nterviewby Paolo Mattei
When asked whether he ever gets emotional looking at his own photographs, he deflects the compliment and says, “No. I’m just sorry I lost a few opportunities”.
Gianni Berengo Gardin – who will celebrate his 83rd birthday next October – has spent his whole life observing the events and waiting for opportunities. Since the early 1950s, he started taking his camera on this quest, turning his passion for reality into a priceless body of art. However, he considers himself not an artist but a witness of his time, someone who has documented his world and life through black and white snapshots. He does not assume his artistic skills play any role in the fact that the moments he captures – faces, kisses, smiles, tears, courtyards, squares and landscapes – give the observer much more than simple visual information. If his photos move someone, he thinks it is only reality’s doing. He considers himself only a photographer with good technique, a “foot soldier” in photography.
We met him on the occasion of the exhibition “Gianni Berengo Gardin. Storie di un fotografo” (literally, “A photographer’s stories”), which opened in June at Milan’s Royal Palace and will run until September 8, 2013.
Sponsored by the City of Milan and produced by the Royal Palace, Civita Tre Venezie, and the Forma per la Fotografia Foundation, the exhibition is curated by Denis Curti and represents, with its 180 images, the maestro’s largest retrospective ever.
How does it feel to be considered an icon?
Well, I haven’t gained any great advantages from my reputation… in fact it has entailed a few disadvantage, because many potential clients rule me out fearing I will be too expensive.
And of course you aren’t…
I’m certainly not overpriced, because union rates are identical for all photographers, from the most inexperienced to the best. So, while in theory it is pleasant to be recognized for one’s work and to have that satisfaction… from the practical point of view, it is not as convenient as people might think.
Humility is definitely your greatest vice.
In all seriousness, I’m a photographer like many others. There are some very good photographers in Italy at the moment: Francesco Cito, Ferdinando Scianna, Ivo Saglietti… we are all more or less at the same level. So I have to say that I find my success a little exaggerated.
You have often said that the decisive moment in a photograph is the prerogative of the photographer. Have you ever been pleasantly caught off guard by a decisive moment that was not under you control?
Yes, a few times. There are two kinds of photographs. The ones you take when you “feel” or you expect something to happen. Sometimes an unexpected event can come up, something entirely different from what you had imagined, however confusedly. This first category of photographs paradoxically includes the ones you don’t take because you “get there” too late, you’re not ready, and you lose the moment. The other kind of photograph is the category of images designed for larger and more complex works, such as books or photo features. This type is not as instantaneous, and requires weighing different options and thinking things over a lot more. It’s a slower, longer process. Both genres, however, have great value.
Have you ever wondered who or what makes things happen?
No, never. I simply try to record things as they happen, and when they don’t happen I simply don’t take photos. I have never thought of what is behind events: my only thought is to take good photos of what happens.
You are a stern critic of digital technology. Yet you have recently taken some photos with a Leica Monochrom, a digital camera.
Yes, I took a few shots. The Monochrom gives an exceptional performance, worthy of an optical bench. I gave it a try – just once – for a number of reasons: it has an exceptional grayscale, no flash, and allows you to turn digital files into film… but digital photography still does not interest me.
First of all for the post-production process, which I find so irksome I cannot stand it. Digital technology offers only two advantages. The first is the ability to immediately send a photo to anyone in the world; this is something that does not interest me at all, because I like to wait a few days before I let anyone see my work. But I do understand that immediacy is a very important aspect for breaking news photographers. The other advantage is the possibility to vary ISO depending on light. But except for those two things, I think everything else is a disadvantage.
What do you mean?
First of all, digital technology changes the very nature of photography and the mindset of the photographer: he no longer needs to think, because the machine decides and chooses for him. Photographers – or should we call them “people who take photographs” – now can shoot with their digital cameras as if they were machine guns, telling themselves “Something decent will turn out, and I can always edit it with Photoshop”. By the way, Photoshop represents a very serious threat to the documentation of reality. If any of the images in a photo feature are edited, they can convey a false message that has nothing to do with what really happened. This is why the United States are considering a law that would oblige photographers to declare any alteration of their images, in order to somehow protect and certify the truth.
Do you see any other disadvantages in digital technology?
