Researched by Roberta Pastore
Going back in time how was your passion for photography born?
For as long as I can remember, from early childhood onwards, the physical experience of vision has played a significant role in my life. That said, photography as a phenomenon, as an activity and aesthetic expression, was for the first decades of my life off-limits. I don’t think I ever dreamed about being a photographer, as if I had come to the conclusion early on that I would never be able pick up a camera and have the mind, heart and skills to convey what I saw to the rest of the world in a meaningful way. That said, I have always had a long-distance relationship with photography and the masters. And there are several identifiable moments in my life when photography came to redefine the paths I chose. Like the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and the photojournalism of the character Teresa. I had a wild desire to do exactly what she did. But again, I shrugged and carried on with other plans as it seemed…well, off-limits to me. However, I did incorporate photography into my work in cinema and especially when directing for the stage. To keep it short: I believe I have always had an immense passion for photography, to the point where I more or less consciously had to force a lid on it. Until of course I could no longer stave it off, which happened only a couple of years ago. And here I am.
Considering your works, which ones marked your entrance in the world of real photography?
The last time I directed for the stage, and the last time I location scouted for a film novella I wanted to do (both happened more or less at the same time). I realized I was deeply unhappy with the nature of directing. I could not carry on with all the dissipation of energy, all the compromises. The core of what I wanted to express and convey couldn’t survive the mundane processes of production. I ran out of steam and felt paralyzed. Not to criticize theatre directing per se, it was more a question of mutual incompatibility. So I eventually got a camera, but didn’t really know what to do with it. Until one day I was sitting in front of the computer doing my taxes and growing increasingly weary of numbers and the general meaningless of most things in life. I suddenly got up, grabbed the camera and said to myself “now I am going to step out into the world and take a real photo”. And I did. BTW, never again have I been able to repeat this feat. It seems impossible to place an order for the taking of a really good photo and then actually do it.
How do you manage colour and B&W?
That is very much part of an ongoing debate I have with myself. I have no trouble admitting that I could – at times – go either way. But I have several series in colour that wouldn’t make any sense in B&W, and vice versa. Most likely I’ll never settle for either or as a general rule of thumb. Of my work on the city of Rome, 70% of my photos are in colour. Maybe because Rome is an extremely chromatic place, and the colours make up for a lot of its peculiar identity. Also, while I was all B&W in the beginning it all changed once I moved on to Fujifilm’s X cameras, and the wonderful Classic Chrome colour profile. It fits snugly with my aesthetics. While I experience many colour profiles as limiting and whatever end result a huge compromise (thus I’d rather shoot for B&W), Fuji’s CC enables my expression.
Which kind of camera do you use?
I mostly use a Fujifilm XT-1 (I have two, while waiting for the XT-2) or an analogue Leica (M2) that I inherited from my granduncle.
What determines if a photo is “good one” or not?
Well, that is the mother of all questions… So much has been said and is being said every day on this topic that it makes little sense for me to go through all the viable “academic” answers. But looking at it empirically, I have a slight clue and one indicator is my immediate emotional reaction upon taking in a photo. If there is such a reaction (I’ve had all of them, from bursting out with laughter to having tears running down my face within seconds), well, that says a lot, though probably not all. If you have to look for the value in a photo, then I feel there is something wrong. A photo brimful of the “right” elements can be as dead as the paper it has been printed on, while a photo where everything is “wrong” can at times hit you right smack in the heart. Go figure. To protect myself from this question I have been hiding behind the words of André Kertész who when asked why he liked a specific photo during what I believe was an interview made by the BBC, repeatedly replied very simply “it pleases me”. That sums it up perfectly to me.
When you are shooting, do you have an image in your mind? Do you build the final photo before shooting it or are your images also a result of a post-production phase?
In all honesty I believe it is impossible not to have images in my mind when I shoot, though that may sound like a provocation. I believe that all the images that I have consumed, digested and experienced throughout my life, and all the images I have photographed or otherwise created are all part of an ongoing dialogue between the world and myself. I cannot and wouldn’t want to position myself outside of this dialogue. And I cannot extricate myself from a referential totality of images. No one can. Then again, this does not mean that I go out with a specific photo in mind trying to look for and capture it. Not as long as we are talking about street photography. It is true that in the beginning I went out consciously wanting to emulate certain photos and photographers, but only for strict training purposes. I believe that is the basics for learning anything. But the goal was only to widen my gaze and heart as much as possible, nothing else. Why would I ever want to take a photo that already exists? By emulating the masters (big and small), the goal is to reinterpret, to add something, to push our knowledge one inch further. To the second part of the question, as to the (digital) post-production phase, I’m heading towards the end of a process of transformation. In the very beginning I spent, though not a lot, still too much time fiddling around with levers and stuff, effectively “creating” the photo after-the-fact on my computer. I’m even half-good at Photoshop and whatnot. Today I feel that if I spend more than a couple of minutes adjusting brightness and black point, I’m actually killing the photo. I’ve seen this time and time again. I have to say that there is nothing more refreshing than undoing every adjustment, seeing the photo as it was shot and then very soberly give it a very limited number of corrections. This happens only in Lightroom, and the most creative I sometimes get is perhaps to do some very basic and simple dodging/burning, the same kind I would be capable of doing myself in a darkroom. To me personally the photograph itself “happens there and then”, in the world and in the camera.
