Shedding Light on Gianni Galassi
Gianni Galassi’s PhotoGraphia was October 2010′s F-BoM. We hop on our Vespa and brave the crazy Roman traffic to find Gianni and ask him a few questions. A lot of hand gestures are sure to be involved.
Ciao Gianni! Grazie mille per parlare con noi. Why don’t we start off with the easy stuff (and stick to English!), like telling us how you got started in Photography and how long you’ve been practising.
When I was a child I was green with envy because of that mysterious and gorgeous device hanging from my uncle’s neck (it was a Rolleicord). The few times he allowed me to look through the viewfinder I was so excited that eventually my parents gave me a Ferrania Eura for my birthday. I was five or six and I wasn’t even able to put film inside it. But I started learning how to guesstimate focus and get a decent framing. By the way, I lost track of the Eura, whereas my uncle’s Rollei now sits in my cameras closet. So to answer your question, I started taking snapshots exactly 50 years ago, but my first “aware” photographs go back to when I was 14.
The next obvious question is to ask how you arrived at your current Photographic style. What would you call your genre, Square Contrastivism maybe?
Well, I never bothered looking for a proper name for my photographic style, but if you agree I’ll adopt yours, which is clever, learned, thorough and concise. How did I get there? The process took my entire life, of course. Looking back to my older works, I can recognize in retrospect the traces of what I do now. Have I been aware I was following this path since the beginning? Hell, no. I wish I had. But what makes a beginner a beginner is exactly this anxiety-inducing unawareness. It was deeply frustrating sometimes, as creativity is a tough thing to get hold of. Especially when you are in your twenties. Now I am definitely a happier photographer than I was at that time. Generally speaking, I am a happier man.
By all means, adopt the term, I’ll be honoured! Looking through your exhibition catalogue, Square, I enjoyed not only the images, but the evolution that I saw taking place before my eyes as I flipped the pages. Your first images from 2005-06 are more literal, and I feel maybe tentative, as if you were timid and unsure of where you were going. By 2008 the images are bold and self-assured and I feel your artistic vision is crystal clear. Am I imagining this?
On the contrary, you are making a point here. Until 2007, the year of my EXTRALIGHT exhibition, I was still concerned about codes. That is, notwithstanding my strong interest for the new aesthetic territories I was exploring, I was afraid to stray too much from the realm of what we usually consider “photography”. So there was a certain restraint, a sort of stylistic chasteness, in my images most of the times. For the same reason I still captioned my photographs according to the classic what-where-when pattern. Now I got rid of all this, along with other redundant elements within the image.
When and how did you arrive at the square format?
When I was a commercial photographer I primarily shot on rectangular 4×5 inch sheet film and sometimes on rectangular 24×36 mm film. Rectangular frame made me feel at home. This is why I hated when my customers asked me for 6×6 cm negatives or transparencies. Square frame made me feel lost. When shooting my Hasselblad or Rolleiflex I really became clumsy. Getting a well balanced and geometrically organized setting without the comfort of the rectangle turned out to be almost impossible to me. Until the day I stumbled upon Flickr, the online photo community whose members can post their rectangular photographs (landscape or portrait) into an invisible square grid. Soon I realized that if I wanted to take advantage of the whole available area inside that grid, so that my photographs would appear bigger, I’d have to post square ones. And I did. I have been editing square photographs for about four years now. My third last exhibition bore the word SQUARE as its title, and BLACK&BLUE, the one I did in Venice this summer, was exclusively made of square photographs as well. In short, this discovery of mine (big deal!, you’ll say) is the result of a technical feature/limitation.
Your photographs, though mostly abstract, rely heavily on urban subjects. You concentrate on Rome, your hometown, but do you ever purposely go elsewhere looking for new inspiration?
Devoting much of my time to photography, sometimes I randomly catch a good shot, sometimes I roam aimlessly all over my city (or wherever I happen to be) and find my subjects serendipitously. In other words, my locations can be deliberately selected, or found by chance. Anyway I made a habit of noting down anything interesting I see, so that I can come back under more favorable lighting conditions. And I always—I mean ALWAYS—have a camera with me. Furthermore, I always get out alone. Following me during my photo wanderings would be a torture for anyone. Although my wife and I always take into account the photographic value of the places we visit, I don’t travel purposely. But about one third of my photographs have been taken out of Rome.
