Born in Venice, Luca Campigotto lives and works in Milan, but is always wandering around the world. In addition to being a tireless traveler, he is one of the most highly regarded photographers in Italy. His Weltanschauung is visionary, maximalist, fiery. His works have been exhibited at some of the world's most prestigious institutions (Venice Biennale, MAXXI and CCA, among others) and important public and private collections (Museo Fotografia Contemporanea, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, etc.). We had a chat with him. Let's start with the exhibition Pier Luigi Nervi. L'architettura molecolare, which has just opened at the Galleria del Credito Siciliano in Acireale. There is a section devoted to the hangar Nervi constructed on the island of Pantelleria: the spaces inside and outside the hangar are investigated and represented through a portfolio of your photographs.
How did this work come about?
Leo Guerra and Cristina Quadrio Curzio of the Galleria Credito Valtellinese asked me to photograph this mysterious structure, which, unfortunately, is lying unused in the Air Force base on Pantelleria. A magnificent building of which practically no consistent documentation existed. It is an underground hangar constructed by Pier Luigi Nervi in 1939, 340 meters long and 26 wide, covered by an imitation natural hill. A very powerful structure, not just from the engineering viewpoint, but also the visual one. Inside, when all the lights are turned on, the arches vanish into a sort of boundless depth, and the brilliantly lit space is reminiscent of a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Let's move on from the hangar to your cities: Milan, Venice, New York, Paris, Bangkok. Very different from one another, but similar in the way in which they are recounted. You could be described as an urban storyteller in search of visions. Is photography imagination?
Photography is a thousand different things, of course, but in mine there is, it's true, a great love of the visionary and imaginative aspect. Often it's as if I have found the remains of a theatrical set that I had imagined, as if I could make use of one portion of reality to jump over it and break into another world, into different times. It is the desire to convey a lost atmosphere, an impression. Almost as if there existed an "attic of wonders" in which you can lose yourself, a landscape within the landscape.
This liking for narrative prompts you to look almost obsessively for the perfect composition, a picture in which every detail is charged with evocative force.
Yes, I try to give my photos an evocative power. I regard myself essentially as someone who makes suggestions: who points his finger at something, so that the viewer can see things in the way I've seen them. Writing poetry has accustomed me to taking a lot of time to choose the words that I feel most suitable. When I write I proceed by visual impressions, when I take photographs I'm always seeking a balanced and powerful composition. I don't think you can call it perfect. I always remember a line of Eugenio Montale's that runs: "So at times a gunshot shatters the silence of the countryside." A line that has a strong cinematic quality: as if far away, in the silent summer glare of the fields, this sharp sound rings out and you could glimpse the smoke of the gun. My photography is certainly the fruit of a feeling that sinks in and stays, often for a long time, in a limbo of digestion, of reexamination. It's like turning back, like thinking over the memories of a journey. In any case, photography is that fierce and relentless state of mind which throws us into the arms of nostalgia.
Reading a passage of your adventure among the Egyptian pyramids and looking at the pictures, I thought: taking photographs in the dark is a bit like writing a story at night. The intimacy and silence that come from the absence of light and movement really alter our perception of the world outside. The night, perhaps, represents nostalgia for a day that has just ended.
No, for me night is not nostalgia for daylight, on the contrary. It's true, though, that the solitude of night really does change our perception of the world. The night can also offer more surprising and varied kinds of light than those of the day. Its light, that mix of artificial glows and natural gleams, fascinates me because there is something unpredictable and, in a way, indescribable about it. I'll never finish getting to know the night and its light, exploring it. It always surprises me.
You made your first long journey at the age of nineteen, to the United States. That an SLR was in your bag was little more than chance, but it certainly contributed to making you an attentive traveler, one who takes the trouble to capture moments and not let them drain away. In all these years of exploration has it ever happened that you left the lens cap on and lived the experience directly, without recording it?
Yes, it's happened. I remember one time in particular, right there among the pyramids, when beneath me I had the incredible nighttime vision of an encampment of camel drivers squatting around their fires, with their beasts scattered in the darkness on the edge of the desert. Many years have passed and I still wonder why on earth I didn't take a picture. I just stood there watching. Often, however, I haven't photographed and still don't photograph the people who are close to me, the important moments of my life. Perhaps I'm not able to, or maybe I'm not really interested in doing it. So I just look on, as if spellbound. But there are many moments that I regret not having photographed.
What relationship do you establish with the people you meet on your travels? There are almost never human figures in your photos.
To answer you I'll go back to what I was saying before. Certain scenes, like the one among the pyramids, in the souks of Cairo or Yemen, or on the road in India, I've simply looked at, experienced in that unique moment inside me. A lot of those moments, more or less important, made up of people and things, I've lost forever. Others come back to me, at times, sweet and poignant like all things of the past. The same is true for the meetings that take place when I'm traveling. Sometimes all it takes is a greeting, a sign of understanding while you're sitting at an outdoor cafè, to provide inspiration. At others, as has happened to me in the street in New York, someone will stop you, curious about what you're doing, and suggest another point of view for a shot.
Traveling can be exhausting sometimes, and fatigue doesn't help to communicate a thought or a point of view in a suitable form. What do you think?
I don't know. Photographers are used to making an effort. They always carry a weight on their shoulders. They walk a lot. They get in and out of cars a thousand times. I usually go on working until I feel "that I've finished," that I've gathered everything that I could and that interested me.
Through your pictures an inner imagination is revealed in which an ancient temple, a merchant ship or a boundless landscape are treated with the same monumental emphasis. It's your signature, your style. How much are you conscious of it?
I couldn't tell you. I can say that when I'm taking photographs I see myself a bit like a boxer: I go there, hit as hard as I can, and come back. Every photographer possesses, some more some less, the killer instinct. I'm certainly not one for minimalism, it's not in my nature.
If you had to show a single project to someone who has never seen your photographs, which would you choose as the most representative?
I wouldn't be able to choose a single project. I would suggest that he take a look at this book, on which I've been working for years, in which photos that are quite different from one another try to hold a dialogue with the things I write.
How do you choose which projects to take up and what are your criteria of selection: intuition, curiosity, the market?
I'd say first of all curiosity and perhaps even more the very strong, almost erotic attraction I have to certain places. I'm interested in the market, but I've never made choices for economic advantage.
What are your plans for the future?
At the moment, I want to stay a while in New York. Then to travel again, as soon as possible, to see the world again and create new works.