Massimo Siragusa: reality as a representation

By Andrea Carloni & Carlotta Ferrati

Giugno 2019

Massimo Siragusa is one of the most important contemporary Italian photographers. During his career he has won 4 prestigious World Press Photo Awards and a Sony World Photography Award. He has worked with several international companies like Ferrari, Lavazza, Eni and Kodak to name but a few. He was born in Catania but currently lives in Rome where he teaches photography at the IED.

Massimo Siragusa

Most of your photos are very bright. Could you tell us how they are actually taken?

There are no special tricks. I simply over expose them a tad during the shooting. In other words, I deliberately make a mistake however over the years this way of shooting has gradually diminished.

When you shoot outside do you always use a tripod?

The tripod is a very important tool. It isn’t used to prevent you from taking blurry photos but rather to give the ideal frame of mind to take the photo. The tripod is a tool of reflection. The American photographer Richard Misrach defines his photos as the “early moment”. He positions the camera on the tripod, he selects the frame and then waits for something to happen inside the frame. Thanks to the tripod, the interpretation of the reality comes to life.

Massimo Siragusa – Leisure Time – 2005

Many of your photos capture moving scenes with many actors. To you, at what point is everything in place and ready to be photographed? 

Like Richard Misrach, I too set the frame and the lights and then I wait for the people to casually set the right and balanced mood. I had instances whereby I have had to wait a long time for the right and satisfying moment.

You were born at the time of the film camera, before the digital one came along. What has this represented for you?

Every period has its own tools. It is more a matter of practicality than anything else. Photography is a language and to me it doesn’t make any difference whether I use a digital camera or one with film. One of the greatest advantages of taking photos with a digital camera is the fact that you don’t have to keep actual photos or films. Nowadays you can store a lot in a tiny hardisk. Besides, finding images is now faster and more practical. In addition, using a digital camera gives you more flexibility and control over all the stages of post production occurring after shooting. In fact, I would not like to go back to use a film camera with the exception of some projects where I prefer and need to utilise specific techniques, like Polaroids. To me the camera is just a tool that allows me to express myself.

Massimo Siragusa – Le bagnanti. Thermal life in italy – 2018

Some of your work is artistic, some is commissioned by large companies like Ferrari, Kartell or Augusta to name a few. Does your approach change depending on who you are working for?

The substantial difference lies in the fact that on the one hand they pay you, on the other you are yourself’s client. When I work on a commission basis, I have to follow guidelines which are given to me before shooting commences; for instance for Ferrari, I had to incorporate the colour red. However, apart from some basic instructions, I usually have ‘carte blanche’ which allows me to give my input and personal interpretation.

In addition to being a photographer, you also teach at IED. What can you teach about photography?

A lot can be taught. I do not teach any techniques; photography is a language and what I teach to my students is the importance of how we represent reality with our photos. The first thing the students have to do is to learn about themselves and understand what it is they want. It is only after this step will they be able to express themselves at their best. Learning the techniques is the least interesting part, especially since nowadays one can take good quality photos with a 500 euro phone.

Massimo Siragusa – Ferrari – 2018

I believe that conveying this message is not that easy…

No, it is not. It is obvious that not every academic year and not all students are equal. There are students with which you work better and easily whilst with others there are more obstacles. It gives me great satisfaction to see that some students after graduating and also thanks to my lessons, are able to choose a path in life despite all of the difficulties of today’s reality.

Yes, I believe photography is currently having a moment even though there is a lot of competition.

Yes, there is a lot of competition, but the main issue is the fact that, from an economic point of view, the role of the photographer has been devalued. I feel that competition based on someone’s abilities is crucial; choosing someone based purely on costs is an entirely different beast. Regrettably in Italy people working in the industry are not able to differentiate quality between jobs. And this lack of knowledge in our current times is ironic considering that communication is done also through the use of images.

Massimo Siragusa – Leisure Time – 2005

Few days ago I interviewed still life photographers and they told me that their work is disappearing.

This is a tragedy not only because professions disappear at the drop of a hat but with it. souvenirs of an era. If a company does not want to invest money hiring a professional photographer and they would rather have one of their employees take photos with a mobile phone, well then this is rather tragic. A professional photographer does not just take photos, they tell tales of an era. For instance, if you compare the photos taken by Robert Doisneau in the Renault factories in the 30s to that of today, it is really clear as to how society, technology and the way of conceiving work and relationships within a company, have changed over time. If all of these things disappear, how will the future generations know what our era managed to experience and create fully?

Do you have any photographers or artists of reference?

Yes, of course, like everyone else. There are many. Luigi Ghirri and Guido Guidi among the Italians. But also many Americans. Over the years, as I evolved, so have my references. I also follow many young people who have produced rather interesting projects. It is hard for me to narrow these talented people down in a few names. To be honest, I refer more to literature than other artists or photographers, like the Americans Philip Roth, Richard Ford and others.

Massimo Siragusa – Le bagnanti. Thermal life in italy – 2018

Could you please elucidate the concept of referring to literature as a tool to take photos?

Literature and photography have more similarities than you can imagine. For instance, when you read a book, it is up to you how much time you spend on each page and can go back and forth as you wish. This approach about time and use we also have in photography. The cinema is a completely different story as time is dictated by the author. Another similarity is the imagination. Both literature and photography leave plenty of room to imagination. Photography is not objective, but it offers stimulation and pushes you to ask questions.

I would like to give you an example so as to establish if I understood your approach correctly. Let’s assume that I am reading ‘On the road’ and obviously whilst reading the book, I imagine the actual scenes. Are you saying that what you do is essentially translating these scenes into photos? 

Yes but not just that. Reading a book makes me reflect, it stimulates me and it gives me ideas. I then try to translate all of this into some photos. For instance, if you look at the Stephan Shore’s photos of the United States in the 1970s, you can cleary see a representation of the suburbs, the street and motels of ‘On the road’. Literature and photography are two different ways of capturing an era as well as emotions.

Do you have a favorite camera?

I don’t particularly have any preferences. I use the most appropriate tools depending on what I am shooting. I am one of Sony’s ambassadors and this has given me the opportunity to use the 7r III, a professional mirrorless camera which I like and am very happy to use. On this camera it is possible to mount few lenses of different makes and times and this has given me the same sort of craftsmanship pleasure that we had with the film camera. Although the camera is compact I can take pictures at a very high resolution.

Massimo Siragusa – Leisure Time – 2005
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