Artist Conversations Featured Lifestyle
Three Italian Photographers: Marcello Galvani, Francesco Neri, Luca Nostri
By David Chandler
Sep 16, 2022
Photographs and portraits by John Spinks
In a recent Drake’s conversation with the Italian photographer Guido Guidi, I referred to three photographers of a younger generation, also living and working in Emilia-Romagna, who have come under Guidi’s influence and have helped carry forward a distinctive identity for photography in that region. Like Guidi, Marcello Galvani, Francesco Neri and Luca Nostri, all work within a realist tradition based on the close observation and documenting of ordinary life. They have chosen to work locally, with subjects they know well, seeing familiar scenes, locations, rituals and people as rich in tradition and history, but also alive with idiosyncrasies. Each intimate detail, each sign, each particular slant of light in their photographs quietly resonates with a story of time and experience slowly passing and with a culture of living that is simple and matter of fact, but also like an unfolding mystery. Because in the photographs of Nostri, Neri and Galvani, what is familiar is never fully known. For them the camera is a tool for looking more intently, more deeply, to discover those things in the everyday that might not necessarily be noticed; or to so carefully record what is fleeting or commonplace that it acquires a dignity and grace worthy of our attention. And in this these three photographers submit to the transformative power of the camera to reveal a form of untold truth or, perhaps more accurately, to provide a more intense speculation about the complex world around them. For just as the ordinary and extraordinary coexist in their work, so the fine textures and atmospheres, the human conditions, of a specific place in Italy, reach out through their pictures to other places, other lives.
As well as working as a photographer, Luca Nostri is the founding curator of Lugo Land that since 2004 has commissioned work, published books and provided a research platform and an experimental environment for photography in the town of Lugo. His curatorial work there has also included original research with the archive of the photographer Paolo Guerra who worked in Lugo from 1946 until the 1960s, and which formed part of his PhD studies recently completed at Plymouth University in England. His latest book Anselmo was published by Linea di Confine in 2020.
Francesco Neri is a teacher and photographer. In 2018, he was awarded the inaugural August Sander Prize for Portrait Photography by Die Photographische Sammlung/ SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, for his project The Farmers, which was published as a monograph by Hartmann Books In 2020. A previous monograph Trophy and Treasure was published by SK Stiftung Kultur in 2017. Neri has exhibited his work in Italy and internationally since 2006. He lives and works in Faenza, where he is currently Professor of Photography at the Institute of Graphic Design.
Marcello Galvani has published a number of photographic books, including: Queste sei fotografie (Aedizioni, 2010), Di palo in frasca (ed. del Bradipo, 2015), La molla è un motore (ed. Quinlan, 2016), Eggs and Asparagus (Skinnerbooks, 2017) and Meteo (Sete edizioni, 2020).
His photographs are part of the permanent collections of the MAR Museum in Ravenna; MAXXI in Rome; the Fotomuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland, and the Fondation A Stichting in Brussels. Galvani lives and works in Massa Lombarda.
In the following conversation, I talk to Nostri, Neri and Galvani about the teaching and influence of Guido Guidi, about developing their photography within a localised culture, the identity of Italian light and their relationship with contemporary Italian photography more generally.
David Chandler: I recently conducted an interview with Guido Guidi and in my introduction to that conversation I mentioned you all as photographers, living locally, who had in various ways come under Guido’s influence. I know you were all taught by Guido in Ravenna, so there is a specific connection there, but as I said in my previous remarks, you have all become Guido’s colleagues and friends. I know very well that this relationship does not define you as contemporary photographers, but as a way of opening up our discussion and forming a link to the prior feature on Guido, I wondered whether you could talk about Guido’s example and presence for you, and about the continuities and differences you see in your own current practices and ambitions?
Marcello Galvani: Yes, we met Guido at the Academy of Fine Art in Ravenna. His lessons were illuminating. He promoted a kind of visual literacy. In many ways, he opened a lot of doors. I think also his personal career, not only his teaching, has something to do with a didactic approach. A recent retrospective in Barcelona curated by Marta Daho is called ‘Da Zero’. The exhibition points to the fact that he wanted to retrace a personal history of photography, from the beginning, by exploring the photographic language in so many different ways.
