GIANNI BERENGO GARDIN
Surrounding. Atmosphere. World. These are the words that describe the best Gianni Berengo Gardin, a great storyteller through photography. His frames, full of poetry are made from life, both his life behind a camera and catching others’ lives. A clear path decided by destiny, followed by a unique talent and sensibility. We have met Gianni Berengo Gardin in his shelter in the centre of Milan. A treasure chest where a pair of wooden shoes stands beside a porcelain cow, toy soldiers, thousands of books and magazines, handmade to-scale sailing boats, milk barrels and old cameras. An eclectic universe, a perfect set for his life.
The theme of this issue is Happiness. The common idea of happiness might be children and their light heartedness. I am fascinated by the envy that adults can have towards children’s tranquillity, hence the idea of happiness implicit in children. What do you think about children’s pictures?
I have photographed few children during my career. I have nearly never shot my kids, unless in their early childhood. I am against souvenir photos. That’s way I have few pictures of my parents, because I keep them alive in my mind, while in picture they would be still, so defunct. Therefore, unlike the common idea of a photographer that never set down his camera, at my place I never take pictures. I don’t like shooting kids. I have shot some kids, but never in their role as children, but into a reportage situation. For example, within my collection called “Disperata Allegria”, that is focused on travellers’ camps, there are some pictures that include children. However it is because nomads have many kids and they are part of the camp. They rarely attend school or, better they attend adult’s life, so they were part of the atmosphere of the pictures. Concerning envy, I don’t feel this sensation within a photographic atmosphere. Maybe if I have to indicate something that moves me with jealousy, I am envious of Cartier Bresson’s pictures. Concerning this, I have to say that he gave me the best gift I have ever had in a dedication that says: “To Gianni Berengo Gardin with friendship and admiration from Cartier Bresson”. Having Cartier Bresson’s admiration is a medal I wear with pride.
I am not a photographer, but I tend to see pictures as a tale open to free interpretation. Sometimes I like to imagine what surrounds the image, what is beyond the frame. How do you decide to shoot a situation and what part does the atmosphere play in that?
There are two types of photos that I usually do. On one hand, snapshots, where I decide to catch a situation that moves me, into a frame. On the other hand pictures that I take for books, a kind of novel, more studied and with patience. I prefer this sort of photographic tale. Unfortunately I can’t always make it, because of the difficulty linked to the release of a book. I have made 250 books in my career and I can definitely say that it’s hard. However it is possible to make a novel picture in a single picture too. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer photo sets instead of portraiture, because it includes surroundings more than just faces and people.
Linked to this concept, emotionally speaking, what is the difference between an architectural picture and a shoot that includes people?
It’s been 20 years since I’ve shot an architectural picture. I took so many of them when I used to work for Touring Club. These kinds of pictures are really open to free interpretation; it depends on who is viewing it. A photographer judges them in a way that is different from an architect and, moreover, it is even further and different from a common person’s eye. It’s quite tricky but for versatility it is fascinating too. That is why I prefer photo reports. Architectural pictures, like Gabriele Basilico’s ones for example, are made with an optical bench, they are really precise. Instead, I usually made them with the 35mm camera, so it’s quite a different approach. I have worked for 15 years with Renzo Piano. He used to ask me to shoot construction yards more than completed buildings. Many details are more clear when the architecture is in progress. Again in the construction yard there are people too, so I really enjoyed this view of architectural photo report.
During your life you have travelled a lot. I think that every transfer is an occasion to go deeper into ourselves, a moment of reflection, like the route. Do you prefer the moment of reflection during the way to a place or the coming back home?
Honestly I have never stopped to think about this idea of a journey. Probably I prefer the way to a place instead of the coming back because of the expectation and the thrill to discover something new. While you are coming back you have already finished the adventure and you feel satisfied or disappointed, but we are talking about feelings concerning things done and passed. I have travelled a lot for Touring Club. We used to do 40.000 km in a year, so it was a great and interesting adventure every time. When you leave you always have expectations, either you are at 20 km from home or 2.000. I have to say that the expectation of a shooting, probably is more thrilling than making the shooting for real. That’s because you build the image in your mind, you dream the image and you can both destroy and realize the frame wished.
Sometimes, while I am looking at photos or paintings, I realize that they suggest me a song or a melody. Have you ever thought about it?
I have often though about it. Concerning photography, what has influenced me the most was literature. When I was young, after the war, we were obsessed with the American writers and the prohibited books. For me Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos were so important. When I arrived in the U.S I felt like I already knew that place, so I shot what I had in my mind. I had images made by what I read in those books, what they had suggested to me. Music was really important too. Music rhythm is similar to a photograph’s. I have to say that painters have never influenced me. Painting has influenced me less than literature.