Do you take other types of photos or do you dedicate yourself exclusively to your Square Contrastivism?
I have been working on merchant ships and wharfs for the last five years, taking photographs in Europe and North-Africa. But those files are sitting almost unexploited in my hard disk for the time being, as I’m not so interested in a literal portrayal of those subjects. Therefore I’m experimenting new ways to build a body of work about ships, based on a strong visual concept. The concept is clear enough to me: a celebration of bigness, metal and engineering. The trouble is that this idea should translate into an actual technique sooner or later. Which is not easy at all, if you have standards. It’s a trial-and-error-and-thinking-and-retrial process. But it’s not frustrating at all. It’s stimulating, exciting sometimes. Meanwhile my working on Square Contrastivism (hey, I’m already familiar with this definition) goes on. In my effort to get rid of any superfluous element, I’m going more abstract lately. And experimenting with split compositions. I’m also seeing a lot of early 20th century paintings; they are very inspirational. Photography has more debts with contemporary art than we usually think.
Most urban photographers rely on their trusty legs to get around while photographing, but you use a bicycle to get around. Having experienced the traffic of Rome, I find this insane from a self-preservation point of view, but I also wonder how it is you spot subjects while cycling, an activity that takes a lot more concentration than walking.
That’s what I wonder too. As a matter of fact, Rome is the only Middle-East capital devoid of a European district. On the other hand, more than camera, the choice of vehicle is crucial. We are speaking of a badly managed urban environment here. That’s why I even sold my car six months ago. In heavy traffic, a car is a calamity, and parking is a hassle. Despite a couple of motorcycles sleeping in my garage, when it comes to photography I prefer my bicycle. I actually think a bicycle is the best photographer’s companion. You don’t have to wear a helmet—at least in my country—you can easily go against traffic or cross pedestrian areas, and you can stop wherever and whenever you want, in order to survey your location or get the best shooting point. If it wasn’t for my bicycle, most of my best photographs wouldn’t even exist. The EXIF data should include a “means of transport” field. It’s a crucial information. But you are right: bicycling and shooting at the same time would be a risky business no matter the place, and doing it in Rome is insanely dangerous. Yet there are more dangers at issue. A man with a camera is never welcome in the surroundings of a factory or of a building site, especially in a country of crooks like Italy. At various times I have been roughly approached by people who looked like having something to hide. That’s why I always carry a couple of my books when I’m out shooting; they help me demonstrate that I’m not a journalist looking for a scoop, and make a handy gift to soften even the toughest watchdog.
Now we come to the nearly obligatory gear section. You are somewhat atypical in your choice of equipment in that you prefer small-sensor zoom cameras, and lately you’ve been using micro-4/3 too. Did your square photographs evolve with your taste in cameras and did one influence the other?
Yes and yes. After ditching DSLRs three years ago I switched to compact cameras. I was looking for a lighter, smaller and unobtrusive tool like the film M Leicas I was familiar with, but the first digital M, the M8, apart from its insane price, was so disappointing that I resold it one month later. This is why I started trying alternatives. So came the Canon G10, an almost perfect camera I’m still very fond of: its ergonomics remind me of my old Lecica CL (one of my favorite cameras ever) and low-ISO image quality is really stunning. Later, after the launch of the Micro Four Thirds system, I decided that a Panasonic GF1 with three lenses (20mm, 14-45mm and 14-140mm) would be a reliable substitute to my old Nikon APS-C equipment. Last year I also bought a pocketable Panasonic TZ-65, and I’m now getting familiar with the Canon S95, another gem. As you can see, I gradually gave up optical viewfinders, and I learned framing through the rear LCD screen. Doing this, I found again my old view camera ways, with the advantage of an un-reversed image, which improved my ability to geometrically compose before shooting. Moreover, thanks to the LCD’s adjustable brightness, I can pre-visualize the contrast and closed shadows that mark out my stile. As for the square format, I never use the 1:1 option available, for instance, in the GF1, as I need more image on the sides to correct vertical perspective in Photoshop. 4:3 is the ratio I use the most.