Inevitably and geographically, a sort of ‘craft laboratory’ was formed around him. In this respect, it is significant that Guido’s father was a carpenter. The laboratory seems a kind of bottega rinascimentale (Renaissance workshop) in which we learn the tools of the trade and share our works and experiences. And saying that leads me to the word tradition. It came from the Latin tradere that means to deliver, to hand down. I once heard a lecture by R. Ronchi, an Italian philosopher, on the issue that tradition and innovation are ultimately the same thing. As tradition is a passing from hand to hand and not a cult of ashes, innovation starts always from the past through hybridization and transformation. Even in biology, the gills of fish have become lungs out of the water, or socially certain shamanic rites that have been orally transmitted for generations have become something completely different.
It is in the process passing on and re-asking of questions posed by those who have preceded us that new investigations arise. I think that each of us has the awareness of that and we try to work with these tools to find our own temperature and personal voice. Because we know photography is, yes, related to the rules of the camera, but also to what goes on 'inside' of the person who controls it.
Francesco Neri: I definitely agree with what Marcello said about what happened during those years. The ‘illuminating factor’ were very important for all of us I guess. Looking back, I think we all know that, while Guido was talking about photography, he was basically talking about life.
Every great photographic artist, like Walker Evans or Judith Joy Ross, or an artist I love, Jim Dine, a writer like John Fante, or visionary film directors like Werner Herzog and David Lynch, they all talk about transcendental art. An art that should look and start from the real object and then be able to expand from that into something abstract and universal. Guido’s lessons were one hundred percent transcendental: talking about photography on the surface of the daily lessons, but working on the very core of each of us. We have been very lucky. That’s it.
Retrospectively, something I personally learned about photography, and art in general, is that good art is not the one you "understand" but the one that understands you: open, for everyone. And again, we were lucky enough to listen to Guido’s open lessons, in which he was able to understand us and include us in some very banal and yet magical world.
Another very important lesson that those years left me with, is that, in a way, the work is not what you want to do, but what happens to you. Exactly like life I guess. A film director friend of mine, Antonio Bigini, once told me: I never look ahead, I look at the ‘now’ and at the past. In Micheal Crichton's book Congo, Amy, a highly intelligent chimpanzee, who really existed and is able to communicate with humans through gestures, was terrified when they talked to her about the ‘future’ because she imagined it as a black hole. Nothingness. As if for her to move forward in the course of life only happened by walking backwards – with her past clearly visible as it unfolded in front of her and her future behind her, still unknown. This is also something I always remind myself while photographing: you really don’t know what the photograph will look like. Which is great!
Luca Nostri: Marcello spoke of a ‘craft laboratory’, or ‘bottega’, which is appropriate. It was based on the premise that photography is not taught but learned, we learned it in an unconventional way. Guido taught the photography course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna, and if I remember correctly, we were part of (or at least I was) a small group of external listeners who followed Guido's lessons, but were not officially enrolled. When we met, more or less around 2005, we had already had different life, study and work experiences. And even though we lived geographically close, we didn't know each other. But we found ourselves there at Guido's lessons, all ‘hungry’ for a certain kind of photography, and we were really committed to the medium.
Apart from the lessons in Ravenna, we would also go to Guido's house in Ronta, in the countryside of Cesena, where we would spend the afternoons looking at photography books (first editions, rare or hard to find books), and often meet interesting people: writers, academics and artists. Then we often went to see exhibitions and museums together (both classical Italian art and contemporary shows), and obviously we went to photograph together sometimes.
DC: You all live and work in Emilia-Romagna and have chosen to build your artistic identities around an engagement with its local culture. I realise it is a complex question but could you all say something about that particular preference in your work? And also, how that relates to what I know is your national and international outlook as far as photography is concerned? On that international level, do you see yourself as providing a specific window into a distinctive sense of place for a wider audience, and are you in some way, offering something of yourselves, too, in the process?
