Photographing the essential. Interview with Piergiorgio Branzi
by Paolo Mattei
Piergiorgio Branzi was raised in Florence, a city that “looks stern”, in which “color is just a pleasant accessory, a filler, although it may appear splendid”. A city that was “born from two stone quarries: one for ‘pietra serena’, the color of gray graphite, and the other “pietra dura”, the listless ocher of Palazzo della Signoria”.
This is how the great Tuscan photographer and journalist explains how his preference for the essential nature of black and white began, and became the means for him to represent and express the reality around him.
Branzi was born in Signa in 1928, and took his first photos with a 1950s’ Galileo Condor. His works have earned him great notoriety in Italy and abroad, traveling around the world: from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Guggenheim in New York, from the Fine Art Museum in Houston to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, from the Tate Gallery in London to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.
We asked him to tell us his story.
Some say your love for photography began at your father’s bookstore…
Yes, in a way. I left my hometown Signa, about ten kilometers from Florence, when I was no older than five. My family moved to Florence, where my father and two of his friends had established a publishing house called Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, with a bookshop in Via del Corso. The company is still active today. It was my gateway to texts and photographic images that were definitely rare at the time.
Your first inspiration, as with many in your generation, was Cartier-Bresson… When did you first see his work? And what did you find most striking in it?
I didn’t see his photographs until 1952, when I went to his first show held in Palazzo Strozzi. I understood I was not just looking at a collection of beautiful images, and that a new “linguistic code” existed that was extremely direct and effective in representing reality and communicating one’s vision of the world. As soon as I left the show I bought a camera. A Condor made in Florence by Officine Galileo, as part of the postwar reconversion.
What do you remember about your first encounter with the great French master?
I met Cartier-Bresson in person twice. The first was in the mid-1950s, at Magnum’s headquarters: he was more kind than I had hoped, considering I was just a young amateur, from one of the least interesting photographic scenes in Europe. He allowed me the rare privilege of looking through his contact sheets.
That was when I realized that “images à la sauvette” [the title of Cartier-Bresson’s first book, published in 1952 – editor’s note] was technical jargon; and that he shot even more than a whole roll of film on the same subject. He chose the final image – like I did, actually – marking it on the contact sheet with a soft red pencil.
What about the second time you met him?
That was in Florence, when he was 92 years old. We met in the home of Alinari’s president, De Polo. I had the pleasure of enjoying two hours in the company of that incredibly kind and open man, confirming the qualities he had already displayed in Paris. He was relentlessly curious, and a great man as well as a great photographer.
You joined Giuseppe Cavalli’s photography group Misa.
The experience with Misa, in Senigallia, was very important for me. It gave me the opportunity to meet the members of La Bussola, the most famous and qualified group of photographers in Italy. There was Cavalli as well as Veronesi, one of the greatest abstract photographers in Europe, Vender, Finazzi, the author and explorer Fosco Maraini, Ferruccio Ferroni, and many more. And most importantly, I had the chance to meet Mario Giacomelli.
What was he like?
Giacomelli was about my same age, and I had a clear artistic affinity with him. At the time, we were both exploring the opportunities of expressionism: definitely black tones, glaring whites devoured in shooting or printing. We agreed to define this “sign” as the identification of photography itself, and in this reference to graphic design we established a partnership that also made us closer friends. We were good friends for half a century. Our method made us drift away from the aesthetic canons followed by Cavalli and La Bussola, whose refined images chased after the lightness of pencil drawings, the range of grays of aquatint etchings: We believed their stile could not capture the social changes that derived from the traumas of war. So when the two of us were finally summoned, with Alfredo Camisa, to the headquarters of the glorious group, we immediately realized that we could not accept the rules of an aesthetic that had been defined much before the conflict. We parted without any hard feelings at all.
Who were the masters you looked up to since the beginning, aside from Cartier-Bresson?
Formally, after Bresson’s initiation, I was inspired mostly by the photographers in “Life” magazine. I had the great luck of finding some of their images in an insert about American writers, distributed by an agency promoting literature after the war. That’s how I “met” Walker Evans, Bourke-White, Paul Strand with his portraits, frozen in stills that were fresher than snap-shots, painter-photographer Ben Shan… and later even Robert Frank, who surprised me with his ability to create a momentous book on American society without a single “spectacular” image. Then there were French authors like Brassaï and Izis Bidermanas, who had just published their first books on daily life in Paris, tinted with imagination.
In 1955, you published your first important special report, traveling around Italy by motorbike. What was that experience like?
My family had always been aware of and engaged in social and political issues, so I carried with me a baggage of cultural (and photographic) interest for research on people and their behavior, on society in that moment of rapid change.
Italy had emerged from war less than a decade earlier, and was a poor country, in a state of dignified indigence at best. In the South, everything was archaic and painful. The kind of Mediterranean archaism I encountered in Italy was the same I saw in Spain and Greece, the other two countries I travelled crossed later. I found it interesting because I thought it offered a glimpse of humankind’s essence in a state that predated consumerist homologation: it seemed genuine, as indeed it was. I tried to tackle it with empathy and compassion, hoping I could endow images with a social message.
Those were the early years of motorization, with the launch of the Vespa, Lambretta, and other models. But my girlfriend at the time – whom I would marry later – had a brother who was a real sports enthusiast, and who owned a Guzzi 500. I convinced him to spend his summer holidays traveling around Central and Southern Italy, starting from Emilia and crossing Abruzzo, Marche, Molise, Apulia, Lucania, Campania, Lazio, Tuscany… streets were often nothing more than dirt roads, in the same conditions they had been left in by armies. Sometimes they were just trails, but I still remember traveling along them with elating wonder.
