I recently read a Financial Times story about Gianni Berengo Gardin. Apparently he (millions of other people) and I share a hero of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Henri’s advice was to “photograph a moment so decisive that is catches the breath.” However much Gardin respected Cartier-Bresson, he did not heed his hero’s advice. Gardin shied away from the obvious. He doesn’t, “take photographs that are eclatante”.
He first picked up a camera in the mid-1940s. By then, the family had moved to Rome. When the German occupiers ordered the citizens to hand in their cameras, recalls Berengo Gardin, “I went out to take photographs just because I liked to disobey!” When the war ended, the family moved to Venice. “At first I was a dilettante photographer, taking shots of sunsets and old ladies.” Revelation occurred with a parcel of books from an uncle in America that included work by the great documentary photographers Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange. As he gazed at farmers reduced to gaunt despair by the Great Depression, Berengo Gardin found his calling. “It was the first time I realised that photography could tell stories that mattered.”
Later, Gardin spent time in Venice with Peggy Guggenheim, but today sadly calls Venice a, “violated woman” due to the tourism and massive cruise ships powering through the fragile and historical city. A sentiment I share having lived and worked in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection myself.
Gardin captures “the way in which his subjects see themselves” which might be a little unconventional in today’s photography market. Most subjects only think they want the truth in photographs, when in reality, they want your lens to make up a completely different story for them. Perhaps that is why he is a world renowned photo journalist and I’m shooting fashion and cultural events. Gardin has spent half a century telling the whole, true story. The gritty story, no matter how simple it may be. I’ll get there, someday. However, he claims and I agree that, “even the poorest people have dignity.” That “social justice” comes from his Italian father and Swiss mother who he says, “She was a feminist before anyone knew what feminism was.”
Gianni Berengo Gardin’s advice for photographers today? Stay away from academic photography institutions. Instead, study the greats who came before. “You need to understand why Cartier-Bresson took photographs in a different way to Klein or Lang.” Advice I have done and intend to follow.
Revelation occurred with a parcel of books from an uncle in America that included work by the great documentary photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. As he gazed at farmers reduced to gaunt despair by the Great Depression, Berengo Gardin found his calling. ‘It was the first time I realised that photography could tell stories that mattered.
That line is word for word why I am a photographer today. To tell stories that matter. An intense promise, but one I intend to keep.
You can read the entire Financial Times article by Rachel Spence, here.