Carlo Rocchi Bilancini

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Fish Out of Water. A Conversation with Carlo Rocchi Bilancini

Federico Sardella One possible way to start is your encounter with Anita Ekberg…

Carlo Rocchi Bilancini I met Anita Ekberg through Ann-Louice Dahlgren, a friend with whom I had started working for newspapers and magazines some ten years ago. Together with her, in 2008 I began taking many pictures of Rome that were later published, with accompanying texts by her, in the guidebook Resa till Rom… Then a few years ago she asked me to photograph Anita Ekberg for an article to be featured in the Swedish magazine Queen. For this photo session I spent a few days as a guest in her villa in Genzano, outside Rome. Since then, I have kept in touch with her and I often visit her, so much so that a few days ago I was invited, along with eight other friends, to celebrate her eightieth birthday.

FS Does Anita Ekberg know about this project you are working on and which may also be regarded as a tribute to her and to the timeless image we have of her bathing in the Trevi Fountain? Have you tried to get her involved by asking her to pose for you? In a way, we might say that Anita Ekberg’s photograph is the one you did not take...

CRB Yes, sure. I once discussed this with her, emphasizing that the picture I feel inside me and which started off this cycle of shots has very much to do with her. It would have been wonderful to photograph her in a pool, with a striking dress, say, and some jewellery… But I didn’t feel like asking her.

FS I vividly remember the only time I was present when one of the photos reproduced here was taken. At a certain point, you asked me to leave you alone so you could work and have the complete attention of the subject in the water. What relationship do you establish with the people you photograph and how involved do you get?

CRB Making a portrait for me is not just a matter of setting up a shot. I believe it is crucial to create a connection with the person, or persons, I am photographing. There must be a “psychological” relationship which entails – even if only for short moments – the establishment of a certain degree of intimacy and the possibility of dialogue, of exchanging words as much as sharing silence.

FS As in the specific case of this volume, you always photograph both people you know and people you get to know through your lens. I’d imagine your approach to vary on each occasion. Am I right?

CRB Well, no, the approach does not change that much. I often photograph friends, but this does not prevent me from feeling just as involved when I find myself photographing a subject I’ve met in the street and who attracted me by the way he or she was dressed or moved… Intimacy and acquaintance do not ensure the successful outcome of a shot – at least, not always; at times they can even create blocks and tensions that would not otherwise emerge.

FS I have noticed that when taking pictures you behave like a director. You give instructions, assert yourself… I think this must be crucial to the successful outcome of your work, especially when you find yourself photographing subjects who are half immersed in a swimming pool…

CRB Yes, I do assert myself! And I find that people like this, that it makes them feel at ease… I give technical instructions, suggest where they should stand in relation to the light – in the shady area of the pool that will enable me to take the shot I’m looking for. Rather than imposing myself, though, I would say I make suggestions… I observe these men and women, I get close to them and try to intuit what they want, to analyse how they are behaving in the water, and to understand their relationship with the camera… I then guide them, on the basis of the actions they perform and reactions they have, by trying to work on the most interesting aspects of their personality, which I seek to convey through photography.

FS I was particularly impressed by the photo you chose among many others of Marina Ripa di Meana, whom you curiously described as having been rather “unruly”. How did you manage to guide her?

CRB I had a hard time with her, but it was stimulating and rewarding. As she was a particularly active subject, she would not listen to my advice and instructions at first. She even tried to assert herself by asking for there to be a bicycle in the water first and then a table… A few days earlier I had been to her house to see the swimming pool and become familiar with the light conditions in which I would find myself working. Knowing that for the occasion she would be wearing a headdress with branches and parrots, before going to her place for the second time I put a few old bird cages I had in my car, without knowing whether we would use them or not. At a given moment, I took one out and asked her to hold it as if it were a handbag. That’s when I started shooting, as Marina moved around in front of me, creating a sort of fashion show and displaying remarkable gracefulness in the water.

FS The photos in “Fish Out of Water” may be divided into two groups: those that show the subject in a swimming pool, either dressed or nude, without any props, alone, without any anchor; and those in which you extend the message through the use of objects, providing more information on who it is you are photographing, creating a genuine mise-en-scène and telling a story. Again, we find pictures in which the subjects look motionless, as if striking a pose, and others in which they move about or perform actions that provide some information about them.

CRB Some of the photos I regard as classic portraits – although slightly surreal ones, because of the water – where the subjects are static presences. Others are more dynamic, especially when movement is part of the picture or where I have sought to create a kind of additional setting aside from the pool. At times I have acted as if I were mounting a film set…

FS In the past you have worked with Pupi Avati. Has this experience shaped or influenced the way in which you create settings or bring specific contexts to life?