In my opinion it will lead to the end of archives, because only negatives can make up a real archive. We do not know what will happen in the next ten years, and what tools we will have at that point to read digital files… I already have CDs from a few years back that are useless garbage now. And I always work with the archive in mind: I am not interested in making art, but only in documenting and witnessing reality, so I want photos to outlive me, to survive the passage of time so that, many years from now, someone will have the chance to look at them and understand history…
What kind of photographs do you try to take, for this purpose?
I try to photograph things that have disappeared – there are a few, though not many – or the ones that are about to disappear. I recently published a book of images on rice cultivation. In a few years farming techniques will have changed completely: researchers are developing ways to make rice grow in fields without water, like wheat. So in those photos I documented a kind of activity and a way of life that are destined to disappear. I’ve done this many times, for example when I photographed the Italian Gypsy communities, or with my photographic book on asylums [“Morire di classe” (literally, “Dying from Social Class”), 1969 – editor’s note].
The French writer Charles Péguy considered Victor Hugo a genius because his outlook on things was like that of a child, seeing the world for the first time. Do you think this is a good virtue to have as a photographer as well?
Yes, of course. Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Do you think you have been able to maintain a childlike view on the world?
Yes, I think so.
You have photographed Italy and its landscapes many times.
Yes, I know Italy very well because for fifteen years I worked for the Touring Club and the Istituto Geografico De Agostini. Of all the books I’ve published – there are more than two hundred – some were commissioned by others and some I proposed myself. But I have always photographed landscapes, regardless of the job, because they are a passion of mine.
Italian cities are also a frequent subject of your photographs…
Yes, I have several “metropolitan loves”, such as Venice and Milan. I don’t generally care for touristic cities: with Rome, for example, I have a complicated relationship. I like to be there for three or four days, then I have to leave. Venice is an exception. I love it especially at night, when there are no tourists around. Of course they have every right to visit such a beautiful city, but I try to avoid the crowds. Sometimes I feel as if I were in the middle of an overcrowded beach during the summer, where you have to fight against the flow of people to reach the shore, and cannot even read a book in peace…
Speaking of books, what is your relationship with literature?
I have a strange bond with poetry. I don’t like to read it, I don’t understand any of it, but I like to hear someone else read it. On the other hand, I’m omnivorous with prose: I like to read anything from mystery stories to the most complex essays. After the war I became a great fan of American authors: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and, above all, Dos Passos, whom I especially liked because in addition to being a great writer he was also an anti-imperialist. Among the French, I am especially fond of Simenon. Some of his descriptions are almost photographic.
Which photographers do you appreciated the most, and from which have you learned the most?
There are so many, and some of them I have met and gotten to know in person, such as Salgado, Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson…
They call you the “Italian Cartier-Bresson”…
And they are wrong. “Italian Willy Ronis” would be more accurate, because I learned so much more from him. Cartier-Bresson is on a whole different level, out of reach. I am very proud to have [he points to a framed autograph of Cartier-Bresson] this statement of his “admiration” for my work… it’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?
You also met Robert Doisneau…
Yes, during the two years I lived in Paris, circa 1954. He was very nice. He started photographing cars when he was working full-time at Renault Billancourt. Unlike mine, his photographs are “manufactured” scenes. Built very well of course, indeed so well they seem natural…
Have you ever intentionally set up a scene for your photos?
I have shot a million and a half photographs, and I’ve “designed” – declaring it openly – only three or four.
How can you learn to become photographer?
First of all, you have to look at the work of the great masters, think about it and about why they created those images. In my life I have devoured books by the great American and French photographers. You can also learn a lot from contemporary authors. For example, I owe a lot to Gabriele Basilico, who has been a great inspiration of mine for architectural photography. And you can learn a lot from artists…
Have you ever met any?
You bet! I met Emilio Vedova, Giuseppe Santomaso, Tancredi… and when I was in Venice I often went to Peggy Guggenheim’s.
As a photographer, do you feel like an artist among artists?
Absolutely not, I don’t feel like an artist at all. I’m not creative. The people I photograph are: I merely photograph their creativity.
So you don’t view photography as a form of art?
That is not what I meant. It is a legitimate form of art, and a critic may say my pictures have artistic value. But my intention never was to make art: I only wanted to document and witness reality. I just try to do my job as best I can, creating things that I hope are smart. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
Then “craftsman” would be a better definition for you?
No… I would say I’m a laborer, a “foot soldier” in the field of photography. My friend Renzo Piano once said that buildings are designed by architects, but made by bricklayers. The same logic applies to photographs. I would like future generations to consider me not as an artist, but as someone who documented his reality, a witness of his time.