Photography: a time capsule everyone can contribute to

On this fine Sunday morning, I discovered a website that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. It’s called Vintage Everyday, and its tagline reads “bring back nostalgia and memories”. And it does, oh if it does, although technically it’s not even nostalgia: most of us simply don’t remember those times because we just never lived in them. Still, it’s an unbelievable collection that will keep you browsing for hours.

It contains photos of times past: people dressed in the style of their time, billboards with traditional advertising, cities shaped in ways now alien. It’s mesmerizing, and in a different way from sites collecting pictures of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as the appropriately named Old HollywoodVintage Everyday is different because it collects images of everyday people and everyday places, not famous movie stars, and in a sense it shows the human side of history. A similar feeling can be had by browsing one’s own family photo albums, but in that case the familiarity of the faces prevents from observing the surrounding elements: when a photo depicts someone you know, you notice them and don’t pay much attention to what’s around them, or even to the details about themselves. Oftentimes people have pointed out things about my own photos of models that I had completely missed, despite having taken and worked on the image for a while.

A few pages into Vintage Everyday, I had an epiphany that I want to share with you. I noticed that at the time these photos were taken, they probably weren’t that special. Certainly in the 1940s having a camera was not an ordinary thing as it is now, as they were harder and more expensive to operate: I have this romantic idea of a photographer being seen if not as a full-fledged artist, at least as someone with a special ability, to speak: you couldn’t just pick up a camera and start shooting. A posed portrait, as many of our own family albums clearly show, was a big deal. However, I’m quite confident that all these pictures at the time were just that, pictures. “Oh look, there’s a photo of a lady walking down a New York street.” “Ah, these kids are playing with a make-believe car.” These images, at the time, must have been relatively uninteresting except to the parties involved.

Fast forward a few decades, and they become treasure troves. History gets in the way and gives these photos a whole new meaning. That lady isn’t just walking in New York City, she is walking confidently in New York City; and the workers in the background, blurred in distance to the point that maybe nobody had noticed them before, are stealing a glance at her while unloading crates of fruit from a truck. Is it the first time they see a woman being that confident? It may very well be: times were a-changing. And those kids playing are blissfully enjoying their own fantasy world, oblivious to the fact that their fathers are fighting a war on the other side of the Atlantic; perhaps that’s why their mothers look at them from the kitchen window, undecided between hope and concern.

At the center — or rather at the side — of everything, always the same thing: a camera and a photographer. That’s how everyday history is documented, with rolls of film by unnamed photographers preserving reality for posterity. Every single photo that was ever taken and that will ever be taken is by its very own definition unique, because at any given moment in time and at any given place in space there is room for only one camera. Every time a shutter fires, life as it is right there and right then is immortalized. Time stops as the image becomes a frail and irreplaceable time capsule.

Even a photo that looks plain or boring at first sight may acquire significance over time. Just look around you: how many things have changed in the last ten years? How many benches have been added or removed, how many shops have changed names, how many buildings have been repainted? And how many times have you seen photos from other countries and felt that even seemingly familiar landscapes were not that familiar after all?

The ubiquity of cameras today means that we can effectively document the changes brought by history, virtually without any effort. That doesn’t mean that it’s become a useless process; on the contrary, it means that we are all empowered and we all should use this ability more often and with more dedication, once we grasp how far-reaching this may be.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop taking useless selfies and turn the lens towards the world, so that the generations to come will be able to feel the same nostalgia for a time we never lived in as we do when we look at photos from a century ago.

(Image on top: Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909 — From Vintage Everyday)

Of art, dreams and goals

What is art? According to Dictionary.com, “[art is] the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” That’s a pretty neat definition. Note the last part: “more than ordinary significance”. That means that the viewer, or listener — or more generally, the recipient of art — has to be influenced and affected by the work, for it to be defined art. If that doesn’t happen, it means that it’s not really art after all.

It’s a very subjective matter, of course. For instance I personally don’t like most of Picasso’s works, but I do find his Guernica quite unsettling. It affects me, so to me it is art.

Some say that you have to be “trained” before you can appreciate some kinds of art. I disagree with that: while it is true that some people may learn to “get” it after being exposed to some theory (I still don’t “like” most of Picasso’s works, but I understand them better now), it’s also true that real art should trigger responses so ancestral not to require any training. But does this make it any easier to produce real art? No, not at all; au contraire, mes amis.