Imperfections and mistakes, from my point of view, are what make something human and emotional. It is due to that feeling of roughness, lived and so tangible. What is your attitude towards imperfection?
For a brief period I made pictures with the optical bench, but I have to say that I didn’t like them. They were too clear and tidy, too precise and sharp. Conversely, for instance with a Laika, you feel more of the substance of a photo, the grain. I love the grain. For sure, it is imprecise, but it is more real. That is the reason why I don’t like postproduction. A picture modified on Photoshop is no more a photo, but an image. Image is really different from a photo. I admit postproduction in graphic design, because you need it and you have to work with patterns and sketches in order to join together reality and dream, but you are not forging it. I approve digital as long as it is linked to a film, but not when digital means purely Photoshop. Concerning this idea of imperfection, I have a memory that affects me a lot. When I was young I lived closed to Anna Magnani’s house. I was often at her place to keep her son company and once she asked me to take some portraits of her. She got close to a window and I noticed that shadows were quite hard there. So I asked her to move to a place where the light was softer, in order to mellow her features and her wrinkles. Well, she looked at me and said: “I conquered these wrinkles one by one and I want to see all of them in the picture”. I would love to tell this story to the men and women of today’s life. Nobody accepts themselves anymore. We are living a life in acceleration. Of course we have to update, but up to a point. For example, if I see a picture the day after its publication and not in the exact moment it comes out, nothing changes. There is no time to enjoy the path, because everyone is running. I am happy to have lived my time in another era. Of course I would like to be in my twenties instead of being in my eighties, but not in these years.
Imagine yourself as a young passionate lover of photography in the noughties, would you make the same life choice or not?
I would love to be a carpenter. When I was young my dream was to be a woodworker, destiny made me a photographer. I was passionate of scale models and shaping wood, because it is a marvellous substance, full of life. When I go in the countryside I caress tree trunks. I love to physically feel plants and their roughness. So I don’t know I would probably challenge destiny.
A nostalgic photographer, a communicative filmmaker, and an authentic artist. Communication and exchange are the basis of his art. The art of a man whose aim is to capture the impressions of his viewers that are often his subjects. People, society and personal obsessions make up Francesco Jodice through his unusual point of view: a mix of culture from the eyes to the mind and always something to query to his audience.
“Spying the judgment of others is so interesting. That’s the reason why I like to take place at my video installation going between people. I usually take a seat in the back rows to enjoy my private show”.
You’ve grown up in a family with a strong passion for photography, literature and art; people so fond of these fields have always surrounded you. So, in a way, you have been hanging around this idea on your path. I like to think that passion has to choose you and not vice versa. How do you feel about that?
I am in a controversial position. On one hand my family, for sure, is a unique habitat. My father, Mimmo, is a well-known photographer and my mother an insatiable reader who pushed me towards finding a plot in everything. The whole time I spent with my family there was an obsession about seeing. I have learnt to use my eyes as an investigational instrument. Moreover, I was constantly trained to recognize what has a beauty inside from what doesn’t. On the other hand I have to say that I had a kind of self-taught vision too. I found all my obsessions through my life. Comics, cinema and videogames became part of my life by chance, so they chose me in a way. I think that my persona is a hybrid between my sight’s education that I have learnt from my family and the historical environment.
Sometimes narrative professions may bring a kind of closure for the author, a sort of private universe where you might be stuck for a while. I have my own way to escape from that situation: people and their private chats. Have you ever lived in a period of closure?
To be honest, I never restrain myself, because I constantly live in a deactivated mood. It is a matter of laziness and I use my energy sparingly. I start to think only if it’s strictly necessary. We need to collect tension in order to produce. I am not a professional I am an artist, so I don’t work on commissions. I don’t have, nor ever have, followed a deadline. It might be focused on an idea for nine months and for three I am in hibernation to purify myself. Generally when I work I develop an idea that comes from a personal necessity. I am not a creative artist, so I don’t work on an assigned theme. Obviously this approach creates struggles with loan payments. So I would say that my idea is to work on compromising instalments with this personal necessity of expression. I don’t have the writer’s block, because nobody asked me to write or narrate something. However it’s true that when you don’t work on a commission, your ideas are born out of conflict. Something intercepted, read or noticed that crashed with reality. I usually unlock and release this struggle and try to create a comparison. I try to transfer my personal difficulty to others and see how they react. My pictures are an incomplete work, because they don’t get the story told in a frame to an end. I take an undefined situation and I show it to my audience to see how they might solve the question posed. It can be seen as a request of help.