MG: Photography is for me a personal thing. I have never felt like a reporter, nor a topographer. I have never had such intentions. For various reasons, family reasons, I have remained tied to the place where I was born and my photographic work perhaps stems from this situation, from this stillness, that actually resembles a kind of imprisonment. As in any prison, the window acquires a special value and I could consider my photographs not so much an attempt to describe the place where I live but also, and above all, an escape route. And this, I hope, is evidently accomplished through the transfiguring power of the camera. The place where I live is a place like any other. It is the camera, the magic mushroom, that takes you into wonderland.
In the movie Groundhog’s Day, Bill Murray plays the role of a meteorologist who gets stuck in a kind of space-time-loop; the victim of a spell, in which he finds himself getting up in the morning to confront the same day, in the same place, a small town in Pennsylvania. He finds himself living this same day, where the same things happen, over and over again. After days of bewilderment and desperation, at such physical and mental imprisonment, he begins to see some advantages in the repetition and slowly enacts a kind of personal growth. Knowing, for example, that such an event occurs at a certain time, in a certain place, he can anticipate it and exploit it at will to his advantage. This also happens to me. Sometimes I have ‘appointments’ with the light or with distinctive shadows. Through this insistent routine I can see how, day by day, the habit of seeing the same things can be favourable to the camera. So rather than ploughing the same furrow I am walking a spiral path. And this already looks like a loophole
FN: After travelling a bit I went back to live in my hometown, Faenza. If you decide to live in a small town in the Italian provinces you have to, somehow, come to terms with the fact that nothing much will change along the way. Even after months, or maybe even years. The starting point of my interest is my familiarity with the place, my habitual understanding of it. But I also realise that there is an immense gulf dividing my own perception from how photography can show me that same reality. It is something I would never have been able to see it otherwise.
To me the charm of photography, unlike the fascination I have for painting, sculpture or other forms of art, lies in its extreme recognition and proximity to the real world; to the point that makes you think that it's something easy to grasp. And here is the mystery of photographing the place you live in: seeing something you thought didn’t exist at all before seeing it in the print. I know Luca, Marcello or Guido’s local environment very well, but every time I see their prints they always knock me out!
Why does this happen? For instance, if we are looking at extraordinary athletes running at the speed of light or jumping two meters high, or a tightrope walker walking on a wire hanging hundreds of meters above the ground, we feel admiration for sure. But it’s for something we know they are only able to do after so much training, after an incredible physical and mental effort. We know that this is something we could not do, something out of reach for us as normal people. In contrast, photographs are apparently very close to us. They come from something close and familiar. This reason fascinates me in such a subtle way, because they seem to be graspable but they are not. There is some sort of perpetual getting it/missing it going on. It seems like the dilemma of the lovers of Tullia D’Aragona: when two lovers kiss they cannot look each other in the eyes. For this reason, they move away so they can see each other, but after a while they feel the need to get closer and kiss again, and so on…
LN: I am a self-taught photographer, and when I began to take a serious interest in photography and to look for a specific direction, I was living in Rome. But, at a certain point, it was like I was missing the ground under my feet, I didn't know where to put the tripod to take a photograph. I photographed only on the weekends, when from time to time I returned to Romagna. So, eventually I decided to move back there, to Lugo my home, precisely because I was interested in photographing the town. That was around 2003 or 2004. At the time a photograph by Olivo Barbieri, included in the famous ‘Viaggio in Italia’ project, was particularly important for me: it opened the section ‘About place’ in that book/catalogue and depicted the Piazza del Pavaglione in Lugo. It seemed particularly significant to me that a photograph of my own town square was included in that project, which came to mark a watershed for Italian photography. For the photographers in that project, photography was a visual AND an intellectual fact at the same time. For me it was a small/big revelation, and it gave me the direction I was looking for. I could say that that Barbieri’s photograph was a spark for the new work I developed in those years.
Over the past 15 years, I have practically always photographed within a radius of an hour's drive from my home in Lugo, often returning to the same places, photographing them over time. This has been done by many photographers in the history of photography, and in a certain sense I was interested in confronting this type of tradition myself. I was also interested in dealing with a certain kind of landscape photography and the specific photographic culture of Emilia Romagna, and in finding my own imagery within it. Some of my photographic series have been built, over time, and without a clear initial idea, often around some micro-places: the courtyard of my grandfather Anselmo, for example, or the hanging garden of the Rocca Estense, or the square of Lugo. I think ultimately it is not the exploration of the ‘place’ that is important, but the exploration of the relationship you have with it and its people. Furthermore, however marginal and peripheral these places (or any other place) are, the instinct of the photographer is to find the universal in the particular, and to try to take good photographs in the real world.
