He tells us the three things he loves the most are women, chocolate and Leica. But not necessarily in that order… We caught up with Gianni Berengo Gardin a few days before he was due to receive the prestigious Hall of Fame Award, and we asked him to tell us a bit about himself and his career as a photographer.
You were a keen amateur photographer before you turned professional. Who were your idols back then?
Eugene Smith, certainly, but my hero was Henri Cartier-Bresson. When I started taking photos in the mid 1950s, Cartier-Bresson had just published his masterpiece Images à la Sauvette [The Decisive Moment] – which I bought in 1954 as soon as it came out and still cherish to this day – and was at the height of his fame. All photographers, amateurs and professionals alike, idolised him; he was like a god to me. It was while I was looking at the photos in that book that I decided I should become a photojournalist.
What was it in particular about those photos?
Henri brought his photos to life. He changed the shape of photography; no one had ever taken pictures like him before. At the time, just like most Italian photographers, I was using a Rolleiflex because publishers demanded negatives that were at least 6×6, but the waist-level finder meant our shots were not as spontaneous or dynamic. Lots of other photographers, particularly in the US, were using the Speed Graphic and plate films . But in the Leica, with which he formed an unbreakable bond, Henri had discovered a machine that allowed him to develop a totally new approach. The results were such that they inspired an entire generation of reporters to follow in his footsteps, and in the 1960s the 24×36 established itself as the default format for photojournalism. I came to Leica much later, but once I did I never looked back.
You became friends with Henri over the years. Do you remember when you first met him?
It was at the beginning of the 1970s. I was so in awe that for most of the evening I didn’t even dare go anywhere near him, let alone try and talk to him. Eventually, someone introduced me to him, but I was so starstruck and embarrassed that all I could manage was “nice to meet you”. Over time, we became great friends. My favourite ever encounter with Henri was also one of my last. It was 1995 at the Rencontres d’Arles. I spent a lot of time visiting exhibitions with Henri and Ferdinando [Scianna]. Just after we had left one exhibition, Henri asked me if I owned a copy of his latest book, Carnets Mexicains [Mexican Notebooks]. I told him I hadn’t yet managed to track it down in Italy, so he took me by the arm and led me to a nearby bookshop. You can imagine the look on the faces of the owner and the sales staff when Cartier-Bresson walked in! Anyway, he asks for the book, and when they give it to him he gets out some money to pay for it. The owner tells him to put his money away and tries to offer it to him for free, but Henri insists he wants to pay for it because he wants to give it to me as a gift. Neither side budged for about ten minutes, before eventually they compromised and Henri bought the book at a significant discount. We left the shop and sat down at a table, where Henri wrote a wonderful dedication for me: “To Berengo, in friendship and admiration, Henri”. I felt like I’d won a gold medal; Henri’s recognition is worth more to me than all the awards I have won over the years.
Some of your photos have become truly iconic. The publisher Kehrer Verlag used your vaporetto shot as the first image in Eyes Wide Open!, its book dedicated to 100 years of Leica photography. How much did that mean to you?
It was a pleasure and privilege to see my photo at the start of such a wonderful book, but I took my photos just to be photos. I didn’t choose to make them iconic; that just happened over time, thanks to the public. For example, I’m not particularly fond of the shot of the car on the beach, but that has become my most famous photo. I had never even published the shot of Venice that was chosen as the cover of my recent anthology; Roberto Koch found it more than 20 years later while doing the editing for the book.
I guess the only photo I’ve every really tried to promote is the one of the Venice vaporetto, because it’s one that I really love, and it’s now on display at the MoMA in New York as well as many other museums and collections.
Your photos always seem to capture a fleeting moment. How do you do that?
A lot of expertise, a lot of experience and a permanently attentive and curious eye. I believe in the ‘decisive moment’, but I don’t think it exists in the situation that is being photographed. It’s you, as the photographer, who decides when it is the decisive moment. And that moment depends on each individual’s point of view. Everything depends on the photographer, because after all it is their reality that they choose to interpret and show to other people.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
No, I see myself more as an artisan. I don’t feel like an artist. I’m a photographer; I document my time and the things I see around me. If certain critics decide that one of my photos is a work of art, that’s their call, not mine. My personal opinion is that photography should be exclusively about communication rather than art. That’s not to say it can’t be influenced by other art forms. I’ve always taken inspiration from literature, for example. I read Hemingway, Dos Passos and Faulkner as a boy, and I imagined landscapes that I would later discover when I visited America. Similarly, the photos I have taken in France were very definitely inspired by Simenon.
