Renato D’Agostin was born in 1983 and started his career in photography in Venice, Italy in 2001. In 2012, he traveled through the capitals of Western Europe. After a period in Milan where he worked with the production studio Maison Sabbatini, he moved overseas exploring photography in New York where he met Ralph Gibson and later on become his assistant.
His works have been published in numerous books and some prints have become part of public collections such as The Library of Congress and The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. In 2007, he presented “Metropolis” at the Leica Gallery in New York. His work “The Beautiful Cliché” is now on display at the Leica Gallery San Francisco.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: When I realized that photography didn’t have any boundaries. I could translate my emotions in a precise frame and relate to it, building a narrative I had been looking for, creating an imagery that was part of my existence and dialogue with the world, inside and outside of me. It became a profession when I decided that photography was the best way for me to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography or with a mentor?
A: I approached two school situations, but the experience didn’t last long. I had always thought that the best way to learn photography was shooting and becoming an assistant to a great photographer, learning on the field starting from the little details that make the life of a photographer to the bigger vision that make him or her part of the history of photography. I had the chance to meet Ralph Gibson in New York, whose photography I truly admired, and later on become his assistant. That became my school, and not in photography only.
Q: What are some of the things you learned working as an assistant for Ralph Gibson, and how do you think he has influenced your approach to photography or your individual style?
A: The important influence I had from working as an assistant to the great Ralph Gibson has been to work deeper and deeper on my own photography, finding my voice, my style, my imagery. I learned many other things, related to photography and to life in general, as he is a great photographer but also a great human being, one of those rare people who I feel lucky to have encountered.
Q: Your exhibition currently running at Leica Gallery San Francisco through January 31, 2015 is titled “The Beautiful Cliché.” Can you give us some background information on this work?
A: “The Beautiful Cliché” is my vision about Venice, the place where I started photographing when I was a teenager and where I returned years later to see how I could translate my favorite city and maybe the most photographed in the world through the alphabet of the photography I had been developing in the meantime.
Q: Is there any special meaning behind the title? If so, what?
A: Most of the imagery of Venice in the past years has maybe been reduced to postcards and stereotyped images that seek to reproduce grand sites of extraordinary and inimitable singularity. I focused on some of the best known architectural sites and elements people relate to when thinking of the lagoon city and suggested another possible vision and representation of them, avoiding all the obvious and proposing a different approach, leaving room for the beauty of the city’s mystery. The imagery of Venice has been reduced to cliche images, but still in my opinion the most beautiful city, therefore, ironically, “The Beautiful Cliché”.
Q: I agree that none of these images really comes across as a cliché. Indeed they seem to be more about conveying emotions, and the indescribable texture of fleeting impressions than about communicating a sense of place, which is the goal of so many tourist photographers, and of course picture postcard companies. Indeed, your images in total constitute kind of an anti-cliché. Do you agree, and what do you think your images say to viewers about the visceral reality of actually experiencing Venice?
A: That was the challenge in photographing Venice, trying to create a body of work that would generate an image of the city, avoiding everything that tourist photographers catch in their pictures, which is the Venice that has become through the years, in part because of those touristy images. I wanted to find that sort of magic and mystery that Venice has. Venice is the only place in the world where I feel like it is a constantly going from stage to backstage, every time you turn around a little street, even in the most crowded moment you can find yourself walking alone because you missed the touristy path. I tried to reach that in my photographs, isolating subjects from the whole, leaving space in which the viewer could look for that feeling.
Q: This image shows the sharply defined silhouette in the foreground virtually superimposed on an out-of-focus classical tower in the background. To me, it captures the experience of perceiving the tower from the point of view of the observer and that’s what makes it interesting. Do you thank that’s a valid observation?
A: That is correct. The tower in the image is the Saint Mark tower, maybe the most iconic architecture of Venice. What the woman is representing in the image is what everybody has always done and will always do when in Venice, look up at it. Instead of taking a straight shot at the tower. I wanted to capture that obvious moment from the point of view of the observer.
Q: This shot is a strikingly oblique composition that includes two classically ornate Italianate structures that seem to be leaning into one another with a disembodied arm and hand seemingly flying off the roof of the left-hand building. How did you take this shot? Is it a reflection? And what message of feeling does it convey to you personally?