What training did you follow? Who inspired you?
Technically speaking I am 100% self-taught and I have consciously not wanted to attend any course, school or training for the simple fact that academia kills me. Humanly speaking I am a product of the culture I was born into, again, that referential totality that constitutes all of us, and I would have to mention absolutely every experience I have ever had. I am saying this in all honesty and seriousness. My granduncle Harry Braude who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 is an important emotional inspiration. He was an actor and had his entire life ahead of him. I feel inspired to vindicate him and to pick up where he left off as an artist, though of course through a different form of expression. But I realize that the question asks for sources of inspiration from the world of photography. Well, today my greatest emotional-visual inspirators are Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander…and Klein, Eggleston, Levitt, Koudelka, Erwitt, Callahan, Kertesz… Impossible to narrow it down. Of our contemporaries, there are so many that I prefer to mention someone “outside” of the realm of photographers in the strictest sense of the term: David Lynch.
What was your first camera?
A Canon 5D Mark II.
What is photography to you? And what should not be instead?
Photography to me is a way to negotiate my own temporal presence in the Brotherhood of Man. A way to not succumb to apathy and deadly routines. A way to contribute to the ethical survival and evolution of our species. A way to contribute to our collective referential wholeness, very simply by documenting how and who we are. To me personally, photography is the cultivation of culture. And naturally, the best means of self-expression I have yet to come across. As to what it should not be, I am not sure I know how to reply. I reckon we need bad photography in order that good photography may emerge and stand out.
What is the photo that struck you the most of a great historical photographer?
I have tried to find an answer to this question, that is, the one photo that struck me the most. But I wouldn’t be honest to myself had I mentioned one single photo. Instead, I’m going with a couple off the top of my head, knowing very well that my reply will be different a week from now. The first photo that came to mind was Paul Strands 1915 photo Wall Street. The second, Garry Winogrand’s photo from New York 1967, the couple carrying chimps. Both examples of photos that rock me emotionally (and consequently, intellectually) every time I see them or remember them. But there are so many, and I’m sure I’ll regret not having mentioned others instead.
What is your favourite technique?
There are so many, relevant to all the different aspects of practical real world shooting. From how I approach the day, how I move about and position myself relative to a subject, to how I hold the camera and which settings I may opt for. I am currently refining a technique that I’m hardly the first one to come up with, which I’m calling “automatic zone focus”. This in regard to digital photography. If I’m shooting people close (which is far from the only thing I do) and I see a subject, I keep my camera in AF, decide at which distance I want to shoot, point the camera quickly to something at the same distance (the ground, a wall, my hand or leg), half-press prefocus and hold it until the subject is in range and then shoot. I am sure people will cringe at this, but it works very well for me. Apart from this, I believe all techniques are valid. According to specific needs. All techniques and methods are means to a goal, a “towards-which”. Just like a tool. It’s all a matter of picking the right tool. So there is in my book no one single technique that I go to.
Why do street photography?
It is the most intimate and immediate form of communion with humanity, in my experience. Personally, I do street photography because I have a strong notion that it transcends my own me. It is more important than myself. It gives my life a…procedural meaning. It extends me beyond my own neuroses. The public realm is the default “place” of our collective state of mind, the very manifestation of “us”. When we shoot the streets I believe we are acting out a basic human right and obligation, which is to observe, document and interpret history, and the way and who we are. Street photography is a constant dialogue between the city and the citizen, and this continuous refining of our attitude towards the public realm pushes us towards the city of tomorrow. Even before exhibiting our photos, by simply being out there shooting these public phenomena, we inform our fellow citizens that the city warrants, merits being photographed and commented on and interpreted and discussed and remembered. Each time a kid out there sees us, we might just have conceived the street shooter of tomorrow. We produce civic self-awareness by just being there, doing our thing, making new cultural references for the people while in fact practicing a counterculture of seeing, not only being seen. We show people that you can photograph the city and its inhabitants without being a tourist (or a terrorist). I believe this is of enormous importance. But these are intellectual explanations about why I shoot the streets. There is an infinite number of other valid reasons. To be blunt, every human needs self-expression. And this, among all forms of expression I have tried, allows me the most integrity, honesty and eloquence.
What is your best shot and what does it represent for you?
I have thought long and hard about this question, and found it impossible to pick one. Then I remembered the one photo I have that is different from all the others. First of all because it is a proto-photo. I took it 13 years (!) before I started photographing. It was Halloween, 1999 in New York City. What it means to me is that it informs me about what I am searching for going forward. And lately I have been moving more clearly in a direction that ideally reconnects me with that photo. I am increasingly attracted to the metaphysical, hyper realistic and unsettling. Not that that is what the photo is brimful of, but that is what it offers me. The suspension. Both temporarily, spatially, corporeally and emotionally. Somewhere in between the black and the white I feel there are symbols I am only now starting to see. And this research feels right and truly honest to me. I’d say the Halloween photo is most likely not my best, but it is to me – at least right now – my most meaningful photo.
What is your relationship with the street and the people who are in your shots? The streets and the people who inhabit them represent to me a caldron of fear and empathy. People scare me, but at the same time I really, truly platonically love them. I even empathize – a lot – with the 130 kg braindead gorilla in front of me who wants to break my skull with my camera for having photographed him. I think that pretty neatly sums it up.