So you create contact with people through this incomplete process. Is it possible to create the same relation by showing a mistake captured in a photo or a film?
Not in my personal case. My works don’t admit accidental mistakes. My projects either photos, films and performances, have the basic wish of controlling the whole artefact that I am showing. The aim is to put the viewer in a precise observatory. I am not interested in displaying a definite frame. I am more focused on displaying a precise point of view. That’s the reason why my audience finds a bulletproof composition in my work. The light and geometry, prospection, everything is extremely studied and constructed in order to offer the possibility to start at something with a dedicated attention. We can assess that the mistake in my works is in the event itself. The viewer is in front of a mistake that raises a question. It might be a way to get a free physiological service too.
You have used a slot machine method to select and expose your project at the Prado in 2011. This approach has brought me to a double consideration. First of all I see the slot machine and its own basics as an analogy with the unpredictable cycle of life, and then the jackpot. You have studied several visual associations of people, matched together to be your own jackpot; a sort of order in the chaos of sequences. However if we see our life as a slot machine, we might not recognise our jackpot. Have you ever thought about this possibility of an undiscovered jackpot?
Fortunately in life, jackpots are not controlled by a machine that doles out so many perfect occasions. Moreover I think that life’s jackpot is a private temporary combination. If I had given the camera to twenty people within the Prado, I would have had twenty different jackpots. That’s the beauty of life. I was interested in exploring the relation between people and art pieces. A museum like the Prado never looks the same. In a moment the atmosphere could change: different people, colours, noises and smells, a combination that would never come twice, surround you. All these elements within the room will influence the way you are enjoying an art piece. It is like a chaotic variable, the same variable that you can find in paints. This variable might seem a fortuitous thing, but actually nothing comes by chance. It is the same theory that I used for my slot machine. You have these images projected randomly controlled by the hard disk; however it was the software, a sort of divine figure, which decided the combination. So every minute you would have this sublime coherence, like the coherence you can find in the art pieces within the museum. It is life that reruns art and vice versa. Something accidentally studied. An ordered chaos.
Often you talk about democracy in your works. A wished one, studied up to a point, especially in the phase of publishing selection. Have you ever thought of a democratic universe without a pre-planned idea behind it?
In science fiction novels the final gains of democracy coincide with the end of civilization. There won’t be any kind of friction and emotion too, so it would be a complete collapse. Luckily democracy has to be like a Chimera, so of course we have to tend to democracy, but always with a dreamy attitude. Concerning museums and art, we can take the example of the Prado here too. Two hours a week, during the evening, the access to Prado is free. This is a niche of civilization. For example, tourists and the masses don’t know anything about this initiative. I see these two hours like a reminder of a public service. That art pieces do not belong to the museum, or to the government or to the king. They belong to people. Art is something made by people for people, so it has to be held onto by them. During those two hours free of charge, people are coming back home.
Your work is a continuous exchange with the audience. In this swap, light has an important role. Overexposure is a visual and mental incentive for viewers. Concerning this, where is the difference between night and day within a communicative aspect?
Luigi Ghirri, the most important exponent of Italian photography had a brilliant theory about light. When the technological possibility to shoot at night came out, he was grateful because, finally, it was possible to see the other half of our lives. Overexposure is an instrument to put my audience out of whack. Turning night into day is just a trick that helps me to reach the only question that I really care about from my audience: “What am I looking at?”. I live photography as a private process. While filmmaking is the maximum expression of a choral work, photography is the opposite state. Shooting alone at night with the optical bench it means that your picture will capture all the instants, reflections and feelings you were having during that portion of time. It is an intense private act that just the night can offer.
You have coined an expression “disintellettualizzazione” (a process of loss of knowledge and culture). You said that it occurred from the eighties. I’d like to ask you, what is the main reason for this “disintellettualizzazione”?
Luckily it is not a global warning; there are several ethnic groups that are living through a deep cultural process. While we are regressing to the primitive era, other areas, grown under an oppressive state, are enriching themselves through freedom. They have the wish to take a cultural step forward, something that we are losing. So my theory goes along with the historical period and can’t be detached. Maybe it is just a form of nostalgia of what we used to be as Italians and the fact that I miss that strength and desire for living. The same vehemence is what gives you the desire to go ahead.
Concerning youth, I have personally noticed a deep lack of understanding; nobody knows what irony and wit are. What is the reason for this from your point of view?
Many philosophers think that irony is one of the pointers to find intelligence in a generation. The lack of irony is such a bad spy. We have been uneducated towards irony and smart humour too. I may blame it on public television that fired our clever comedians. It is a shame, because irony goes along with happiness. I think that irony is a way of subversion, but most of all, the talent of being able to imagine an upside down world.