DC: Luca, this makes me think of your series of photographs of your grandfather, Anselmo, published as a book by Linea de Confine editore in 2020. Could you say how that project developed and what in particular drew you to your grandfather as a subject?
LN: When I returned to Romagna from Rome, in an attempt to adjust to the change, I found myself spending more and more time with my grandfather Anselmo. Occasionally, I followed him on his daily wanderings, especially in the small artisan area of Solarolo, the small town where I grew up. As an expert former bricklayer, Anselmo almost always returned from his daily trips with something: industrial spare materials found in the municipal landfill, objects recovered or bartered. I started photographing Anselmo without a specific reason. It was a way for me to reconnect with a place I had been away from for a long time.
After a few years I began to sequence the photographs, with the idea of making a book that revolved around my grandfather. Some precedents in the history of photography, where photographers had built works around their families, had always interested me very much. I think of Larry Sultan's parents in Pictures from Home, Nicholas Nixon's Brown Sisters, and Richard Billingham's father in Ray's A Laugh. However, at first the sequence was without a real climax, and the work didn't really express what I had in mind. At some point, I restricted the field of investigation to my grandfather's backyard, and I began to photograph the bizarre objects he built that had some kind of practical function, but whose function was not very clear. It was based around his skill of recovering and reusing things, working with strange materials and devices from disused or broken tools. It is both ‘the attitude of the farmer’, that of ‘not throwing anything away’, and ‘the ingeniousness of the inventor, he who knows full well how to reuse what now seems to have no purpose’ (as William Guerrieri has written in a text for the book). Somehow, this shift of attention to the place of the courtyard (and the narrowing of the field of investigation) gave me a new key to make a sequence of photographs – alternating portraits, landscapes and objects. The completed project covers a period of about 10 years, and over that time I’m trying to tell something about Anselmo, the place, and myself.
DC: To delve a little deeper into the subject matter of your work: you all have chosen to focus on the scenes, atmospheres and people of a very ordinary, everyday world. But the care and attention you give to this world in your photographs to some degree elevates it into something delicate and extraordinary. I suspect this is the result of aesthetic choices and technical preferences, not least the fact that you all generally favour working with large format cameras, which is a very deliberate and painstaking process. This careful attention is a form of respect, and it says something about your values more generally. I wonder if you could discuss this attention, and your evident interest in what De Montaigne would have called ‘life itself’, (or ‘the art of living’) in all its random, disassembled grace? Is there inspiration, and/or maybe consolation, for you in a world that lives and breathes in the present but so openly displays its history, where life goes by slowly day by day, and where change is incremental and yet unpredictable?
FN: To answers this beautiful question of yours, I’ll refer to a brief story that Sean Connery once told on a talk show. He once was in Morocco shooting a film outside Marrakech and his driver had to drive him two hours out into the desert to shoot every day. On one day, on his way into the desert at five in the morning, he saw this guy walking along by the roadside carrying a huge pile of wood on his back. On the way back, late in the night, Connery saw the same guy again, walking back to Marrakech. This time he stopped the driver and he told him to ask the guy if he wanted a lift in order to save what would have been at least three hours of walking. But the guy answered: ‘If you give me a lift I won’t know what to do with the time I’m gonna save’.
MG: It seems to me that the answer is already there in your beautiful question. Care and attention are precious values that improve our relationship and knowledge of the world. And in some ways the camera helps you to train these faculties…we learn from it. The 8x10 view camera in particular, with its ground glass, can be considered as a large surface of availability, an empty field in which you can welcome things and test the power of your attention. When you put your head under the black cloth, somehow you disappear, your thoughts calm down and you are totally absorbed in the present moment. The painter Peter Dreher, perfectly, wrote: ‘It is the desire to reach a state in which I abandoning myself to the object in front of me, forgetting every thought of me or about me, empty at the mercy of something else. Absence of the ‘I’, the obliteration of the self. A state that everybody knows: every farmer that ploughs his field, every carpenter that builds a chair, every artist that paints a painting.’
