On the occasion of his first personal show in Paris at Galerie XII, Milanese artist Paolo Ventura talked to L’Œil de la Photographie about his latest series and his creative process.
Paolo Ventura, how did you come to photography ?
I studied painting because there were few photography schools in the early 1980s. Also because I was not really interested in photography at that time, I was more attracted by the art world. I dropped out of my art school after a couple of years and at that time Milan was a major scene for fashion and advertising. There were a lot of photography jobs and I got into it, starting a career in fashion photography. I didn’t really chose it, I was at the right place at the right moment. Those magazines at the time were maybe five hundred pages. It was another era. Fashion photography was a great school for me, and for photographers in general, as the demand was less about the technique than the creativity. Therefore you coul really experiment and this is what made me love photography.
Could you tell us more about your creative process ?
I don’t have a specific way to make images, I always work in different kinds of techniques. Before one could say that my work was more purely photographic. However for me taking pictures was always the last part of a long creative process. For instance with the Short Stories (2012-2015) I painted a backdrop in front of which protagonists could perform, like the stage of a theatre. The War Souvenir series (2005) was created using puppets I had made. Lately, I have been using a greater variety of media like collage, painting, drawing, sculpture or set design. I like to start with a photograph which I repaint to cover unwanted elements.
This is the case in the series you’re showing at Galerie XII, Le Passe-Muraille.
For this series, using paint, I completely changed the scene of the original picture, removing the details I didn’t want such as cars, people, signs. A picture — one I took or one I found — changed into a different and new place. It became my very own stage. And when the stage is ready, then I put figures in it, using collage. It is usually me in the picture or a relative. I take time to get into my character, using make up and clothes to disguise my identity.
Why did you start mixing photography with other media ?
That was a long journey. In the beginning I started mixing these media maybe because I was not that much interested in photography. I never thought of myself as a photographer. To me this medium was too flat and had too many limitations. The camera restricted my vision : you need to see something in order to take a picture, you cannot invent it. This is why I used photography but I never thought of it as a final work. To me, the camera-negative-print formula was just not enough. I always needed something more tridimensional.
In your work there is a sense of imagination and storytelling.
There is indeed. Where it comes from is a mystery. My father was a designer of children books and he was a good story teller. Growing up I might have been inspired by that. My instinct is always to create one image and then to create another one after that. There always needs to be a story or at least a narration. I sometimes also write a story that leads to a work. For Le Passe-Muraille, I wrote a short narration of maybe ten small blocks of text which then evolved into this series.
Could you tell us more about this new series, Le Passe-Muraille ?
The starting point was Marcel Aymé’s eponymous book which I freely adapted according to my own imagination. The story follows a Parisian man who tries to escape a murder attempt and, running away, realises he can pass through walls. With this new power he can finally fulfil his desire to know what is happening in people’s life. But he eventually gets bored of going into their home as it takes away all the mystery.
The story is set in Paris.
This was actually quite new for me because I usually never think of specific places when I create. Paris was a good stage for these images. It is very theatrical. I also like the monotony of this city, in the sense that it never really changes. For the first time my work wasn’t set in a vague geographical area. What remained though is the timeless sense I put in everything I create. I often mix time periods so that it is impossible to know when the scene is set.
This contributes to the large part of imagination infusing your work. There is almost a surrealist sense to it sometimes but at the same time photography is often associated to reality.
At the beginning I loved photography because of its ability to show you reality and the sense of trust it was conveying. For me that was important as I wanted people to believe what I photographed. But now, especially with the rise of the digital, I am much less interested in that. When I started taking pictures there was a big debate between digital and analog, with questions about what photography represented. I remember when I showed my first work to a publisher in New York, I created a maquette of Italy during WWII which I photographed, without doing any retouching afterwards. He told me « this is not photography ». Nobody would say such a thing today but at that time, around 20 years ago, you had to show something that had happened. I find it incredible how it has evolved. The digital changed everything and liberated photography. I believe now is a great time for photography, there is much less obligation to be real, to follow a certain formula. People understand photography much better today and you can really do anything.
The way you distort reality is most often manual. Do you ever use digital modifications ?
No, because the interesting part for me is to create images by handling material. I need to soil my hands with colour and glue. I don’t like this aspect of photography that needs to be very clean and precise. I have in mind the image of a photography print with a bit of dust on it, that you remove with a spray. This isn’t me.
To conclude this interview, could you tell us about your upcoming projects ?
I will have an exhibition in Minneapolis of a new project about urban landscapes. There won’t be any people in it. More than the life in a city, I was interested in looking at their architectural design. I removed any trace of life the same way I did for the Passe Muraille, painting over the pictures I took.
Interview with Zoé Isle de Beauchaine