CRB I have collaborated with Pupi Avati on some of his films shot in Umbria. The one I am most fond of is La via degli angeli, which is devoted to his mother Ines, an extraordinary woman I had the privilege of meeting. I was very young at the time and would do all sorts of jobs, ranging from production assistant to extra. This experience was certainly an important one for me and I have gained a great deal watching Avati work. Once the shooting was over, I was always very sad at having to come back to reality, after being lucky enough to have lived in another time for a short while, with different rules and identities – as if in a dream. Through my photographs I always try to bring dreams to life – it doesn’t matter much whether it is my own dream or those of the people I photograph…

FS You’ve told me that another person who contributed to your training is the photographer Enrico Sarsini…

CRB I started taking pictures after meeting Enrico Sarsini, a Life photojournalist who lives in Todi, and I’ve been his assistant. I worked in his studio and was lucky enough to have the opportunity of exploring his archive and world. He was very helpful and spurred me to develop a language of my own, rather than insisting on technical aspects; he always encouraged me to continue my efforts and give expression to my intuitions.

FS You were born in Todi, where you have always lived and worked, though you have travelled extensively, both in Italy and abroad. The two crucial encounters you mentioned are connected to your area, as are, on the other hand, most of the subjects in this book. This is the case with Lindsay Kemp, for instance, who has long been living in Todi and whom you have had the rare opportunity of photographing in a pool, thanks to your friendship…

CRB We are mostly made of water and come from water. All the individuals I have photographed in a swimming pool felt comfortable there and didn’t have a problem with being in the water. The only person I did have some trouble with was precisely Lindsay Kemp, and this makes me all the more pleased with the results achieved. I have taken so many pictures of him in the water that I could produce a book entirely devoted to him… I have been photographing him for years, and it has always been easy, since he is so open to the idea and so used to being on stage, and in front of cameras. I had never had any trouble with him and did not imagine I would on this occasion. What I didn’t know was that he had almost drowned as a teenager, and so he was scared of water. Despite this, because of our mutual friendship and respect, and because he found the project exciting, he accepted my proposal… When he entered the water, fear flashed across his face. After hearing his story, I got the idea of placing a chair in the pool, to give him a support. At this point, with a sort of rock to cling to if necessary, he started creating his mime performance, enabling me to take countless shots.

FS Earlier we mentioned the issue of static and dynamic (or active) subjects. How did you behave in this specific case?

CRB As is typical of the way Lindsay Kemp expresses himself, he would strike a pose and hold it for a few moments, enabling me to take the shot, with no strain at all. I never take random shots, although I might sometimes give the impression of doing so: I need my subject to freeze for a moment or possibly slow down, even if there is always something that’s out of my control, which is ultimately what I find most fascinating, when I see the final result. These photos of mine, however well thought-out and planned, always hold a few surprises, such as the reflection of the body on the surface of the water or the way in which the submerged part will inevitably be distorted.

FS What you are looking at when you take your shots, then, is not exactly what you see on the screen once you have transferred the images…

CRB That’s true, but only partly so. Water is a mobile element, which produces constant variations, reflections and plays of light. At times I manage to capture and express these, but at other times they escape me or disappear before I take my shot.

FS Now that I am once again looking at, one by one, the many photographs you have taken over the last two years, they strike me as a sample of typical subjects with no underlying hierarchy. You have portrayed celebrities, artists and actors, as well as housewives, cooks and sommeliers. How did you select them? What are the reasons behind your choices?

CRB I like humanity in general. I’m curious and like listening to anyone who has tales to tell, since I believe there is something to learn from everyone. I have photographed many artists – as I was bound to, since they are part of the world I feel I belong to. But I have also sought to meet and photograph a range of different subjects, ordinary people: a craftsman, a restorer, an ironing lady, a teacher, a framer, a surveyor and a gardener. Besides, it is far more banal to see an actor photographed in the water than a school teacher or noblewoman… In some cases, such as the two I have just mentioned, I was very surprised that people accepted my proposal, without finding it particularly bizarre or unusual, or being put off by it. I was very struck by the fact that people behaved in the pool exactly as they might have elsewhere, and that many dressed as they would have to go to the places they usually visit, to go to work, to the supermarket, to the town square, or on a date.

FS Who was the first person you photographed in the water, thus starting this photo gallery, unique of its kind, which undermines the classic idea of portraiture?

CRB The first subject I photographed in the water was Patrizia Chen. I did so almost by chance. I was portraying her by the pool, as she tangoed with a friend, when at a certain point I got the idea of also taking a few shots in the water. One of the problems I faced right from the start, since I found myself on a higher level than my subjects, was their inevitable flattening and the marked influence of the surrounding colours. After seeing the results I got with her, I started getting friends and acquaintances involved in my project. Perhaps things got a little out of hand, since I starded inviting "strangers" to take part, also in the hope that others in the future might ask me to take, say, a classic family portrait... in the water.

Federico Sardella

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