Arts and Culture / Beyond Michelangelo
Arts and Culture / Beyond Michelangelo
At only 24-years-old Renato d’Agostin is already more than just a young rising star of Italian photography: in his résumé he lists two individual and one collective exhibition in some of the most prestigious galleries of New York and Paris, alongside the great masters of international photography such as Ralph Gibson and Leonard Freed.
Two of his photographs will be on display until August 11th at the Leica Gallery in New York, as part of the “Postcards from Paris” exhibition.
What is immediately striking about him is the unusual combination of his youth, his composure, the self-assurance of a man from a different time and the disarming confidence with which he talks about himself answering our questions with ease, starting with “Yes, I’m an attentive observer”.
How was your passion for photography born? When and how did you decide to become a photographer?
I began when I was 19. It as my last year of high school in Venice, and suddenly I began to observe things from another point of view. Taking photographs I began to pay more attention to what was happening on the street and I immediately realized that it was beautiful to see the details from a different perspective. Even though my father had a lot of cameras around (But he doesn’t know how to take a picture!), I began using disposable ones. When I really started getting into it, I began taking my father’s cameras. Every once in a while I would even skip school just to go to Venice and take photos. But the real turning point happened – I’m not really sure how – when one day my mother brought home an enormous photograph of an elephant that I still have and guard jealously. That photograph was so striking to me that since then the darkroom has become my life.
Then it was one thing after another: first the night photography class in my town with housewives and enthusiasts, then showing the first photos to the local photographers… and finally the arrival in Milan to attend the Italian Photography Institute (Istituto Italiano di Fotografia.)
I left the Institute after six months, tired of the overly academic education and of the shameless commercial approach. In my opinion the only way to learn to be a photographer is to go outside and click, click, click away...and print, and have the courage to throw yourself in and not be scared to show your work to great photographers.
“Metropolis” is the name of your first individual exhibition in New York, at the Leica Gallery last May. Why did you choose this title?
“Metropolis” in the day and at night, a surreal city, inhabited by people that aren’t real…More than showing the chaos of the metropolis, this project focuses on the individual souls that walk the streets, anonymous bodies, like ghosts in a ghost town…Exactly how I feel when I walk through the streets of a large city like New York, even though it is full of people.
The art scene in Italy is frustrating for a young photographer, because you don’t have any chances. I would call gallery owners and photographers just to ask for an opinion or some advice…and I would find myself hearing a chorus of “we don’t have time!” So when I was 21 I took my camera and bought a one-way ticket to New York.
I showed some photographs at the Italian Cultural Institute, where everyone was extremely helpful. To earn money in the first five months I was a dog walker in Chelsea. At the same time I participated in a ton of events, until the director of the Leica Gallery asked me (in December 2005) to do an individual exhibition.
I couldn’t believe it!…The Leica Gallery, the sacred temple of photography, wants me to do a show?…I worked like a madman to self-publish the catalog “zeropuntozeropunto zero” with Olivia Fincato… I was a publisher…and in May of 2007 I had my first individual show next to photography legend Leonard Freed.
I studied him in books and photography catalogs, but I never thought that at 24 years old I would have an exhibit next to this “idol” of international photography.
I started with a photo reportage about the street, but not a social reportage because I don’t think of myself as a social activist. Instead I want to document the street in general; any street scene is interesting to me. I’m drawn to the hidden “surreal” in every corner of the street: a little theatre where something is always going on…I’m interested in documenting the uniqueness of the moment through a photograph that captures the essence of that instant in its timelessness. And then I focus on the composition of the photo: its geometry, the contrast of black and white. I push the limits of reality until it becomes surreal…I never do portraits, I never photograph faces (except those of children)…I like anonymity. And I would never photograph sneakers.
I use film, 90% black and white. Even if I’m young I belong to the old school, the old mold: I love the manual labor. I love going crazy in the darkroom after the umpteenth proof trying to achieve perfection in a simple shading… I love all that is done by hand; I love the physicality of the printing process and most of all the smell of the darkroom.
I am definitely fascinated by the endless possibilities offered by digital photography, but I have a resistance in the face of digital techniques because it creates a device that is too easy to use and everyone becomes a photographer. This is the limitation that I see: you think the camera does everything by itself, but the feeling of printing is different…it has such an irreplaceable smell.
You’ve already had a very prestigious showing in Paris and the current show at the Leica in New York is called “Postcards from Paris”: What is your relationship with the French capital?
I’m in love with Paris. I’m actually on my way to Paris soon for a special project. I’m going to teach photography in a psychiatric hospital to girls suffering from anorexia. It was in Paris and I met a doctor, an Italian psychiatrist, who contacted me after seeing my photographs and he told me that he thought I had the right sensibility for this very delicate project. When he asked me I froze. These are young girls, 14 to 20 years old, that are suffering a lot and risk a slow death. But I accepted immediately because when you’re in the darkroom, when you see how on that white piece of paper as if by magic…an emotion is created according to how you move your hands while you’re printing, well…I think you can live one, two even three lives with that feeling.
I strongly believe then that the power of manipulating all the shading, the tones, the nuances…What I mean is that the same magic of this process might achieve the miracle that saves these girls from the darkness of the tunnel that they find themselves in.
I didn’t speak a word of French until 4 months ago when I started studying with a private tutor here in New York…and now I can speak. It’s going to be a challenge for me to teach in another language for the first time.
It’s too little, never enough: I would like some extra hours to sleep. I love time: seconds will make your career. Not a minute, but fractions of a second make the career of a photographer. I love the speed in general, I love the energy of the streets, I love all that is frenetic…but then in the darkroom it changes. Time in there is stopped, enlarged, frozen. A print can be perfect in three hours or sometimes ten days.
We’re working on a presentation for the publication by the Primo Levi Center of the biography of an incredible woman: Lucia Servadio Bedarida. I met her in her home on the Hudson River when she was 106-years-old; she was the first Jewish female doctor that was forced to escape Italy due to the promulgation of anti-Semite laws.
I documented the day I spent with her before she passed away. It was a fantastic human experience, unforgettable. She held my hand and told us about her life.
The competition in New York is enormous: they forget about you the next day…because there are millions of very talented photographers. You need a lot of grit and determination. You need to have the courage and the stubbornness to not stop at the first obstacles, or at the first inevitable rejections.