Humans are always at the centre of your work. Why is that?
Because humans are at the centre of everything. I realised that when I was photographing factory workers on the production line in the 1960s. I did it to tell their story, but underneath it all was a basic need to defend their dignity. That’s what really interests me. When Carla Cerati and I took some photos inside psychiatric hospitals, I learned how mental illness can humiliate people and rob them of their dignity.
Just like Dondero, Scianna and so many other photographers of your generation, you learned your trade in Paris. What does that city mean to you?
As I mentioned earlier, the ones who inspired me most to begin with were the American photographers who worked for Life, like Eugene Smith. But it would have cost an arm and a leg to go to America, so I went to Paris instead. That’s where I met Boubat and Doisneau, and most importantly Willy Ronis, who became my mentor.
What cameras do you use? Do you still stick to film?
I have recently tried out the Leica Monochrom, which appeals to me because it’s a black and white camera, but I’m still a firm believer in film so I’m still using my Leica M7 and M6. Digital has undoubtedly revolutionised the world of photography. The Leica Monochrom that I used delivers absolutely outstanding performance, but I find digital to be too perfect if that’s possible. It’s not something I’m looking for in my photographs. I believe that film is still more flexible and, crucially, it generates a negative – something tangible that can be archived and will stand the test of time.
In today’s world, I may seem like I’m anti-digital, but it’s not something I’m against per se; it’s more some of the bad habits that digital photography has created, like excessive and disproportionate reliance on post-production. So many people take photos casually or half-heartedly because they know than always touch them up on Photoshop. I believe a photo should be created immediately, right from the moment you look through the lens.
What do you think constitutes a beautiful photo?
I don’t like ‘beautiful’ photos. I think they’re totally useless. That’s something I’ve learned. I used to think “what a beautiful photo”, but one time, when I was still very young, Ugo Mulas was showing me his photos and I kept saying “what a beautiful photo” or “that’s a beautiful shot”. The more I said those things, the more annoyed he got. Eventually, he said to me: “If you say that one of my photos is beautiful one more time, I’m kicking you out.” Feeling a little embarrassed, I asked him: “But sir, how else should I show my appreciation?” He replied: “You should say they’re good. Beautiful photos might be aesthetically perfect and well constructed, but they don’t say anything. A good photo tells you things, stories…it communicates something. Beautiful photos communicate too, but what they communicate is useless.” So from that moment on, I’ve always said “good photo” rather than “beautiful photo”.
Is photography style or substance?
Both, up to a point. I love telling a story – it’s something Koudelka taught me. He and Salgado are great friends of mine, and while he taught me that a photo should always have a story to tell, Salgado taught me that content should go hand in hand with form. If I had to choose between a stylish photo and a photo of substance, I would always go for the latter, but a bit of style would also make that photo easier to interpret. The two should almost always go together, but substance will always be the most important thing for me.
You once said: “Wine is red and photography is black and white”…
Actually, I took colour photos for the Touring Club Italiano for 15 years, although they were only landscapes and buildings; all my photojournalism has been done exclusively in black and white.
If you cut me open, I would bleed black and white. When I began taking photos, films were in black and white, TV was in black and white and 99% of the great photographers I admired worked in black and white.
You don’t like photographing women, do you?
Actually, I think it’s more that women don’t like being photographed by me. I once shot Anna Magnani. We were by a window and I asked her if we could move because the light was showing up her wrinkles. She replied: “One by one, these wrinkles have got the better of me and I want all of them to be seen!” I was surprised but had to admire her honesty.
I tend not to do portraits, but I do like environmental portraits, which show people in their familiar surroundings.
The Leica Hall of Fame Award, which Leica Camera has chosen to present to you this year, is further recognition of your marvellous career and the role you have played in the history of photography. What advice would you give young photographers who are just starting out?
It’s a huge honour to be chosen by Leica to receive this award. I’m not sure I deserve it, to be honest… As far as the youngsters are concerned, each person has to find their own way. I believe that if you’ve got ideas, it’ll happen for you sooner or later. I don’t have any words of wisdom to give because I don’t claim to be an artist, nor do I feel like one. I’m just a good photographer, nothing more.
To know more about Gianni’s work, please visit this wesbite.