Daria Casadio in conversation with Marcello Galvani
Marcello Galvani (1975) lives and works in Massa Lombarda (RA). He approached photography thanks to the teaching of Guido Guidi, to whom he has remained close as friend and collaborator. In 2012, his solo exhibition curated by Silvia Loddo was organised by MAR Museum in Ravenna and in 2017 he exhibited at Photo London. He has published several photographic books: 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), Meteo (Sete edizioni, 2020).
His photographs are part of the permanent collections of MAR Museum in Ravenna, MAXXI in Rome, the Fotomuseum in Winterthur (CH) and the Fondation A Stichting in Brussels.
Daria: Emilia-Romagna is a region where the photographic tradition is very sedimented. Since the 1970s, photographers here have begun to look at the landscape in a new way, approaching it with a more reflective and silent gaze. Two fundamental figures in this history are Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi. In particular Guidi, who has always lived in the Cesena countryside, was one of the first photographers in Italy to deal with the marginal landscape of the province, to him we owe the legacy of a certain photographic culture here in Romagna and the influence on a new generation of young authors (1). It seems to me that within the area of a few kilometres a specific taste has developed, a very well-defined photographic trend that I see in photographers like you, Luca Nostri, Cesare Fabbri, Francesco Neri…
Marcello: But let’s not forget the girls… Sabrina Ragucci, Francesca Gardini, Alessandra Dragoni, and many others such as Luca Gambi, Francesco Raffaelli…listing names within Guido’s school is complicated because many have passed through there or attended it, then someone didn’t continue while others pushed it harder. What you are talking about is certainly a school around the figure of Guido, but I think that in general Romagna is a land of photographers and visionaries. I don’t know, maybe it’s because of a particular relationship we have with the horizon.
There is a film about William Eggleston called By the ways (2). Eggleston is filmed during a trip to Italy, and at a certain point he is in a restaurant and a lady starts singing Romagna mia. I have always found this scene to be a sort of reverse homage, from American photography to Romagna tradition. Certainly, with Guido we observed a lot of American photography, there wasn’t an afternoon without Friedlander, and the lessons on Evans with the shutters down were kind of eroticized, no joke. There was the perception of a real morbidity…I don’t know, undoubtedly the connection with that photographic culture exists.
Q: When did you start photographing?
M: I started during University when I was attending Pharmaceutical Chemistry, as a diversion to stay around. Then I enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna. I wanted to study painting because I was very attracted by an artist from Massa Lombarda, Umberto Folli, an excellent painter. Here, at the Academy, I met Guido, who made me want to photograph even more. He was the tutor of a complementary course in Photography, and I used to come out of his lessons electrocuted. We studied the history of photography, but he used to ramble on a lot, always starting from images, both of photographers and painters, especially from the Renaissance. He carried on a real visual literacy, he was making a grammar of the image. We always started from the reading of what we saw, from the identification of those so-called “fast track” that leads the eye around the picture to point out small details and symbolic evidence. I learned to see things that I couldn’t see before and this changed my way of perceiving things because I could see more. I almost immediately got over the desire to paint because I wanted to go out and look with those new eyes. I realized that perception can be educated and expanded. Then I learned the technique over the years by self-teaching, following a little bit the others.
D: So for you it was much more important to study the history of the image than to learn a series of techniques…
M: The technical rules of photography can be learned quickly and are actually very simple. It’s attending to other people’s images that makes you explore the possibilities of language. With Guido we learned this kind of adoration for the photographic language itself, which is a different visual language than words. It’s also true that with my photographer friends we only talk about cameras, photo labs and lenses…
Q: You told me about a new Renaissance in reference to this School, right?
