IN CONVERSATION WITH
ALESSANDRO DURINI DI MONZA & ANTHEA ROBERTS
This is a feature from the Afridi Gallery’s ‘in conversation’ programme, an ongoing series that explores our encounters with art. Shahbaz Afridi invites figures from the world of art & design to visit the gallery for a discussion prompted by the unique arrangements of furniture and objects found there.
The Afridi Gallery is an exhibition space for ‘objects to inspire’, and these conversations arise when we pause and reflect on the aesthetic forms that surround us.
IN CONVERSATION: Anthea Roberts and Alessandro Durini di Monza
Afridi Gallery Director Anthea Roberts sits down with photographer Alessandro Durini di Monza to discuss black and white vs colour, capturing an object’s essence and the meaning of art. They are joined by Shahbaz Afridi and arts journalist Jo Lawson-Tancred.
AR: How did you first come to photography?
AD: My grandfather was a photographer *. He was a diplomat so he would travel the world and he always carried a camera with him, like me. I have all his albums starting from his 20th birthday in 1896 and spanning his career. In 1900 he went to Russia where he took photos of hunting, priests, peasants and other examples of life before the revolution. He was in England during the war so there is a picture of him going to the country and having tea in the garden with all these ladies dressed in white. He taught the host’s son how to swim - there are photos of him holding a stick with a rope, and at the end of the rope there’s a kid swimming in a pond!
AR: Did his work influence how you choose your subjects?
AD: Not really, because he was simply photographing what he saw so a lot of the images are of people he met and street scenes.
AD: What was your first photograph?
AD: I was twelve years old and I was sent to Ireland on a school trip. I was looking out of the window on a train and saw a typically Irish scene of young boys with a horse. I took a polaroid of it that I still have. That was in a way similar to what my grandfather would do. The polaroid allowed an immediate result, it was pre digital so the polaroid was the only way to do that then. It was fun so I got more and more involved and got a better camera. When I went to university in America I did not have a dark room, which was a problem because I always worked in black and white. I switched to colour slides then because they were easier to see.
AR: Did the change from black and white to colour change your subject matter?
AD: Not particularly. It’s different in the sense that black and white purifies the image, so you can take pictures of almost anything in black and white and the subject can look nice because it becomes more abstract. When you add colour, that can often disrupt the composition. For example, the reflection of yellow light could become distraction rather than a hole in the image. A lot of pictures don’t make sense in colour. For me it was a way to reduce my production by adding the complexity of colour because you have to be much more careful.
SA: Do you think colour distorts?
AD: Some people find it easier to work in colour because its an extra element, which in a way is true. But at the same time it’s also an extra element to control and to be aware of. Sometimes I find something structurally beautiful... but oh my god, the colour..! For me it’s been a challenge. They say a lot of my photographs seem to be black and white but they are actually colour. Maybe I always retained this vision of the black and white. In the 1960s, when colour photography first came about, it was fashionable to produce intensely colourful work. It’s one of the reasons Nikon became the camera of choice, because it had stronger colours than the more naturalistic cameras at the time. For a photojournalist it produced images that look great in a newspaper. I didn’t go that way.
JL-T: What did you study?
AD: I studied Economics and Law, but my main choice was Architecture - which didn’t happen because my parents sent me to a school that did everything but. I had no clue how university worked in America, for an Italian it was novel. I thought I would major in Architecture and then I found out that there is no Architecture! I hardly spoke English so I switched to Economics, which at least is useful. And that was that. At one point I took a computer course, which at the time was just using a keyboard and no screen. I built a programme that would produce a strip of paper, like a ticket tape, but with holes. I took that across the road where people in white coats would run the programme on the computer and print out the result. My programme advised the user what shutter speed to use according to what they wanted to take a picture of and in what conditions.
JL-T: So was your photography self taught?
AD: Yes. There’s a very mechanical aspect of photography. You start with the basics and just use one lens and then you start playing around, realising how sensitive the film is and then adjusting the speed and the opening of the lens. Only one combination will work in a certain light so it’s trial and error.
AR: And do you collect the work of other photographers?
AD: I do, yes. I might also take newspaper clippings as a record, or I'm given photos by friends. In terms of spending money, I prefer to spend it on printing my own photographs.
AR: And are you inspired by any particular photographers?