LN: Photographing what's around us, just for the fact that ‘it is there’, is at the same time a modest and ambitious undertaking. You mentioned Montaigne and indeed there is something philosophical in this approach. Taking photographs becomes a means to slow down the frenzy of the world, to reconsider things we took for granted, and to face our own anxieties. The use of the field camera and the tripod exaggerates this process, and taking pictures becomes both a mental and physical gesture. Also, looking through the ground glass helps to see a seemingly familiar world with a strange detachment.
Speaking of a world that ‘breathes in the present but displays its history’, here is something that made me think: recently, a few streets from my house in the historic centre of Lugo during the redevelopment work to convert a small parking lot in front of a church into a new green area, they found an ancient necropolis of Franciscan inspiration (people devoted to San Francis): an ancient cemetery of about 100 bodies from different historical periods (13th to 18th Century). It was surprisingly close to the surface. After the discovery, the Emilia Romagna Cultural Heritage isolated the area in order to make a study. Since I got my driving licence I became used to parking my car there, so I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw the first ‘bodies’ appear on the surface. I thought it might be interesting to document this, so I asked and obtained the permissions to photograph. The photographs depict a very provisional landscape, because the archaeologists remove the bodies as soon as they uncover them, to bring them to the University of Bologna. Although, from an archaeological perspective, it’s a quite common discovery in Italy, it shifted my perception of place in many ways, and made me reflect further on the geography and history of the place where I live and also of Italy.
DC: Francesco, your work The Farmers has won international acclaim. Can you say what interested you about these people and how the project came about?
FN: People are a fundamental interest of mine. I enjoy very much the exchange with the subject while photographing and I certainly like the thrill of then seeing the person in a print. While I’m printing the picture that strong human presence adds a sense of expectation, and some tension to the process. And at that moment, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the picture will be a good one. After all, however much care is taken, the photographer is never completely in control of how a picture will turn out. I’m a great admirer of the American photographers from the nineteenth century like Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins. In their photographs, you can be looking intently at a vast landscape and then, after few minutes, you might suddenly see a small figure standing maybe just at the corner of the photograph, concealed by the sheer scale of the landscape around it. In that moment, you have the feeling of making a true discovery. It's like finding a kindred spirit.
When I was a kid I spent every summertime with my family in the place where my mother was born, called Fognano, a small farmers' village in the countryside around Faenza. Sometimes I would spend the whole day in the fields in the company of farmers. I guess at some point, in one way or another, we all go back to our beginnings, whether we consciously decide it or not. The camera just made me start looking at what was impossible for me to see when I was younger.
By the way, talking about the Farmers project, I could answer with a great sentence of Samuel Beckett’s that a dear friend of mine, Marco Bernini, once told me about. Beckett said: ‘I simply know next to nothing about my work in this way, as little as a plumber does about of the history of hydraulics’. The more I try to think about my work, the more I don't think photography has anything to do with what we want to do but more with what has happened to us.
I guess this work comes from what Paolo Costantini called: “L’insistenza dello sguardo” (the insistence of the eye) and out of a particular method. I’m afraid I cannot say much more about it.
DC: Marcello, it's an unusual title, so why did you call your book of 2017 Eggs and Asparagus?
MG: A title is always something that comes later. I have no a priori ideas when I photograph or edit a book but it is the photographs themselves that help me understand a direction, a meaning. Seeing that photograph of a cooking pan of eggs and asparagus on the table, I thought it could be a synthesis for a whole body of work. That was somehow my recipe. And I liked choosing a photograph as a part of the whole.