M: Yes, I like to think of it that way. Guido used to show us a lot of paintings from the fourteenth-fifteenth century like Piero Della Francesca, Beato Angelico and others. Undoubtedly this is linked to the fact that photography has inherited what perspective painting did. In fact, when photography became widespread, then painting changed direction and broke away from perspective. In a way, his school resembles a Renaissance workshop in which, instead of the perspective, is cultivated and refined a certain confidence in the cognitive power of the photographic mono-eye. And as in a workshop, one learns the craft with its rules and peculiarities. This is not taken for granted because there is a lot of ignorance about photography. I have often heard people say that here in Romagna everyone does the same thing, “you Guidians are all the same”, they say. Certainly, as in the Renaissance, when perspective painting required certain canons, all the Annunciations placed the column between the Madonna and the Archangel, but each artist then developed a personal language, in relation to his vision and his poetics. It is undoubtedly true that when we are close to each other, we resemble each other. The fruit seller Guerrino from Massa Lombarda, after fifty years of marriage, was identical to his wife, the same face, the same gestures. If you look at a ditch in this season, you might say that it is full of weeds…in reality, frequenting the ditch assiduously leads you to distinguish and see the differences between stridoli, piantaggine, pimpinella or dandelion…some you can eat and are very good, some you cannot. Same for people who take pictures.
D: How do you think this lesson on the Renaissance has most influenced your photographic practice?
M: I feel like I took on a certain cleanliness of the image, making clear and precise photographs, almost like scientific experiments, where attention is everything. If you photograph this cup you photograph it as a cup, this cup here, now. Now you see this cup is illuminated in a certain way and before it was not. I acquired what is called a “documentary style,” trying to stay on a ridge that looks between things for what they are but opening to the possibility of transcending, of capturing non-verbal, non-discursive ideas.
M: I remember I used this picture of a building with its windows wide open as an image/advertising for an exhibition in Bologna. When I took the postcards to a bar and asked the bartender if I could leave it on the counter, she said to me with curiosity, “What do you do…Rent?”.
D: That could be taken as a great compliment!
M: For me it was, absolutely…It’s what I said about a photography disguised as a document.
D: What do you prefer to shoot with?
M: I have photographed with all cameras but lately I shoot more often with a view camera. Even my latest book, Meteo and the previous Eggs and Asparagus were done using only the 8×10. This medium allows me to focus much more on the process, giving me the ability to pay more attention. Evans, before putting his head under the black cloth to look into the frosted glass, would say, “Here look, I’m going to disappear”. That’s a great way to broom you out and give yourself to contemplation, which is a great thing because it allows you to get out of your thinking and stay in the present moment.
Q: This reminds me of a book by Guido Guidi, La figura dell’Orante (3), in which he compares the figure of the Orante to the photographer, who with his 8×10″ camera raises his arms and hides his head behind the black cloth to protect himself from the light. Guidi notes the similarity of this gesture to an ancient ritual of propitiatory prayer.
M: Yes, Guido has always believed that photography is a kind of prayer, an act to pay homage to the real. Even Robert Adams says that painters are creators, like God, while photographers are just Saints. I don’t photograph for the result but for taking care of what’s in front of me, trying to get out of the way. Somehow you would like to hide yourself inside the camera but then inevitably, photographs reveal who you are. Photography should be used for what its nature is, for what it can do. What can photography really do? Make you see a cup differently than you’ve always seen it. That’s how the machine should be used, to see how it sees, you have to turn into the machine and not the opposite. It’s the same job the microscope does, it enhances your vision.
D: It strikes me that from what you say there seems to emerge, on the one hand, a vision of photography that is extremely mechanical, technical and scientific but, on the other hand, you can obtain very poetic images, do you agree?
M: It seems to me that there is a lot of poetry in science and also in mathematics…what could be more abstract? Isn’t it poetic to think, as Luigi Vallauri says for example, that the radius of the red giant Betelgeuse is 1000 times bigger than that of the Sun or that the electron of a hydrogen atom in which the nucleus is hypothetically enlarged at 1 m is 5 km away? I think numbers and geometry have a great poetic potential.
Q: Usually you think of a kind of poetry linked, on the contrary, to the evasion of the rules, to breaking established limits, while you seem to me to be talking about a kind of poetry that is achieved through discipline.
M: Think also of Glenn Gould. He is extremely rigorous and precise, he mechanises everything, like a metronome. It sounds cold but his Bach, through mathematics, manages to transcend, it puts you in a trance more than a nice catchy Mozart.
Q: In your book Eggs and Asparagus, many people close to you, even emotionally, are involved. How do you position yourself in light of your practice in front of these portraits?
