of Caserta is run down, with graffiti on the palace walls and plastic bottles on the lawns. Vegetation overruns areas in the lower garden that were once more formal, conveying an abandonment that speaks to the passage of time.

The upper reaches consist of the English Garden, with meandering paths, rolling hills, and sentimental ruins, but unlike most of its northern prototypes, the vegetation here is extremely lush and the simulated ruins very grand and evocative. Probably the most impressive part of the complex is the cascade, which plummets down from a low mountaintop to the palace parterre through a series of richly sculptured fountains, close in style to the Trevi Fountain, but so ambitious as to make the Roman example seem miniature in comparison. I believe there were plans to build twenty such fountains, but even kings run out of money and only six were completed. (I’ll return to the fountains in a later post.)

How to depict such a remarkable place? I took hundreds and hundreds of pictures… of sculptures and water and trees and expanses of lawn and palace views, of trash, graffiti, crates, tour buses, dogs, and tourists and local residents. There were long perspectives and tight views, scenes of intense light and murky shadows, colorful places and monochromes, bird’s eye and frog’s eye views. Here was enough material to reconstruct a world. A photographer might turn this trove into a document of a specific time and place, or a social commentary, or an essay on decay and survival, or any number of interpretations.

My approach was to attenuate the here-and-now, to take things away, allowing the image to become simpler, more focused, more atmospheric. People, when present, are not large enough to tell stories or take us down the road of anecdote; they tend to be small, showing the immensity of nature. Trash gets removed, the specific falls away, and what is left is a sense of the universal. My Caserta is of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. All of us can find a place in it, I hope, not as accidental tourists but as people who enter into a frame of mind.