In that period, I was often a guest at the home of a friend of mine who lived in the countryside. It seemed to me the most welcoming place I knew, a place where I felt better than any other. An atmosphere to pay homage to and record. Most photographs in the book are made in or not far from that house. The dish was cooked by Vittorio, my friend’s old father, and represents what I found there: something simple, genuine, but substantial in terms of form, colour and vitality. In those years the trend of a very elaborate gourmet cuisine was born in many restaurants, even in small places. Up to that time it was more spartan and traditional, then we began to read sophisticated-sounding menus with decorative descriptions of dishes and strange ingredients. At some point restaurants and food producers began to fully embrace the rules of the market and advertising to make the food sound more captivating. For example, even at the village festivals you could read: ‘gently smoked fish nuggets with the scent of Baltic Sea, in a bed of soft organic corn puree’, instead of ‘Polenta and Cod’.
The recipe I wanted to pay homage to had essential ingredients, it was close to nature, and described things as they were, without frills. Plus, as a title, I liked the sound of 'Eggs and Asparagus' with those final sibylline ’s’. And in addition, those words are a pair, they represent a polarity – what you might call ‘this and that’.
DC: Following on from Marcello’s earlier comments about his ‘appointments’ with light and shade, I wanted to add colour into the equation. Of course, light and colour are inextricably linked, and so it might follow that different light, different weather, different climates and so different geographies – as well as the material nature and culture of those geographies – produce their own colour palettes. You are all engaged in the properties of colour photography but I wondered whether you feel there is something distinctive about colour in Emilia Romagna, or at least in the colour of the region’s photography? As an outsider, and an enthusiast, I have always sensed, but never really tested the feeling, that Italian colour photography is distinctive, almost recognisable for certain colour combinations that are part of its aesthetic character. Do you think there is any truth in this?
FN: I photograph in both colour and black and white. After almost fifteen years I’m getting used to the yellowish, humid, and almost physical presence of our Emilia-Romagna’s light. But for someone like me, who approaches photography with tons of doubts and very little certainty, I think the practice of photography should essentially remain an experiment: what will this light look like in colour? and what will this very same light look like in black and white? So, I make pictures both out of curiosity and necessity. I have to see!
After quite a few years I know how to deal with light a bit in photographs but I can’t be certain of what it will really look like. So, I have to take the pictures (in colour and b & w), to print them both and to see what happens. It is at the same time very frustrating and very exciting.
Last but not least: light is always changing but we also evolve and get older and our feeling for light changes too.
MG: Yes, I agree. The light of this geographic area is specific and the range of the color film is also limited. These are undoubtedly the boundaries of the playing field within which to act. In Emilia Romagna, there is a particular light, I would say a little blurred and muffled, and I believe this is connected with the morphology of the region but also with the problem of industrial pollution. It is a plain sunken between the Alps and the Apennines, and in this humid basin there is often a diffused mist and – although it tends to be vague – a certain palette of colours. Despite these generic atmospheric conditions of the place, I am interested in noting the differences between one day and another.
In my latest book Meteo, I worked with different lights, and I made that variability not the background of my investigation but the book’s main subject: the threatening arrival of a storm in the distance; the glare of the sun in interior rooms; the leaden sky of a rainy day that brings out a particular red on the ground; the splendor of the very first light of dawn with its very long shadows and golden shades.
In general, every day has its own colour temperature and my effort is to get as close as possible in the prints to the uniqueness of each moment. One day it is one thing, and the next it is another.
LN: Light is part of what is there, and of what you have in order to take pictures. Italian light is very distinctive and beautiful, although at certain times of the year in Emilia Romagna it is specific because the atmosphere is often quite foggy: a consequence of its flat and humid geography and the industrial pollution in the air, as my friends have pointed out. So, there is often a veiled, uncertain light here that is naturally reflected in the photographs.
DC: I wondered what your connections are to contemporary Italian photography more generally? Do you feel part of any national photographic culture?
FN: I spend way too many days complaining about the lack of photographic conversation here. Italy has a very difficult relationship with photography that will inevitably bring the discussion back to the imposing heritage of the Italian Renaissance. On the one hand, photography is always too young for Italian art institutions, and on the other it is too old for them. But, basically, nobody wants to deal with this ‘problem’ because it would be very difficult to explain to a public that spends all its life on a mobile phone, or watching Instagram, without any idea of what the American photographer Robert Adams would call, ‘the widespread confusion of coarseness with strength, of loudness with significance, of novelty with value’. So, my answer to your question is that, unfortunately, I do not feel there is any national photographic culture in Italy today. But I do feel it here in Emilia Romagna.
