Incredible Enemies, Fantastic Opportunities: Interview with Oliviero Toscani
Andrea Blanch: It's so nice to speak to you after all these years! The issue that I'm working on now concerns the concept of “risk” - I thought that you might be able to relate to that with your advertising work.
Oliviero Toscani: I don't do advertising, I just do advertising media. If I worked for a newspaper or magazine it would be published just in that magazine. I don't really know advertising.
Andrea: Your father was a photojournalist, and that must have had a tremendous influence on you and your work - for me your work is photojournalistic. I'm wondering why you decided to address the problems of humanity.
Oliviero: I've always been engaged somehow. I belong to a generation that revolted in the early 60s. I'm the same age as Bob Dylan and Mohammed Ali and the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I've been out there
Andrea: Well, you've said recently that you feel sensitivities have changed since you stopped working with Benetton in 2000.
Oliviero: I wanted to try something new and now I'm back again.
Andrea: And you had said the reason you’re back [with Benetton] was because you have similar interests. Would you care to expand on that? What interests do you have in common?
Oliviero: What interests me right now is the problem of integration. This is a major problem of the world today. We can’t integrate humanity.
Andrea: The world has become so politically correct that I think it's very difficult to put images like [Toscani’s Benetton work], anything that's very controversial or that creates that kind of controversy, to get that across to people anymore, to be able to have the permission to do that anymore.
Oliviero: I'm not looking for a consensus. Also, I don't want you to think “controversy.” I've just seen what they think I should be publishing. I work in a totally free situation. A good photographer should be able to show his point of view through images.
Andrea: Why did you decide to use a white background for a lot of your images?
Oliviero: I don't care about backgrounds. I would have painted the Mona Lisa on a white background. I don't like black because black hasn't got any perspective.
Andrea: And then [mutual friend] Frances told me that you only like to use one light because you don't need more than one light because the sun is only one light.
Oliviero: The sun is one side of just one surface.
Andrea: Correct me if this is wrong, but I’ve heard you feel photographers, or that you, don’t belong in a gallery.
Oliviero: I don't care about galleries. They’re not my place. Pictures in galleries have no meaning. To me, a photograph needs to be published and printed. Photography is a public service, not something that you hang on the wall. Modern art is photography, not paintings. Paintings are last century. I don't put paintings on my wall.
Andrea: You talk a lot about how insecurity has to do with creativity.
Oliviero: Well you can’t be creative and secure. You have to be insecure to be creative.
Andrea: You come across as a very confident person. I don't know you well, but I don't see the insecurities in you - and yet you do this incredible work. Can you recall a moment that you were extremely insecure about something that turned out to be a great achievement?
Oliviero: It doesn't scare me to be insecure. You know when I drive my motorbike, I'm not secure. When I go skiing, I'm not secure. When I take an airplane, I’m not secure. The only thing I’m secure of is that someday I’ll die. The rest is optional, but —
Andrea: What's a typical day like for you?
Oliviero: I wake up pretty early in the morning. I like silence for a while.
Andrea: Do you meditate or are you just silent?
Oliviero: Just silent. Then I read the newspaper.
Andrea: Let’s talk about creativity. There are a lot of people who go around calling themselves creative.
Oliviero: I think they’re a bunch of idiots. You'll never hear a real creative person say, “I’m a creative.”
Andrea: You’ve said that if advertising made everyone happy it would be an act of hypocrisy. What do you believe the role of advertising is?
Oliviero: First of all I don't believe in advertising. I’ve never really worked for an advertising agency.
Andrea: You've been very lucky.
Oliviero: Everything is advertising. The Sistine Chapel is the advertising of the church.
Andrea: But I’d like to know how you started in fashion photography.
Oliviero: I didn't start with fashion at all. I started with reportage: I was working for a magazine and then the magazine editor asked me, “Why don't you take some fashion pictures?” So I took some fashion picture. But then Benetton came along and said, “Why don't you work for me?” So I start to work with him. Normally I do work with people I like; the first thing you have to do is choose your clients - who I call friends, rather than clients. Frank Lloyd Wright used to say the quality of the architecture depends on the intelligence of your client. So if you have a stupid client you can’t do a good job.
You've also said that it is an honor to be criticized.
Oliviero: Everybody was saying that “Toscani was destroying Benetton.” But “everybody” was wrong: I revolutionize the whole advertising world. If you haven't got any critics then you haven't done anything interesting
Andrea: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Oliviero: I’m finally building my own studio, in the middle of my vineyard. The most beautiful place. I invite my friends and we drink wine.
Andrea: So you're building a studio to drink wine in?
Oliviero: Drink wine, cook, worship. Discuss the future.
Andrea: Is there anything that you would like to do that you haven't done?
Oliviero: I would like to do a lot of things, but luckily I have imagination. Imagining doesn't cost anything.
Andrea: 20 years from now, what would you like your legacy to be?
Oliviero: I don’t care.
Andrea: What was the biggest risk you ever took?
Oliviero: Falling in love.
This interview has been condensed and edited. The full interview is available on our newest issue RISK