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.

I am a photographer. I am an observer.

These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my photography.
As many of you probably know, during the last year I’ve been cooperating with my friend, make-up artist Stefania Di Gregorio, on portraits of models in my home studio. The studio is actually a work in progress itself, as I build it piece by piece as I go.

Taking photos of people is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I never managed to convince anyone to pose for me before. My origins as a photographer, in any case, are in the field of landscapes and macrophotography.

There is something about macrophotography that always fascinated and attracted me. I don’t have specific high-end equipment for that kind of images: I use basic extension tubes that allow my Sigma 18-200 zoom to focus much closer than normal. This way, I can be as a close as I want to my subject, at the expense of doing everything manually, including forcing the lens to be stopped down; the only help I can count on is assisted metering, which needs to be manually biased anyway.

The whole process is tedious, frustrating, annoying; and yet, it is also exceedingly pleasant at the same time. I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but for the longest time I felt that something eluded me. Then I realized what it was.

Some photographers find comfort into setting everything up; they can create exactly the scene that they want to shoot. In a way they work like abstract painters: they create something that’s not there. It’s their way of telling a story: they are fable tellers, they conjure up a tale and make it real in front of the lens, then play with it in post-process until it’s exactly what they had in mind. There is nothing wrong with it, and it’s an approach that eventually all photographers tinker with. There is indeed a fine line between a setting up staged picture and giving an existing scene a little help.

But staging an image is time-consuming, requires perfection that can only be achieved through long attempts at trial and error, and can be expensive: good equipment certainly is, as I was recently reminded by cheaper alternatives that broke down on me on day one.
Some people build their careers on staging shots. Fashion photographers, for instance, literally do that for a living. Many amateurs also enjoy fiddling with props until they get the shot just right, just for the sheer pleasure of creation.

I am a little different. While I have my own share of fun helping scenes “pop” in my pictures — for instance through the use of off-camera flashes or the like — I am more of an observer.
When I first started playing with digital cameras, over a decade ago, I was strongly against post-processing. You must forgive me here: I was young and, let’s say it, quite stupid. Being against something on the pretense that “straight out of camera” pictures are inherently better is, to say the least, preposterous. When I switched to reflex cameras, and especially to shooting RAW, I realized that post-processing is as important as exposing the scene in the first place. Still, I’m one of those people who would rather spend more time with a camera firing the shutter than with a mouse applying layer masks.

That is it: I am an observer.

When I set out to do macro work, for instance, I spend what to others must seem like an eternity on the same flower, taking countless images of the bugs hovering around it. I don’t even take my eye off the camera’s viewfinder. Everything around me is blackened out, and I am concentrated exclusively on the scene I watch through the lens, forgetful of any awkward position I may be in (I am usually reminded of that by muscle pain that arises a few hours later.)
I take hundreds of pictures. Many will be out of focus or blurry; that’s the price to pay for using cheap equipment: no autofocus, limited depth of field that can’t be easily changed, and so on. Some of the photos will be good to publish, with some little help in post-process, mostly to tweak colors and exposure. I like the challenge.
But that is not the reason I go through all of this. I could get a €400 dedicated macro lens and make it all easier, and eventually I will.

I do it this way because it lets me observe. After a few minutes of looking through the lens and seeing bees dancing over petals, bugs crawling on leaves, caterpillars embracing stems, spiders meticulously knitting webs; after a few minutes of this, I am part of that small, huge universe. I start seeing things that I wouldn’t see otherwise. I’ll notice the patterns, the rhythms, the details, and sometimes even the creatures, that are so small that upon first glance they appeared invisible.
Sometimes I don’t even immediately take the pictures off the memory card. The experience alone is worth it, regardless of whether any image is usable or not.

I recently realized that I do the same thing with landscape photography. In truth, I tend to do this with any kind of photography I am working on. Instead of setting up the scene, I observe it and document it without changing it. My strongest urge is to retain the purity of what’s before my eyes, so that I can capture it as fully as possible. I don’t try to make up a story to tell; rather, I record the story that’s already there. It is not always easy, and indeed at times I think it would be easier to just go ahead and set things up.

This is not to say that I will not try to optimize the results of my work: I often add light as I need, though the ultimate goal of that, for instance, is using the extra light to enhance what’s already there. You need specific light to make whirling puffs of smoke or falling droplets of water show on an image, but that’s where I’ll stop most of the time. Even my post-processing is fairly conservative: I will enhance the imageto match the feelings I was having when I shot it, but I never go too far with changes. Even with people, I’d rather have my models use props at the time of shooting than waste hours in Photoshop. More simply, I’d rather tinker with lenses and equipment to capture the scene than to change it beyond recognition.

I think that my approach to photography matches my personality. I was never the one who wanted to be in the spotlight; I’ve always rather enjoyed being on the sides, looking towards the stage instead of being on it. I feel that my role, as a photographer — and why not, as an all-around reporter — is to describe what’s there instead of making it up. It is just who I am, and what I like to do. I like to provide my viewers with the reality I see, enhanced in a way that I see fit, and have them derive their own version of the story that I wanted to tell. I am not as presumptuous as to think that I will always be able to convey my own emotions into an image, nor that the feelings I have about a scene are the same as those of any of my viewers.

This is, I believe, the beauty of photography. There is no good or wrong way of doing any single thing. Everything is open to choices across all the steps that go from the original emotion to the final image. No two photographers will take the same picture, and that’s what makes this art truly magic.

All I know is that I will keep observing reality and occasionally fiddling with it, to achieve what my ultimate goal is: to bring you stories to enjoy.

Photographic trends I just don’t understand

It is no mystery that I have a passion for photography. Having published two books and posting regularly on my Flickr stream, and knowing the theory of optics in addition to just snapping around, I think I know what I’m doing. Mind you, this does not mean I consider myself an artist. It may sound cliché, but I am strongly convinced that artist is a definition that others should cast upon you, rather that something you call yourself. In fact, despite what I am often told, I do not feel like my photography is that good. It’s not false modesty: I really don’t think so.

However, ever since the introduction of cheap compact cameras (and, god forbid, cheap reflex cameras), photography became mainstream. There is nothing inherently wrong with it – the more the merrier, right? – yet there are some trends in photography that I simply do not understand, and some that are just plain bad. Needless to say, these annoyances are most often perpetrated by hipsters or (gasp!) wannabe hipsters. Now, it has to be clarified that my concept of hipster includes not just the traditional, American-ish hipster, but more generally all those “subcultures” – trust me, quotes were never more appropriate – that strive to be alternative and ultimately fail to be unique. This includes, admittedly due to my cultural vantage point, the decadent leit-motif that seems to permeate the life of Italian teenage girls and young women. I may write specifically about this matter, as it’s not specific to photography.

So, without further ado, let me present a roundup of the most annoying trends in photography today. It goes without saying that this is merely my personal opinion.

Continue reading “Photographic trends I just don’t understand”