The rural countryside was not your only interest…
After the peasant world in Southern Italy, I later focused with the same level of care and interest on the new middle class, which was forming in those years, with all the obvious naiveté and attitudes that quick changes entail. My research on this subject came to over one hundred photos, published on Mario Pannunzio’s “Il Mondo”.
How did you reach “Il Mondo”?
Simply through the postal service. I used to send five or six photos at a time, which were returned to me a few weeks later – except for the ones they had published, personally picked by director/owner Pannunzio. For a decade, “Il Mondo” was an unrivalled stage and trampoline for Italian photographers: no other magazine did the same. And photographers, of course, had a huge role in shaping the weekly’s refined image, its innovative, cultivated, laic outlook on society, as it transformed so quickly.
Then you worked in the Soviet Union…
I was hired by the national TV news in 1960, for my experience with photography as well as video recording. RAI (Italy’s public television) wanted to set up a department of journalist/reporters having these two sets of skills. My first jobs were in the Balkans, in India, in Finland, as well as in Italy. In 1962, director Enzo Biagi asked me if I was up for a trip to Moscow, to try and establish a desk there – something no other western radio or television broadcaster had been able to do. Biagi assured me he saw a chance for the country’s political climate to soften, but he knew he was lying even as he said so: the year before, the wall in Berlin had started going up; two weeks earlier, Soviet ships had sailed to Cuba with some nuclear missiles to unload. However, in a way those really were the first years of a political opening: some old dissident intellectuals came back to Moscow, while the younger and more restless ones started taking long “holidays” in Siberia.
Whatever the situation, you were actually able to work in the Soviet Union.
There was a complete ban on photography, but because bans were banned, so to speak, I was able to create a personal journal of images, published in 1995.
What are your memories of that time?
Personally, four years in close contact with the Russian way of life were a crucial and unforgettable experience, for me and my family.
In the late 1960s, you quit photography.
That’s true. Once I came back from Moscow, I gave up the camera. Working two jobs like photography and television at once is impossible, and TV had become my main profession. I also felt the need to think about the fifteen years I had spent taking photographs. The experience in Moscow had led me on new, different paths, and I wanted to find the connection, the solid traces, the “signs” – if there were any – that marked my figurative vocabulary.
I have always said that photography is at least in part drawing, but not the opposite. This pushed me to try painting again, which I had started to do in Russia hoping to fill the total void of Sundays in Moscow. I also tried etching, with some good results I must say.
Is it true that you went back to your “official” activity with a special report on the places of Pasolini’s life? Did you ever meet him?
Unfortunately I never met him, but the rest is true. In 1995, I photographed his home in Casarsa, which was about to become a cultural center. I took a picture that I love dearly of the “good” living room there. It was an empty box, without anyone to bring it to life, but spoke volumes of the family who lived there: like Brassaï said, “walls speak to us”. The couch, for example, was worn but pretentious, and expressed perfectly the middle class’s condition of dignified frugality. The window over the main street suggests how much the family cared about having a prestigious position in town. The small chandelier and the curtains – a victory of Pasolini’s beloved mother against his military father’s rigor – flood the room/box with that special light that seems to bring life to inanimate things. An empty box and a curtain that swelled with just the right breath, almost evoking an absent presence.
You have often said you prefer black and white to color because it “underscores the essential”. Could you explain more?
I prefer black and white because full color was a pricey novelty when I started in the 1950s. But also because, like all Tuscan people, I consider drawing to be the “ethic” of any figurative expression. Florence was born from two stone quarries: one for ‘pietra serena’, the color of gray graphite, and the other “pietra dura”, the listless ocher of Palazzo della Signoria. It’s a city that looks stern, where color is just a pleasant accessory, a filler, although it may appear splendid. Every corner of Florence is designed according to the precise triangulation parameters of the optical camera, balancing masses. The Tuscan countryside is two-colored and well designed of course too. Cypresses are dark green, with leaves that don’t change color or fall; olive trees are silver-green, solid on the ground, and can resist even the harshest winter weather. How could I drift away from this reassuring “pattern”?
What are your favorite cameras?
After starting with a Condor, I had a Rolleiflex, with its unforgettable golden section. In the mid-1950s, it was time for a Leica M, which has been “my camera” for over half a century.
Do you think photography is an art form or, as Berengo Gardin once said, a means to document and bear testimony?
Berengo Gardin’s view of photography seems limited to me. Setting aside the eternal and sterile dispute on weather it can be considered an art form or not, I am certain that we see reality through the lens of the camera and – at the same time – that creating an image triggers our sensitivity and culture, and not only the figurative ones. It engages our social conscience, “ethical” views, a sense of responsibility. Finally, the “final image” comes from the photographer’s deepest soul, from his identity. He discovers and unveils himself. As Oscar Wilde said, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.”
What is your relationship with digital trends?
I am experimenting with them to try and understand them, and to get used to the many – perhaps, too many – different options they seem to offer. But I must confess I am wary of them, considering how much of its overwhelming, huge, ephemeral production will ever be saved on a durable medium. Let’s not forget that, for future generations, photography will continue to be the best collective “memory extension” ever.
Photos via: ©Piergiorgio Branzi