AD: Yes. It’s a cliche but I love Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908-2004) because he was able to capture a subject’s essence. I love the image where he is on top of some stairs and he captures a bicycle just zipping by. Many of his photos are quite special, although maybe now I’ve seen too much of his work I am looking for something else. I recently discovered an artist called Saul Leiter (American, 1923-2013). He worked in New York as a fashion photographer before disappearing, and there is a documentary in which someone goes and finds him in a loft surrounded by mountains of photography slides and papers that he accumulated over sixty years of work. He had been completely forgotten. His photographs are incredibly delicate, and use colour in a way that is all about colour. He took photos from a car window while it was raining, so on the street you can see a woman with a red umbrella but very little detail because of the fog. I think his intellect hampered his ability to connect with ordinary people, New York life and the fashion world.
AR: In your photos you don’t tend to have people as subjects.
AD: I do have people but I am a bit shy photographing people because I don’t want to intrude. If I photograph people it’s because they are part of the landscape and aren’t seeing me. For example it’s because I am bored on the beach. I like the beach but I don’t like to sunbathe when it’s too hot - some people can do it for hours ... all day - I feel suicidal! I start taking pictures of groups of people from a distance. If I ask permission, it defeats the purpose because people pose. Sometimes I see a little sketch that I think would be wonderful... but I’m not in your face. I like photographing people in a way that is subtle.
JL-T: What is the play between abstraction and familiarity in your work?
AD: I notice the whole but I try to record the essence. Anything that I take a picture of, I’m trying to reduce it to its purer elements, and these might be disturbing. There is a famous poem that asks how beautiful the sky of Milan is when its blue. But Milan is known for having electric lines overhead for the trams, so you always have a ceiling of wires when you walk and most people find them really horrible. I think in a way it is beautiful, and it is the sky of Milan. I did a series looking up at the sky but people would say, ‘why are you taking a picture of that?!’
AR: Do you think your photos fit well in an interior, in people’s homes?
AD: I like photos hanging on a wall. Some people think that they should be in a book. Do they look good? It depends, like anything, on what kind of environment you have. I think it’s nice to mix styles together. Some people will have a room that is completely Louis XVI, or contemporary, or 1950s, which is fine but I think you can mix things up. It’s nice to have a Louis XVI desk with a modern chair or with a photograph behind. Why not? The contrast is nice. Nowadays antique furniture is becoming more obsolete because it is fragile, so you see an Old Master painting with modern furniture. For our generation I think photography has become our medium. Younger people often relate to photography more, so they hang it in their interiors. I have my photos hanging in my home.
AR: Do you consider your work to be art?
AD: I consider my photographs to be my creation, but it is not really up to me to say if they are art or not. Some are better, some are worse. Some are artistic, some are not.
SA: You are too modest. Let’s put it another way, what do you consider to be art?
AD: For me all artists are artisans. It’s just how good an artisan you are that will elevate your work to art. You do it because you want to do it, because you have to do it. Whether it is art or not doesn’t really matter. You asked me if I want people to like my work. Yeah, sure, it’s nice, but if they don’t like my work, I will still take pictures. You don’t like my picture? I still love it. It says something to me that I guess it doesn’t to you. Art is a really heavy word. ‘Found object’. Is that art? If you put it down and say... ‘this is my life’, in a way that can become art because you see in that object something that is special. Today I took a picture of a leaf. It’s just a bloody leaf! You step on it every single day.
JL-T: Everything you’ve told us really gives a new perspective. Even within this conversation series we come to the gallery to discuss art and design objects and on our way probably pass all sorts of beautiful things we didn’t even bother looking at.
SA: That could be one way of describing art, it made me stop and think and contemplate.
AD: Yes, art’s function in that case would be to show you that aspect of the object that is thought-provoking. Art is difficult to quantify. To me it it just an incredibly beautiful artisan product. Whether it is art or not? Maybe that is a step too far in attempting to define it.
SA: But an artisan product is normally created for a function.
AD: Yes, but look, you can make a drinking glass, or you can make a beautiful drinking glass. So... some glasses are art. Art is just something done better.
AR: That is a wonderful thing to say.
AD: Whatever you do, even washing dishes, you can wash dishes in such a way that it is an art. And then... if you are a conceptual artist you film yourself washing dishes and sell it to a museum!
* Ercole Durini di Monza (born July 12, 1876 in Gorla Minore, † November 26, 1968 in Milan) was an Italian ambassador and senator.