Interview by Gaia Amorello
All Images © Mattia Balsamini
Mattia Balsamini (Pordenone, Italy, 1987) is an Italian documentary photographer based between Venice and Milan. In 2008 he moved to Los Angeles where he studied at the Brooks Institute of Photography specialising in advertising photography. In 2010 he was David LaChapelle’s studio assistant and archivist. After returning to Italy, he taught photography at the IUAV University of Venice. He is currently represented by the Contrasto photo agency. Over the years he has carried out personal and editorial projects for institutions such as MIT, NASA and the Institute of Forensic Medicine University of Zurich. Balsamini’s work focuses on work as a factor in human identity. He considers technology and science useful tools to analyse relational and social dynamics.
Gaia Amorello (GA): Hi Mattia, we are pleased to have you on Pellicola, welcome! Would you like to tell us about how your connection with photography came about? What made you realise that this is your language?
Mattia Balsamini (MB): Thanks for your interest in my work.
I started working with photography during the summer breaks in middle school, as an assistant apprentice to a local photographer, specializing in industrial photography, of technical products. He taught me what it means to work in the studio, slowly, precisely and obsessively. At the time I wasn’t that interested in the process, I was more fascinated by the result. I remember it was my father who advised me to understand more by trying to see closely what it meant to work in the photography business.
(GA): You formed and lived between the US and Italy, only recently returning to live in your hometown. How has the place influenced your research and your aesthetics?
(MB): Even before I left for the United States, the school of photography I enjoyed the most was American. I think it is due to a fascination that I have felt since I was a child towards the atmospheres, objects, faces, sounds that come from there. I still find myself trying through photography to give voice to that fascination, even if it is not necessarily consistent with the content of the image. I am not looking for an “American” result at all costs, but in this exotic attitude, I look for a dose of estrangement that in my opinion serves to bring the image to a more incisive level. I have an idea of photography between the function and surrealism. I try to make images live in some intangible suspended magic. It is a desire that comes from my vision of all things, perhaps from the perverse attitude of wanting to understand, but not completely, otherwise that magic could perhaps disappear.
(GA): You are well known for your portraits of well-known personalities in various fields and for your projects set in places that belong to the world of science. With In Search Of Appropriate Images, a project born during the first year of the pandemic, you have created something different from your previous works. The project seems almost to be an archaeological dig in which the principle of stratification is evident and of which you report the precise data, the geographical coordinates of your journey and the finds. Would you like to tell us about the need you felt to make images at a time like that?
(MB): The series represented a process of discovery, through a type of sensitivity and attention that was possible, at least for me, only with stillness and silence around me. It occurred in the fields of my hometown –a place that after many years traveling has remained very important, radical. This body of work simulates the syntax of the diary, but respecting the historical distance of the memory. The landscape of my childhood became a container of recurring, but not necessarily indigenous, forms. In this way the diary experience is contradicted, the time of restitution triggers a new vocabulary, inserting new elements. Each geographical territory is a reservoir of forms, but these must be identified and their recognition is not immediate, but it can be achieved throught the education of the eye.
(GA): We have talked about space as a founding element of research. The images, however, also contain a strong sense of time, and the sensations they express are those we all felt during the lockdown, suspension and long silences. Do you consider the project to be a diary in which to preserve the memory of this particular sense of time experienced?
(MB): Keeping a diary is live-action, a constant and temporally close recording of the reported events. Often there is no emotional separation between the lived situation and its transcription. It all happens in the present, there is no deferral that it can re-elaborate the data at its disposal. Reconstructing a memory, on the other hand, means translating: a time factor takes over which synthesizes and modifies the original perception. The filter of history intervenes which marks a new apparition, probably (but it is not necessary) similar to the first-born act. I believe I developed this project on the edge of these two paradigms.
(GA): The project started on Instagram, then evolved on the website and finally turned into a book, published by Skinnerboox, which is spread over two top-bound blocks. Right from the virtual, it is clear how much interaction the reader can have with the content of the project. Would you like to tell us about the process that brought about the production of the book and the choice of this type of structure?
(MB): Since the development of the first dummies, the choice of creating a separate narration between images has been a priority. With the publisher Milo Montelli and the Think Work Observe designers with whom I have been collaborating for many years now, the collaboration is often very synergistic. We decided to carry out my methodology of juxtaposing images that up until now I had only experienced on the monitor.
This certainly made the output more interesting but required the editing of two separate books that should have worked together anyway. Thus making it necessary to test every possible combination of left and right block images.
(GA): In the book, archetypal forms and symbolic geometries are repeated, almost as if it were a ritual in which your daily gesture has been transmuted into a sign. What role does your gesture play in this ritual?
(MB): Rituals have been and still is very important, I consider it a good omen also for commercial projects, I try to be systematic from the preparation of the equipment to the insistence with which I try to create an image that maybe at first impression is not working. I see it as a characteristic feature of every artisanal craft. The elementary shapes that appear in this book, their obsessive research, also alludes to the didactic world, as often in my work, of symbolism referring to the infantile realms of study and play.
(GA): The idea of dig and stratification also returns in the way the whole project is composed, with the technique of juxtaposing images and overlapping multiple languages such as photographs, scans, written notes and drawings. This creates multiple levels of reading and storytelling, setting aside a linear narrative. Are there any texts or visual references that inspired you?
(MB): There are two books which became fundamental during the research and I think they well represent the dicotomy of the very content of ISOAI: a drawing manual, and a novel. The first is a one of Hoepli’s drawing manuals, the second one is “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” by Lawrence Sterne. It is considered an anti-novel as it breaks with the conventions of the traditional novel, through digressions in the narrative, flashbacks and flashforwards. It is also considered a meta-novel, as we find reflections on the narrative processes of writing and on the nature of the novel itself.
(GA): Thank you for your time Mattia, it was very nice talking to you!
(MB): Thank you!