Olivo Barbieri: Negative Space
Andrea Blanch: The theme of our upcoming issue is Place. Can you talk about the role of place in your work?
Olivo Barbieri: I am interested in the genius loci, the sense of place. I try to learn in a way in which place can be apt to imagine or understand the future.
AB: What were the logistical and technical challenges you faced when creating your Alps, Geographies and People photographs? What equipment did you use?
OB: I used helicopters and an eighty megapixel camera. In order to get the permit to fly over the Alps, I had to use Alpine Rescue Team helicopters.
AB: Were there any surprises or unexpected circumstances that came up when working on this series?
OB: As usual, in the high mountains the weather was a challenge. It changed abruptly.
AB: In the intro to the Alps book you say that the proportions, the forms, and the positions of the people are all true. How do you reveal or explore truth in your work?
OB: I do not change the shape of what I represent. I only transform the colors. My work is not about truth, but about images. Before I take pictures, I try to see the images that exist—drawings, paintings, photographs, movies etc.
AB: You say that “The subject of Alps – Geographies and People is how the mountain is perceived from the climbers’ point of view,” but the photographs picture the climbers from very far away, which seems to be more an observer’s perspective. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the climber’s point of view?”
OB: I try to show a sense of danger in which they operate, the risks they face. Like a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, the images are lost in the landscape. But I describe them not with the veil of romantic sublime but from a noisy technological tool such as a helicopter.
AB: Later in the book, you include a news story that describes a skirmish between foreign climbers and local workers. Why did you include this?
OB: The story tells how in recent time, mass tourism has pervaded these places, and how by paying several guides you may feel like a skilled climber. There are no more natural places, but rather theme parks.
AB: One description of your work Adriatic Sea (staged) Dancing People says, “Using cities and landscapes as his subjects, Barbieri creates photographs that appear digitally manipulated, but which in actuality are constructed through his photographic technique.” And yet many of your images are clearly altered in some way—this is a bit confusing. Can you elaborate on what you capture in-camera, and what you do in post?
OB: As mentioned above, I do not change the shape of what I represent. I transform only the colors. However, you mention my “photographic technique.” This refers to my images created with tilt and shift.
AB: You play a lot with form and color. In one example from Adriatic Sea, you leave the forms of people but strip them of color so they appear as white silhouettes. What is the significance of removing or simplifying the color of forms? What do you hope to achieve or reveal by doing this?
OB: The images with white silhouettes show a possible preliminary design stage of the choreographies, as in a rendering or in a maquette.
AB: What drives your decisions as to what to change and how you change it?
OB: The changes are in accordance with the concept of the project.
AB: Do you consider this work minimalist?
OB: I don’t know. Minimalism has so many meanings. Sometimes negative. Minimalism started in the sixties…
AB: Can you talk about how you planned and choreographed the group scenes in Adriatic Sea?
OB: In the title Adriatic Sea (staged) Dancing People, “staged” is a bit ironic. People were really staged, but not by me. They were staged by gym instructors or dance teachers.
AB: You described the scenes in Adriatic Sea as “a manifestation of the genius loci of those places where folk dance is extremely popular and historically regarded by the old and new generations and where still the big disco clubs stand like cathedrals in the desert.” This is fascinating—can you say more about your inspiration for this series and how you came to this idea?
OB: I was shooting the film Cittá Perfetta along the Adriatic coast for the MAXXI Museum in Rome. I noticed that at certain times of the day, often at the end of the morning, groups of tourists staged choreographed dances. The coastal area where the photographs were taken includes the city of Rimini. After World War II, this city became the most popular in Italy for the fun summer entertainment. To understand the mood of this area, just remember that Rimini is the birthplace of Federico Fellini.
AB: Your recent work focuses more on natural environments, whereas your previous work focused on built landscapes. Do you consider this a departure from your earlier work, or a continuation?
OB: In a way it is a continuation. I focus on natural places as if they were theme parks. Actually, several natural places, such as big waterfalls, the Dolomites and the Alps, paradoxically survive thanks to tourism. Moreover, my projects on natural sites do not show them as such. I represent them as we remember them.
AB: Do you spend leisure time in any of the places you photograph, such as the Alps or the sea? Do you ski? Do you enjoy the beach?
OB: Years ago I spent time in these places. I don’t ski. I really like to look at the sea but I don’t spend time at the beach.
AB: Your combination of the tilt-shift camera and aerial photography makes real cities appear to be miniature reproductions seen from above. Was it your intention to create this effect? If so, why?
OB: In 1999, I was tired of the idea that photography is the portrait of reality. That, as stated in the manual of photography, you can’t simultaneously see the tree and each leaf. I wanted to decide what the starting point of reading an image was. I used the selective focus technique and found that all seemed a plastic scale model. In this way it was possible to re-read the world as if it was a temporary installation. Finally I started the Site Specific project.
AB: What do you think is revealed about the world, about cities and landscapes, when we look at them from above?
OB: The architect Le Corbusier wrote that in order to understand the urban planning of a city, it must be filmed by plane. When we see things from above, we understand real dimensions and shapes. The hierarchical relationships between the objects are obvious, as if we saw them for the first time, away from voices, words, sounds.
AB: Who would you say have been your greatest influences throughout your career?
OB: Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Gertrude Stein, William Burroughs, William Eggleston.
AB: You have made many short films, including on Site Specific locations that correspond to cities that you also photographed. What do you think you were able to capture through film that you couldn’t with still images, and vice versa?
OB: Cinema and photography are two media which are not comparable. They are mechanisms that build stories in different ways.
AB: Can you talk about what it was like to transition to films given your background as a still photographer?
OB: The main difference is that with photography, you can do it nearly alone, while in film you need a crew. Although technology is changing, in photography you require more assistants than before, while in the film you need less than one.
AB: You are very prolific in your work. What continues to inspire you? What excites you about your subjects?
OB: I am attracted to what I don’t understand. Why do so many people like to go to a soccer stadium so much? Why people take enormous risk to climb to the top of a mountain? Why do people like to go to the beach so much? Why do we build megacities so sophisticated and energivorous, etc.
AB: What are you working on now?
OB: Next July I will do an exhibition with all my films. For 2019, I am preparing a book and an exhibition on China, a country that I have photographed since 1989.