by Paolo Mattei
Although he’s probably heard the question hundreds of times already, we cannot help but ask how he managed to capture the perfectly horizontal body of his most famous work: the black and white photo of a diver, caught mid-air, literally as straight as an arrow, and his friend sitting on the dock, bowing his head as if he had barely avoided being hit. Over the years, that image has become a sort of trademark for Nino Migliori, one of the greatest living Italian photographers.
He says “luck and good reflexes” were key. “How could it be any different? With the means we had at the time – in 1951 – those were the two elements we had to rely on…”
Born in Bologna in 1926, Nino Migliori brushes off the compliment when we tell him he seems to have the same reflexes he had then. “That’s an exaggeration. I used to be quicker than a machine – I was definitely above average. Back then, a photographer’s ‘physical’ abilities were essential. You had to be very fast to catch that fleeting moment the Greeks called ‘kairos’ – it was not as easily to enmesh as it is today. Things have changed, with digital multi-image bursts…”
In his office, on the northwest outskirts of Bologna, he has hung some of his abstract, Informal Art photographs – not just the chiaroscuro Neo-realist works from the 1940s and 1950s.
“I always tried new things, since the very beginning, so these days I use a digital camera when necessary. I’d like to publish a book of photos taken with my iPhone. And right now I’m using the computer to post-produce a work on Ariosto: it allows me to alter the profile of the places where he lived, superimpose different images, work on colors… In his “Orlando Furioso” (“The Frenzy of Orlando”), Ariosto described incredible, lunar landscapes: where could he have seen them? In his imagination and in his dreams, he post-produced the reality he experienced with the senses just like we do today…”
Migliori, like the diver in his masterpiece, seems propelled towards the future – so much so that it was hard to get him to talk about his career, his past.
Just a moment, please. Can we start from the early black and white photos, the ones capturing ‘kairos’? You must have had a strategy, not just luck and reflexes…
Of course: I had patience and loved what I was doing. When I photographed common people around Italy – for example for “Periferia” or “Gente dell’Emilia” –, first I befriended them, and sat down to eat and drink with them. I spent a lot of time pretending to take photos of them.
What do you mean?
At first I didn’t really have any film in my camera. That gave them time to get used to my presence, and once they got tired of posing they would let go a little and start acting natural.
You achieved great fame in those years.
Yes, I won many important awards in Italy and abroad. I even had the opportunity to meet Cartier-Bresson.
Of course. He was an icon for my generation: we were all enthralled by his mastery in catching those precious fleeting moments. I was visiting Paris with some friends, and left the group for a few hours to rush to his house with a folder of photos – my so-called Neo-realist works.
Did he like them?
Yes, very much. He told me, “You could come work for Magnum. You would have to be patient because newbies get only occasional assignments at first. Payments are a bit slow too.” I declined the offer.
Did you ever regret it?
At first I was very unhappy with my choice. But there was nothing I could do: I had to earn a living for my children, my wife, and my parents – who could not wait for Magnum to decide to pay me. In time, I realized I had made the right decision.
Why is that?
At Magnum, I would have worked at the service of clients. I was never interested in taking photographs of royal weddings: I wanted to do what I liked, follow my own curiosity, experiment with art… Photography was the only way I had to freely express my thoughts and my emotions in a way that gave me satisfaction.
So photography was not your day job…
No, I worked forty-eight hours a week in a small company. Every day, when I came back from work, I went to the darkroom from 7 pm to 3 am. I took photos on Sunday. About fifteen years ago, I started getting job offers from various institutions – but I always accepted only the ones that I liked, or found challenging, and only if they fit in with my frame of mind.
Your past and present experimentations tie in with this approach to photography…
Of course. I used to experiment with every single aspect of photography: paper, development, fixing, light, color. I studied anything I was interested in: I tested how color changed with shutter speed and paper oxidation, I let drops of water run down film before printing, creating what I called “hydrograms”…
You were a restless spirit…
I think, with all necessary changes, that I was driven by Leonardo’s same spirit. I believe curiosity is the mother of knowledge.
And that’s why you are not opposed to digital technology.
In 1979 – when I was teaching at the University in Parma – I predicted that traditional photography would die soon, and that a new, different form of photography would emerge thanks to new technologies. I mentored ten students who were preparing their final dissertations on the digital photography of the time, which we called “video graphics”. I now also have a theory that we will soon be able to send each other photos directly through neurons…
How could that be?
Years ago, researchers in Atlanta, Georgia discovered that the human brain is able to transmit black and white through certain sensors. I think it must mean it is also able to transmit images, and somehow take photos. Let’s just wait a few years and let neurologists make some progress, and then computers and technology will do the rest.
Don’t you think that the proliferation of photographs, taken anywhere and by anyone, is an issue?
No. It would be like thinking that language is an issue.
Can you explain?
The fact that so many people use photographs means that images have become like words. Just like we all learned to express ourselves by talking, now we will learn to express ourselves through photography thanks to the fact that it’s easy for anyone to take a picture today. In the near future we will use photographs more than words, with international criteria making messages recognizable without any need for translation.
Then what is the future of fine art photography?
Are words art in and of themselves? I don’t think so. But some people know how to use them artistically: “M’illumino / d’immenso” (“I illuminate (myself) / with immensity”, one of the most famous poems by Ungaretti – editor’s note) are a few simple words, yet they are pure art. The same dynamics occurs in photography. Two photos are all you need to express a wonderful, original concept that can be poetic, cultural, philosophical, or even artistic.”
Who are your favorite artists from the past, the ones who have inspired you the most?
There are three in particular: Leonardo Da Vinci, for both his paintings and his technical creativity; Duchamp, for his intelligence, then way he overturned concepts, his provocations…
Do you think artists today are still able to be provocative?
Well, things have gone somewhat askew. What else can Cattelan do at this point? Or Damien Hirst? To top his past works, he might have to put himself in formaldehyde.
Who is the third artist of the past you were going to mention?
Lucretius, the poet who was able to dream of the atom. I’ve probably read his “De rerum natura” twenty times. It is a visionary work, with extraordinary insight even for these modern times.
And who inspired you the most, among the artists you had the opportunity to meet?
First and foremost, Italian Informal Art representatives like Vedova, Tancredi, and Barbarigo – who were all my friends. In 1948, Tancredi, Vedova and I went to Venice to see some paintings by Pollock that had been brought to Italy for the Biennale. Peggy Guggenheim showed them to us at night, before the opening. We were the first to see them in Italy… and, of course, we were very excited.
What did you love about Informal Art?
Informal Art voiced a desire to break free from the past, from conformism, and from old traditions that really resonated with me. All avant-garde movements need leaps forward and rifts to progress – take Futurism, for example. That’s why many of these movements – including Informal Art – were so groundbreaking.
If someone asked you to go back and photograph the same places where you started, over half a century ago, would you accept?
I would love to. I would enjoy making comparisons and seeing the changes. Back then, I was a young man just coming out of five years of war: I had personally been through bombings, deaths, searches by fascists and by Germans. It had lived in a world in which one did not live as much as survive. Perhaps there are other places in the world where I could go with the same spirit today…
Where, for example?
This fall, I will go to the Italian embassy in Beirut, which manages the refugee camps in Lebanon’s capital. They have asked me to describe what happens in these camps through my photographs, which will then be published in a photo book. My plan is to leave in October, and to work just like I did in the 1950s, when I met people in Emilia or in the Italian suburbs – participating in the pain and joy of everyone I photograph.
Nino Migliori is very much like the diver in his most famous photograph: the sea ahead is the future, where he is already swimming.