It is extremely difficult to come up with something that makes something happen in the recipient’s soul. Whether it’s a piece of music, or a photograph, or a painting, or  a sculpture, or a theatrical act, or a film, or even a comic book, it is hard, extremely hard, to leave a mark.

My favorite painter of all times, Salvador Dalí, was a master at it. He blended perfect technical skills with deep thoughts that reach anybody. You will have a hard time finding someone who says that Dalí wasn’t that good. You may not like surrealism, or you may not like his subjects, but his works… work. Of course, having some training will make it even more amazing, yet it will be accessible to anybody. You don’t need to know the meaning of the melting watches in The Persistence of Memory to appreciate it, and certainly you don’t need to understand every detail of The Temptation of Anthony to be spooked by it.

Was he trying to leave a mark on people? Most likely. Was he trying to be an artist? No. You cannot decide to be an artist. If you refer to yourself as an artist, take a deep breath and think about it logically: can anybody call themselves an artist? It’s others’ response to one’s work that can potentially turn the author into an artist.

This is why I reject the idea of an “artistic manifesto.” It’s difficult enough to get rid of labels gotten by someone else; why would I want to label myself, and lock myself into such a cage?

When I have an idea for a photo, I ask myself: what kind of feeling do I want to convey with it? What is the best way to approach it, technically and emotionally? More often than not, it’s entirely unrelated to my previous images. I do have my temporary obsessions, no doubt; but I easily go from “industrial” macrophotography to astrophotography to landscapes to portraits to whatever else I feel like working with. All the photos I linked to in the previous sentence have undergone some amount of post-processing, too. If I had locked myself within a “no post-processing” movement, I wouldn’t have managed to publish any of those.

However, many people seem to think that, by merely adhering to an artistic movement or manifesto, or even by simply getting hold of a compact digicam, they become artists. Photography is arguably the most accessible of arts: cameras are cheap nowadays, not much thinking is necessarily required, and the Internet allows for worldwide instant exposure. They start taking pictures, uploading them, sprinkle some allegedly soul-deep titles and descriptions. Is that art? I don’t think so.

I am not saying that one needs an expensive camera to produce photographic art, and indeed I have taken many of my most appreciated photos with a tiny, old Canon A70. Limited equipment certainly introduces forced constraints that may not be worked around, which may actually stimulate creativity: it wasn’t until early 2014 that I got hold of my first stabilized lens, and not having such luxury forced me to learn how to use what I had more effectively. The equipment itself does not define an artist, for better or worse: a big camera won’t make you a real photographer any more than using filters on Instagram will. Would you ever think that a painter is better than another because she has a bigger brush?

For instance, many people ask me for advice about which lens to buy. They will normally have had their basic kit lens for a while and feel ready to expand their gear. That’s perfectly reasonable, but they should already have an idea of what they want to do. They should be asking me: “which lens among these do you think is the most appropriate for what I want to do?” Yet they expect me to give them a direct answer, and when I ask what kind of photography they have in mind, they shrug.

To me that just means one thing: they haven’t reached the point where their craft hits the limit imposed by their equipment, let alone try to overcome it; they just want a new toy, which is absolutely fine as long as they’re being honest with themselves. Most of them simply aren’t. And how can you impress others with what you’re trying to say through a medium like photography if you’re not being honest with yourself about the very approach you take with it? To put it in perspective: what’s the use of an expensive guitar if you’re only playing three chords and can’t be bothered to learn how to replace the strings? How can you expect me to get goosebumps if you’re disguising the sheer desire for a new toy with artistic claims that you don’t even truly endeavor to fulfill?

Too many people focus on the end result, on dreams of fame. The internet is a worldwide stage, and it makes seem easy. But why do we do this? Do we take photos, compose music, paint drawings, write stories for the fame? For the honor? For the money that might or might not come? What is our one, true goal? I would like to hope that we do this because we enjoy the process. The biggest reward should be knowing that someone, somewhere, was moved by what we made. If money and fame come, good. If they don’t, then it’s not the end of the world: we didn’t do it for that. As long as at least one person will tell me they appreciated my images, I’ll keep doing them; not every day, not every week, not every month, for bills ought to be paid and work ought to be done. But I will not quit until I’m sure that nobody ever looks at them anymore: only then I will feel like I’ve failed. I don’t need to be called an artist, in fact that makes me a little uneasy when someone ventures out and does so: it’s such a big word, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m worthy of it. I just want to share what’s on my mind, whether through words or light, with anyone who may be interested.

That is my one, true goal: I want to communicate.