I met Renato D’Agostin in his Brooklyn studio on a cold autumn evening. His studio very much like his work is stark white, minimalistic and beautifully efficient. Originally from Italy, Renato has been in New York for more than eight years, working solely in monochromatic film and darkroom prints. What really amazed me about him is how he handles a project with a distinct end result to his photographic journey. I spoke to him about his philosophy, recent book launch and also about what he’s been working on.
AB – We first met in your studio to look at your book Kapadokya. And we spoke about how the work changes when presented as a book. Could you talk a little more about how you see the book as a form of presentation vs a exhibition or a slide show.
RA – Books are essential for me and my work. When I approach a new project I always start with the idea of a book in my mind, and end up with a book in my hands. I believe that it’s the form that protects the concept of the project in the best way, it preserves and communicates the idea of the photographer to the audience. Exhibitions tend to change depending on several factors each time. Illumination changes, as well as the curator, the space, the size of the work, the culture to which the project is presented to, therefore a different selection from the project, etc. The book will remain the same forever. The sequence, the distance of the pages from the eyes of the viewer, the light under which it will be observed will pretty much be the same. I consider this to be relevant to me and my work as the way I build projects follow a certain narrative feeling which is respected in the book.
AB – In your early years you assisted the American Photographer Ralph Gibson. And he is very invested in book making. I’m interested in how you view the books differently with different projects, how does the design or the philosophy of the book change?
RA – Ralph Gibson has always been a great inspiration for me in the way he thinks of books. He has an incredible ability of making two pages open a dialogue between each other creating a new architecture and tension. I tend to keep a certain repetition in the way I make books. I work with Tankboys, an innovative design studio in Venice, Italy, and together we found a common ground for design and photography. Sometimes in photo books or books in general, design is too present, generating a visual conflict. Tankboys have a great respect and understanding for photography and are able to achieve the delicate balance between the elements that create the book that never gets old or follow a moment in the industry. Longevity of the book is something that has always fascinated me, becoming an obsession. For a specific series I am doing with them we keep the same format, same straight layout for the photographs and the only elements that change are the colors of the endpapers and the binding string. A booklet included inside has the text. A vinyl disc has music inspired by the photographs. All the three elements merge beautifully together. That is the power of strong design. The series is called Nomadic Editions and I am working now at the fourth chapter. For a completely different book, Frecce (Automatic Books, 2014) we took another direction, and being color photography the feeling is far from my previous ones, as well as the design.
AB – Your work is highly inspired by Japanese post war photography. Stark black and white, high contrast grainy images. Yet the content in the images seems to be classic American. One could say that in the images as you dissolve identities into spaces, there is the annihilation of the individual for the greater romanticism. Could you speak more about your perception of the city as an experience of a singular stream of thought. What inspires this philosophy in your work?
RA – I like to see my photography all together as a singular stream of thoughts, regardless from which city I am approaching. Cities are theaters where elements of architecture and human nature meet. Psychologies of cultures, layers of identity to discover with my camera, where I try to turn the detail into a more universal scale. Anonymity of the subjects, isolation of the elements, timeless fragments have become recurrent motifs of how I distill from here and there building a visual narration. The great director Andrei Tarkovsky said “If the world were perfect, man wouldn’t look for harmony, he would simply live in it. Therefore the artist exists because we live in an ill-designed world.” I like to look for harmony.
AB – In one of your older interviews you spoke about exploring photography from an early age. How has your work changed overtime?
RA – I started photography at the age of 17. I always had a certain interest in composition and how lines and elements of reality could translate into a picture, and where to make those lines fall in order to create a certain order, important to me and my eye. Through years, following the natural perception I was developing, I kept studying it and approaching the world through a sort of visual grid, making sure not to make it the subject of the photograph, but its alphabet. At the very beginning, compared to now, I feel like I was more dependent on reality. More descriptive of it, and now instead I try to use it and almost avoid it, trying to reach something more universal from that specific moment.
AB – And now you’re working on a brand new book, in fact its very close to release. Could you talk a little about your upcoming book project and the kickstarter for it?
RA – In the summer 2015 I traveled across United States by motorcycle. The book is titled 7439 and it’s the exact number of miles I rode through in the two months that I spent between New York and San Francisco. In a chronological order the book will present the visual trip, culture and landscape I encountered on the back of my 1983 BMW R100. Doing this kind of trip by motorcycle was quite a challenge, carrying with me all the equipment and film, going through wet and dry weather, rain and high temperatures, but the idea of feeling the weather changing on your skin, passing through a multitude of landscapes, vegetation, cities, all becomes more real done on two wheels and being expose its changes. Photography and motorcycle became a natural connection and I decided to leave from my New York studio in the month of July. I designed an itinerary trying to reach the furthest north and the furthest south, so the first stop was the Niagara Falls. I then rode down to Detroit, Indianapolis, Lexington, Oak Ridge, Smoky Mountains, Alabama then reaching the southern New Orleans and from there shooting west through Texas, all the Grand Canyon, Arizona and Utah, Las Vegas then exploring the incredible Death Valley. Los Angeles was next and then the final stop, San Francisco. Pushing the limit of comfortability became a daily routine, and part of the adventure. The motorcycle, being old, broke down a couple of times, of which the last one was on the Pacific Coast Highway late at night, but this as well was part of the adventure, making it an incredible experience for myself as photographer and as human being. The book is scheduled to be ready in the spring 2016. There is a kickstarter campaign active right now which should help me to support the initial steps of the book production.
You can have a look at the kickstarter project here.
In case you’re interested in looking at more of Renato’s work, check out his website. If you’d like a copy of his book you could either fund the kickstarter project, write to him, visit Nomadic Editions or Amazon. I recently bought a couple of books from him and its such a pleasure looking at them, finely printed and huge, they are a work of art in themselves. There is also a great post about him in his studio Bferry’s blog and on Sight Unseen.