In anticipation of World Photography Day, we would like to pay tribute to a German ethnologist, linguist and philologist Max Leopold Wagner. Considered the foremost scholar of Sardinian linguistics, he has made photography his distinctive medium of investigation.

What binds us to him? The desire to narrate the true essence of our island, to bring out its distinctive features and intrinsic characteristics.

Cagliari, foto di Max Leopold Wagner - fonte: Sardegna Digital Library

Born on 17 September 1880 in Munich and died in Washington on 14 July 1962, Wagner was an acute investigator of the linguistic and cultural conditions of the entire Mediterranean area. Among his countless studies, we would like to mention those conducted in Florence at the school of Parodi, Rajna and Mazzoni in 1902. It was on this occasion, reading a monograph examining the language of the Condaghe di San Pietro di Silki, (one of the most important documents of medieval Logudorese), that he had his first contact with our island.

Deeply fascinated by Sardinian linguistic and cultural issues, Wagner, upon his return home and while resuming his university studies in Munich and Würzburg, independently chose the analysis of word formation in Sardinian as the topic for his dissertation. For this thesis work, the Academic Senate of the University of Munich as awarded Wagner the Döllinger Prize, thanks to which he was able to travel to Sardinia.

In 1904-05, he visited the island far and wide, with the aim of immersing himself in the knowledge of its people, its language and its cultural roots. In particular, he conducted surveys in as many as 75 locations in order to document the phonetic nuances of the various dialects spoken.

Cagliari, foto di Max Leopold Wagner - Fonte: Sardegna Digital Library

In almost sixty years of scholarly activity, Wagner has dedicated a myriad of writings to Sardinian, on which much of what we know about this language today depends. What set him apart was that he did not want to be a mere compiler of a ‘word list’, but a true insider’s connoisseur of the culture he was examining, and in doing so he decided to embrace the medium of photography as a documentary tool.

In fact, his photographs emphasise the total way he approached communities, accomplished by first instinctively indulging a personal inclination that later became a scientific method. He travelled practically the entire region on repeated trips from 1905 to 1927. On these occasions, he overturned many commonplaces about Sardinians, understanding and describing them with such acuity that he felt part of them.

Although he used a 9 x 12 camera and employed a tripod, his photos show various defects, such as blurring, overexposure and underexposure, fingerprint marks on the film, scratches and marks on the negatives. These problems do not only stem from improper preservation of the images, but also show a certain lack of care or technical skill in the formal and technical aspect of the photographic operation.

Domus De Maria, foto di Max Leopold Wagner - Fonte: Sardegna Digital Library

Wagner probably adopted a type of documentary photographic approach, joining us in a fragmentary form with obvious gaps. It was based on different levels of visual recording. Initially, an attempt was made to capture the village as a whole from a distant perspective, integrating it into the surrounding landscape environment. Subsequently, the lens gradually moved closer and the photographs focused on the streets of the village and, where possible, even went inside the streets and beyond the threshold of the houses. This last phase represented a greater challenge, in which the photographic gaze lingered on the inhabitants and their varied equipment.

In conclusion, we quote a passage from a handwritten letter that the scholar sent from Cagliari on 21 February 1926 to his friend and Swiss colleague Karl Jaberg. which clearly shows his great interest in Sardinia.

“I am aware that I am reproached from many quarters for devoting ‘too much’ to Sardinian. This is said especially by those who consider it natural to devote their whole life to French or Old Provençal. And since by now, partly by chance, partly out of interest, I feel ‘at home’ in this area, I see no reason to abandon it without this preventing me from making excursions into other fields as well’.