You’ve been quite outspoken in your blog about your perfect camera. Could you explain it again for those of our readers who aren’t familiar with your blog? And could you tell us on a scale of 0 to 10 how likely you think it is that this ideal camera will ever be made?
My dream camera should be, more or less, like this:
- Body and ergonomics: like the Canon G series, except for the mode dial, which should be replaced by a programmable shutter-speed/aperture dial, and the viewfinder, which should be electronic (1,5 million dots) and located at the left corner, like in Leica M bodies.
- 12–15 megapixel backlit sensor, 1/1,7” or a little bigger: firmware and image processor are getting better every day; IMHO the future is not in the so called “full frame” (“full” as to what?) but in the development of smaller and better chips.
- Fully configurable buttons and dials via Panasonic or Nikon styled menus; forget Canon crappy menus; this configuration should be done once and for all, whereas everyday shooting options should mainly be operated through the physical interface (buttons and dials).
- Fixed 25-300mm equivalent lens, self-collapsing and self-capping; lateral color aberration and geometric distortion should be firmware corrected in-camera.
- B (bulb) shutter mode.
- Video and flash: I don’t care, as I never use either.
Being an optimist and a lucky man, I think the chances a manufacturer will sell a camera like this in the next three years are at least 6 over 10.
Ha ha ha, how precise of you, a 60% chance. I think it’s more like 10%, but I’m a cynical realist! Now back to your Photography. Your images are unabashedly postprocessed; do you know exactly what you want to do to an image when you take the photo, or is there some experimenting on the computer once you see the initial image on the screen?
I hate having too many files to manage, so I never press the shutter button if I don’t have a precise idea of the image that will come out of that capture. On the other hand I never stop experimenting, and sometimes, during post-processing, I find new unexpected ways to interpret my shot and consequently render my photograph. For instance, I’m experimenting with daylight long exposures lately. I don’t know whether results will come or not, but I’m sure I’ll learn something which will end up improving my more usual style. A successful photograph is the result of a process that is non-linear and full of mistakes and rejects: it’s all in there.
You cite Lucien Hervé and El Lissitzky as two major influences, and it’s eerie to look at their art because it’s quite clear that if the two had a baby, it would be you! Did you consciously set out to create a blend of these two artists’ work or was it a subconscious thing?
If you ask me if I deliberately tried to follow the same paths of the artists I admire, the answer is no. When it comes to art, one becomes aware of his/her debts only at the end of a process. Nonetheless there are masters whose work has always moved something inside me. More often painters than photographers, I must say. Last month I visited the Guggenheim Collection in Venice for the umpteenth time. There is a room where I always stand in deep emotion, where my favorite Sironi and De Chirico paintings are displayed side by side.
That’s a good point, that influences only become apparent after the fact and are not something purposeful. Do you plan on continuing with this style for the foreseeable future or is this just “a phase”? If so, where do you see yourself photographically in 5 years?
Well, I think I’m dealing with a contradiction here: creativity is an evolutionary process, yet I have the strange feeling that I always take the same photograph. As for the future, I don’t know exactly where I will be in 5 years, but I’m reasonably sure that I’ll be more far away from literal photography than I am now: not an easy task, but a fascinating and exciting quest. “Less is more” is my guiding mantra.
Thank you so much for your time, Gianni. Can I give you a call next time I’m in Rome? Maybe I can hitch a ride on the back of your bicycle.
You will be welcome. The final destination of our ride will be a good restaurant, I promise.
PS: I was going to ask Gianni one last question about his exhibits and what goes on behind the scenes, but I saw that shortly after I sent him my interview questions he wrote a post about it which is probably more in-depth than any answer he could have given me, so I direct you to his article Knowledge if you wish to learn about the intricacies of exhibiting, Gianni Galassi style.
All photos: ©Gianni Galassi.
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- F-BoM October 2010: Gianni Galassi
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Tags: F-BoM, Gianni Galassi, Interviews, micro four thirds, Photographers, Photography