M: I’m interested in photographing what I have close to me both for convenience and because I want to deal with what concerns me: the place where I live, my friends, my dog. Maybe it’s attachment…I don’t know…Look at this picture for example. We have always had Bullmastiffs in our family. My father, over the years, has named them all Dersu, in homage to Kurosawa, almost as if he wanted to stop time. This is Dersu VII. I spent an entire afternoon with him. It was sunny and he stood at one point right in the shadows before the light. “Perfect,” I thought, “let’s see if I can get you in focus.” Everyone takes a picture of their dog because they care about him, they want to fix him and to show him to others. The challenge for me was to take it with the view camera…it’s miraculous that the eyes and nails came out perfectly in focus and I’m sure that if I enlarged it I would see me next to the easel reflected in his eyes. One day Franco Bertoni told me that I had wanted to quote Durer’s hare, which is in a similar position, but I hadn’t thought of that at all. There is also that cloth that resembles his wrinkles…I would say that photographing what you know works a bit like self-analysis, the famous “know thyself”. That’s the reason why I really love Eggleston’s Guide. It emerges from that book not so much what Memphis is, but more who he is. That’s the beautiful contradiction to what I was telling you earlier…you go out of your way to disappear behind the camera but all you do is construct your own self-portrait.
Q: How does the construction of the book work for you?
M: Just as I never make projects, but simply get out and leave space for encounters, in constructing the books I try to notice how the photographs can dialogue with each other, without forcing things too much. Sometimes you put the photographs in a box, then you shuffle them around on the table and they begin to suggest an idea for a sequence, then a title that gives a sense to the things done. It would be nice if things always came naturally. I find that when I put intention into it and force things, the results are less surprising, more predictable. They repeat ideas already seen. Processuality is another of the lessons Guido passed on to us. Working on an idea that you make during the process and not on something preconceived to illustrate. One of the very first works I did was born out of a trip to Sardinia on a motorcycle with a friend of mine. At the port of Olbia I forgot my disposable type machine on the dock, only to realize it a few minutes later. When we got back, some workers were taking pictures of themselves with my camera. Once home, I developed the film, saw them and thought: I can’t not make a book out of this! I titled it These Six Photographs and it was exactly what had happened in the order, no reworking…no extra ideas.
We move to the studio where Marcello prints and works and he shows me some negatives. We return to the subject of the challenge posed by the view camera and the ritual approach that its use implies.
M: There’s an episode I like to recount. My father was a pharmacist, and every day a guy would come in mid-morning to get a syringe and a vial. One day my father asked him if he wanted a whole pack of syringes for convenience, so he wouldn’t have to go there every day. The guy replied that getting high for him was a ritual: deciding to get high, going to buy everything he needed, etc…and that he didn’t plan it beforehand. The ritual component has its own substantial meaning. My goal is not only to take a picture, but to spend all the time I have to fix the focus, to find the right point, to watch the light, to be there. This is also linked to the choice of photographing the place where I live, because I have my appointments with light. This for example is my garage and I’ve looked at it so many times to realize that at that time the black square creates a Z-shaped shadow!
We flip through some books and Marcello shows me a portrait of Guido Guidi, contained in Eggs and Asparagus, in which the photographer is leaning on a sorghum broom, while he is looking at a floor that looks like it has just been cleaned.
M: The cleaning in the image I mentioned earlier. Guido, just like a Zen master, says, “If you want to become a good photographer, get up at five in the morning and clean the floor”. In some way, taking pictures is also a way of disciplining yourself, it leads you to be a little more careful and meticulous. I feel close to Mattia Moreni, who said he was part of “distractedness”, so a bit of discipline can only be good for me.
Q: And who, besides Guido, do you see as a teacher?
M: Bruno Baleotti and my parents.
1. L. Nostri, L’esperienza del luogo. Fotografia e territorio in Romagna dagli anni ‘70 ad oggi, in (a cura di) F. Bertoni, Officine artistiche in Romagna 1900-2017, Imola, La Mandragora, 2018.
2. By the Ways, a Journey with William Eggleston, 2006
3. G. Guidi, La figura dell’orante, Edizioni del Bradipo, 2012
1. Massa Lombarda, 08.08.2014
2. Bologna, 20.10.2015
3. Massa Lombarda, 18.07.2020
4. Dersu VII, Massa Lombarda, 10.09.2015
5. Massa Lombarda, 14.04.2016
6. Guido, Ronta, 2016