Memory, Decay, Beauty — Vignettes of Naples, Italy

This series of photographs began in Naples, Italy. My father, who was born in the north part of the country, in the Italian province of Emilia (the Appennino Reggiano) never allowed me to visit Naples because it was dirty, crime-ridden, and full of “undesirables”. All my life, I was seduced by what I imagined to be a place of primal, sensual experiences. I finally was able to visit Naples this past May, 2016. What I encountered when I finally arrived, was a city inhabited by the ghosts of a history forgotten and then remembered. Some of these photographs were taken in May, 2016 in an abandoned government office, acquired several years ago by Italian artist Gian Maria Tosatti. My photographs are an interpretation of these spaces.

These photographs are a meditation on memory, decay and beauty. I learned that the essence of the soul of Naples is the quiet beauty of neglect. The poetics of empty spaces, abandoned places and everyday weathered objects are elevated to powerful time-posts much like the ancient ruins of Antiquity. Everywhere, decay is the mark of time on things, establishing a subtle relationship between time and beauty mediated by memory.

The exploration of the relationship of memory to notions of decay and beauty is not new; Aristotle wrote extensively on the subject of memory. He considered the process of the placement of images and objects to evoke memory. Descartes and other seventeenth century writers and philosophers expanded this discourse, exploring the scientific properties of optics and light. They related the symbolic use of light to the concept of time. Seventeenth century artists excelled in the use of metaphoric light, to symbolize the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of human existence.

In 1896, French philosopher Henri Bergson, published “Matter and Memory”, a philosophical nineteenth century exploration of human nature and the spirituality of memory. Bergson considered memory to be a deeply spiritual activity. He believed the brain orients present action by inserting relevant memories.

Through these photographs, I allow the viewer to construct personal narratives that reflect not only the surface, but also the depth of individual memories, in order to create and reflect on one’s own journey. Tangled with complex emotions of loss, regret, melancholy, and joy, are the quiet whispers of time passed that echo from the shadows between empty corridors. Light becomes a metaphor for memory, the passage of time, decay, and regeneration. It is unpredictable and haunting at times, yet also reassuring and stirring. Ordinary, everyday objects are transformed into monumental objects of significance, as they acquire their own multiple layers of meaning and weave a dense web of associations.

To what extent are our personal narratives informed by our memories? Each image has its own open-ended interpretation into which the viewer can insert her/his own story. These photos allow the viewer to reflect on the past in order to give meaning to the present.

Gina Costa is a museum professional, independent curator, and lecturer on twentieth century art and photography. Her award winning photography has been internationally shown and published. She uses a variety of formats in her practice; experimenting with them all: film, digital, mobile, and Polaroid.

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