Phom

Paolo Verzone

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg
Cadets - Karlberg

Cadets - Karlberg

Paolo Verzone has been a photographer since the age of 18. He swings between photo-journalism and portraits. Always bearing composition in mind and staying faithful to the context where he shoots, he depicts people and landscapes through an extremely personal perspective. Since 1991 he’s been collaborating with Alessandro Albert in projects focused on portraits, such as Seeuropeans, Volti di Passaggio and Grandi Bagnanti. He’s member of VU’ Agency for which he has photographed families, heads of state, cadets, sportspersons, politicians and notable ones, cities and waste landscapes, from Iceland to Lebanon. We at Phom have interviewed him.

Your profile on VU’ Agency’s website kicks off describing you as “unclassifiable” - both in reference to the subjects and situations you shoot and because of the variety of supports you use (from 35mm film to digital to large-scale format). However, a common denominator appears to feature many of your images: namely, a certain use of perspective. Could you tell us about it?

I believe Christian Caujolle wrote that bit. He’s the founder of VU’ Agency and he’d got tired of my not providing my bio, hence he wrote one himself. He’s an extremely intelligent man and he seldom fails. He has an almost infallible eye for images and his general outlook on photography is astonishing. That description did reflect my persona. The sense of perspective and volumes comes naturally to me - yet I realize it only when posed a question like this. It’s more of an instinctive perception rather than a cold-hearted reasoned choice. 

Let’s start with the “bathers on beaches”, one of your most well-known works in collaboration with Alessandro Albert. How did it originate and how did you develop it? We’d also like to know about its narrative dimension, since we perceive it’s a fundamental element.

We named the shooting on Europe’s beaches Seeuropeans. In 1994 we had started two chapters in Rimini and Brighton. Our aim was to link together two beaches so removed one from the other across Europe. Those shootings originated a series of pictures that we continued taking in other sea-side resorts of the continent, where each beach is chosen according it its own peculiarities.

As for the narrative dimension, it’s the outcome of two personalities - Alessandro’s and mine. Together we choose which cut and subject the photo will feature. It’s a very fast and instinctive step: all it takes is a signal and the photo is taken. We know each other very well and we know exactly what we’re looking for in each specific portrait we’re creating: the camera is placed on the tripod and we come up with the framing before looking into the camera. The quick analysis of the subject before us is the most instinctive part of the process: for instance, we’ll decide to go for a three quarter on the mere observation of how the subject is or their posture. Then we do the framing and click on the release cable standing on a side of the camera, so as to be ready to catch any expression or movement. 

Both the form and theme of your photos often seem to be centered on the individual. In the past you spoke about the “ancestral memory of family portraits”: what do you look for in a portrait and how do your images differ from more “institutional” portraits? Is it a composition choice? How does it originate?

What I look for in a portrait is the alchemy between light, subject, expression and the unidentifiable, most interesting and uncontrollable element. Although it might appear like it, that doesn’t mean I crave for total control over the portrait. Instead, I always hope for something imperfect to emerge and contribute to the picture - even at the cost of failing it. Imperfection is capable of bearing massive gifts, whereas control is not.

I don’t know whether my portraits differ from the institutional ones, and I’m not eager to know either. All I wish for is to continue creating them. In addition, I have a strong passion for institutional portraits (literally speaking). In those cases you don’t have much room for manoeuvre - and that’s what makes it an interesting exercise. I’ve always been fascinated by how such renowned portraitists as Avedon and Nadar turned an apparently difficult situation to their favor: for instance, the portrait session of Queen Elizabeth by Chris Levine is outstanding, just like Obama’s portrait by Naday Kander for Time Magazine.

You’ve travelled a lot of different places and you’ve experienced situations and people that didn’t always turn out to be easy to manage. Could you tell us about your approach with people?

The approach with people is very easy to deal with if you describe your intentions to them and you treat them as persons instead of subjects. Otherwise it gets complicated, if not overly difficult.

How do you finance your projects? Do they always start on commission or do you work on personal projects as well?

There are personal projects that arise from situations you’ve experienced while being on commission (that was the case with my latest project). You finance them gradually by selling them to international magazines. On the other hand, such works as the beaches and the Russians are completely self-financed. It’s only afterwards that they are proposed to magazines, galleries or exhibitions. 

How do your projects originate?

They spring from an intuition that subsequently needs to be structured in order to become a proper project. Fortunately there’s no pre-determined way to the birth of a project. Intuitions may originate from a book or a sound - once it did occur with the sound of heels on a marble floor.

We feel like the formal dimension of your photographs features a strong reference to military academies. It’s a kind of artistic aesthetics bordering research we’ve grown familiar with in recent years. Is it a selected choice or what?

It’s an aesthetic choice that’s been maturing over time and that will develop further, I suppose.

Will and Kate Forever features a more report-oriented visual approach. Is it about a personal choice or a different editorial framework?

Newsweek commissioned it, hence it panders to the needs of a weekly mass-magazine.

Are you involved in digital, too? If so, how do you approach it?

These coming days I’m starting a documentary work that’s been conceived as a multimedia project involving a series of photographers and team-workers. It’s my first collaboration with a collective. It’s quite interesting, because it forces you to do a complete 180 turn with yourself.

Today the world and market of photography are deeply interconnected with that of contemporary art - so much so that images often feature a journalistic/documentary imprint. What’s your opinion on “images of distress” entering the collectors’ circuit?

I suppose the whole question is played on the brink of the feelings a photo my be capable to generate. It’s a very thin line and one must be careful. Take the case of a portrait of any given human being’s life that doesn’t really lead you outside the picture: because the “universality” feature is being taken away and the “conscience” is being violated, I get upset. Pictures of this sort are merely a crude display of distress for the pictures’ own sake. However, if the image holds on to something anonymous and mysterious, then the viewer is left room for relating personally with the picture - never minding the fact it may be a negative sentiment. Accordingly, even a war image may enter the collectors’ circuit - although I’d prefer some specific collection of an archive or museum.

What’s the first thing from your experience as a photographer you hold dearest?

It’s the photos taken without a camera. That is, taking photos before knowing that a photo exists, rearranging images and combining them in your mind before going to bed is something I’ve been doing since I was a child. It was a complete photographic de facto process already, because you bear in mind a series a pictures throughout your day, you re-elaborate them, choose from them and ultimately “keep” them. Then you sum them up with the physically taken pictures and they result into a mysterious archive - a kind of inner “storage” space I suppose each of us is in touch with to a more or less subconscious extent.

Which photo book would you choose from your library and why?

There are so many to pick that I’d give you a different answer every month…

Had you asked me which book I’d “rescue” from my library in case of catastrophe, I’d have narrowed down the choice to: Exils by Koudelka, Avedon's In the American West, Sergio Larrain Valparaiso, Telex Iran by Gilles Peress, Nathan Farb I Russi, Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore, The Americans by Robert Frank, Gabriele Basilico, Raymond Depardon, Rene Burri, Fouad Elkoury, Appalachian Portraits by Shelby Lee Adams, Paesaggio italiano by Ghirri, Feste Religiose in Sicilia by Ferdinando Scianna.

Turin yesterday, Paris today. What about tomorrow?

Any special place I can have my daughter discover.

Who are you going to pass the baton to? And why?

To Franco Pagetti. I’ve known him and appreciated him for a long time. He’s incorruptible and alert.

The articles here have been translated for free by a native Italian speaker who loves photography and languages. If you come across an unusual expression, or a small error, we ask you to read the passion behind our words and forgive our occasional mistakes. We prefer to risk less than perfect English than limit our blog to Italian readers only.

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