LN: It is an interesting question, and not an easy one to answer. On one side, I agree with Francesco about the lack of debate and photographic conversation in today's scenario in Italy. At the same time in the recent years I have received precious support from some institutions, like the Maxxi museum and Linea di Confine, with whom I have published my first monographic book. And yes, I do feel part of that Italian photographic culture that since the late 1970s has defined its own aesthetic and cultural identity in relation to the idea of place. My work, both as photographer and as curator of the project Lugo Land emerges from that context. But I think it is a much broader discussion that is not linked so much to a geographical context as to a specific documentary tradition of photography, that can be traced back to the very beginning of the medium.
Speaking of tradition, I recently saw the film Uccellacci e uccellini, by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966). Totò and Ninetto wander through the countryside, crossing hyper-realistic and desolate landscapes, with an atmosphere so rarefied that it becomes almost dreamlike. It reminded me of the countryside I live in. In the finale, the crow tells Totò: ‘Masters are to be eaten with hot sauce!’ They must be eaten and overcome, but if their teaching has had a value, it will stay within us and we can make it ours.
DC: For a long period, Italian photography was under-represented on the international map of contemporary photography. But in recent years the re-affirmation of the work and status of certain pivotal figures such as Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi, and the emergence of many new younger artists, has radically altered that perspective. This has coincided with the expansion of the photographic book as a primary means of communication for photography, both through established publishers and self-publishing. How related do you think these two things are and how important are books for you as a means of expression and for the dissemination of your work?
FN: Let’s, for a moment, think about the fact that Guido Guidi has received his worldwide recognition around his eighties. I'm not saying that we are the last and the forgotten ones but, at the same time, I'm saying that from time to time, in one’s everyday working life, it can be difficult to keep going. Having a curator, a photographic historian, a collector, a director of a museum ringing at your doorbell from time to time would be good. But, at least I'm lucky enough to have work with amazing Institutions, like the Die Photographische Sammlung in Cologne, the Museum Reina Sofia in Madrid, or the Fondation a Stichting in Brussels, who believed in my work and published my books. It’s just very weird always having to take a plane to talk to someone about photography!
And speaking of books: I love books, but I prefer prints. Books are amazing objects but the line that divides the content from the container is getting too blurred, for me. I think there is a tendency now for photographic books to be too elaborate. I am in love with the photographic language, and my ideal book would be a travelling box of pictures in a sequence – transparent, even anonymous in form, but with a very rich content; like a simple frame and mount that gives you the chance to see a print at its best.
MG: One of the first pieces of work I did was called Queste sei fotografie (2006) and it was presented only in the form of a self-published book. It’s true that a photograph is a print and I spend a lot of time in the darkroom to get a satisfactory C-Print. But, for me, the book is the real end point of the process in which – thanks to the editing – some scattered fragments acquire their own internal logic and become a visual text. I really love photobooks and their materiality. Every now and then you re-open them you see things that you hadn't seen the time before. And, of course, the book is a physical object, you can take a photobook to bed with you and then leaf through it again as soon as you wake up.
LN: Indeed, it is surprising that masters of photography such as Ghirri and Guidi have received such late recognition on the international scene. They were pioneers of the photographic book and some of their publications were far ahead of their time. I met and fell in love with photography through classic photobooks, and the book remains for me a key vehicle of the work. It was so, for example, for the Anselmo book, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with my brother Filippo, a great book designer, and can pay attention to all the details that make up a book. Furthermore, a fundamental element of that book are the two texts, that of William Guerrieri I mentioned earlier, and your own essay Anselmo's Mirror: both of which take an oblique and personal perspective that I believe expands the boundaries of the photographic work in unexpected ways. To make a good book, you need the right team, and if you find that the process that it creates is very stimulating. It is true that the book allows the work to be presented and shared, but the work first exists as a box of prints. Like Francesco and Marcello, I also believe in the materiality of photography, and the importance of the medium as an artform. And I think I am lucky to have the opportunity to confront myself on this particular part of the process with like-minded people and fellow travellers.