The internationally acclaimed photographer, Gianni Berengo Gardin, has worked for most important photo agencies. He emphasizes that he is not an artist, but a "witness of an era." He speaks about work, nature and ... food.
I absolutely want my eyes not to interpret, but rather document. That said, occasionally and unintentionally, interpretation does slip out.
Forest green, the color of fruit, the variety of colors of meadows. How does the variety of the agricultural fabric, the consistency of the land, and different vegetation transfer into black and white?
Landscape for me is all black and white, but I worked so much in color when I worked for the Italian Touring Club and the De Agostini Geographic Institute. Some landscapes are at their most beautiful in color, others are more graphic in black and white.
Its social value is its ability to document. In some cases it is important because we believe that something changes with a social photo, and yet it changes very little. Only through photographic work done in asylums was something changed: with the book I put together with Carla Cerati (ed “Morire di classe”, Einaudi 1969), Basaglia presented the law in Parliament that imposed the closure of mental hospitals. By showing those photographs that no one had ever seen more or less before, we documented all the atrocities that occurred in asylums and we changed something.
You have interpreted changes in our times, and with your camera lens have been the witness of an era. With your reportage “Il racconto del riso” (The rice story) you tell the story of the agricultural world and the people who live there. And your photos of this agricultural environment range from the 60s to the present day, from decade to decade. What is it that fascinates you, captures your attention and your interest in this sector?
I have always considered farming a great civilization and so I have always documented it: I look with attention at people working and slaving: farmers, just like workers. Before doing "Il racconto del riso," I took several photos, using the world of rice as my subject. I also photographed a number of agricultural museums in Italy. To produce the reportage I focused on the production of rice first, then on the crop, the sowing and the harvest, all the way to the industrial development of production and its treatment. In old farmhouses I documented environments, left as they were, where the weeders used to sleep, where children went to school: it was like a small town, with all its activities.
We know that you are in contact with Expo Milano 2015 to curate the photo exhibition of the Rice Cluster As selected photographer for this space, what is the story you are looking to tell?
I have already started making a selection of photographs. I want to illustrate the story of the actual cultivation of rice and then how farmers lived, what the landscape was like and finally the farmhouse, which is the most important place. Shots are drawn from “Il racconto del riso" and from previous collections.
Have you devoted time and shots to olive trees: what is their most fascinating aspect, in your opinion?
The olive tree is a beautiful tree and years ago I photographed the most important olive trees in Italy, including those which are not only, as you might suppose, in Liguria and Tuscany, but also in Umbria and Sardinia, where I found olive trees even a hundred years old. The olive tree fascinates me because it is a strong, robust plant but also graphically very beautiful and dramatic: there are olive trees that are linear and simple, but others that offer a completely different form.
Have you ever photographed a landscape, then come back to find it is no longer there?
There's a famous picture of mine, of Tuscany, near Siena: a road that is all curves. I came back years later and the landscape had gone. What once was a dirt track had been tarmacked over, the curves straightened out and a guard-rail, previously not there, added. All the plants that had been growing there had died off with the great frost of 1985. So yes, the landscape was changed. It no longer existed. The value of photography lies in documentation because the only thing that remains is this photograph as a document, not as art, of what was once an extraordinary Tuscan landscape. I always want to say: I am not an artist, I do not want to be taken for an artist. I am someone who documents, who recounts. I am a witness of my time, and I tell the story of the things that have disappeared or will disappear, but always in a documentary – and never artistic – vein.
I do not cook because I have a wife who cooks extraordinarily well. In fact she is also working on a cookbook that will be released soon, with stories about eating. I do not know how to cook, because the life of the photographer is made of sandwiches and traveling. I like to stop and eat, but I can do it only occasionally, like all photographers.
Do you have a favorite dish?
It may seem a bit phony, but actually it is rice. I love rice in every way. My wife sometimes tells me, "Enough of all this rice. Eat a little pasta."