A: This is one of my favorite spots in Venice, just by the side of the Gran Canale. The structure on the left is the famous Rialto Bridge, one of the most iconic sites of the city. When I was walking there, what caught my attention was the consistency between the tonalities of the bridge, the building to the right, and the patio umbrella from the bar on the left. I made my composition, and for some reason, I put slightly out of focus the two subjects on the first and last levels of the image, creating a sort of tri-dimentional effect. I shot but then I waited for very long time as I wanted a dynamic element to interfere with that composition. Resting my arm from holding tight the heavy long lens I was using, I saw a man extending his arm showing the Canal to his family, I quickly recomposed the image, and the third time he did the movement I caught him. The space between his fingers was part of the acute angles of the image, and the fact he was introducing the view to his family, made it one of my favorite shots.
Q: This shot is evidently a high-contrast image of the wake of a boat, which is crisply defined against a black background, but the boat is not visible, merely implied, and it seems to be a study in kinetic form — the feeling of a boat as it mores through the water rather than the boat itself. This almost resembles a black-and-white infrared image. Can you provide the tech data and tell us how this image works in your portfolio?
A: I shot this image from a helicopter I took. I wanted to include some aerial shots of Venice as I think it is a city that needs to be seen from above to be amazed by how so much beauty fits in such a little island. When up in the air, I saw the boat going at high speed in the lagoon. Sometimes I think the trace of things are more interesting than the things themselves, and so I excluded the boat from the frame, as I wanted to represent only what the boat was leaving behind, taking a portrait of the wake. From the tech side, there is not much to add to the fact that I reinforce a little bit the black in the darkroom, but besides that, it’s a simple straight shot.
Q: This image shows a clearly defined window frame in the top portion, and a hazy, barely visible, out of focus motorboat proceeding in a left-hand direction across the bottom. It this a double exposure perhaps, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: It is a straight shot of a window in which there was a piece missing, and I waited quite a long time until the boat with the right tonalities that would emerge from the gray of the glass would go by. I shot it as a window usually in me represents intimacy, a looking out and looking in, but with a filter between what is in the two sides of it. It can be open or closed, you can decide to look out or not. The boat reflected is the outside and the black rectangular is a look into the inside, where you can imagine what you prefer to be.
Q: This shot is a dramatic grainy picture of a jet plane soaring directly upward into the sky with long contrails (vapor trails) flowing behind it that impart a sense of motion. The moon at the left of the frame gives it a sense of scale and also a transcendent quality. There is nothing about this image that specifically relates to Venice, so what do you think it says about Venice and why did you include it in your portfolio?
A: What makes it relate to Venice is that it was shot in Venice, which is usually enough for me to include an image in a project. Also, I find it has that magic feeling that I was looking for through the Venetian alleys, and I found part of it looking up at the sky. I think that even if a photograph doesn’t seem to directly communicate with the others, when together, it participates to the general feeling of the project.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so and do you plan to cover any other cities that have become photographic clichés, such as Athens or maybe even Las Vegas? Can you tell us anything about other projects you have in the works going forward?
A: I am at the moment working on several new books that will come out soon and through 2015. The first one is “Acrobats”, about the acrobatic show of Shanghai, which will come out next month. At the same time, my first color book will also be released, and it is about the Frecce Tricolori (literally “Tricolour Arrows”), the aerobatic demonstration team of the Italian Aeronautica Militare performing during a show in the seaside of Venice. Other books about Los Angeles, Shanghai, Istanbul, Washington D.C. and Kapadokya will be released. Cliché or not, I will approach a site always in the same way, trying to avoid what is the general immediate representation of the place, trying to create an imagery that respects it and represents my vision.
Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio and what do you think you learned in the process that will prove useful to you going forward?
A: I think “The Beautiful Cliché” offers a different possibility of looking at Venice, letting the viewer find what maybe has been lost with infinite repeating postcards. What I like to think I learned is that there is no subject that can’t be photographed.
Thank you for your time, Renato!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Renato on his website, Facebook and Instagram. Check out his book “The Beautiful Cliché ” on our 2014 Holiday Gift Guide. Learn more about his exhibition at Leica Gallery San Francisco here.