Thank you to Jacopo Nuvolari for interviewing Romano Cagnoni, one the artists I represent.
Regarded in Michael Freeman’s latest book – The Photographer’s Vision – as one “of the most distinguished names in photography’s history”, Romano Cagnoni has proved capable of capturing reality in its many facets like a few others. Life, The Sunday Times Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Observer Magazine, Der Spiegel, L’Express and Epoca are just some of the magazines to have featured his extraordinary shots.
Born in Pietrasanta, Italy, in 1935, Romano took his first steps in photography immediately after the end of the war; at the age of 22, he moved to London where he had the chance to meet and work with Simon Guttmann, considered to be a founder of modern photojournalism along with the likes of Robert Capa and Cartier-Bresson. With James Cameron, Cagnoni was the first wester non-communist journalist to enter North Vietnam in 1965 since the battle of Dien Bien Phu; one of his shot of President Ho Chi Minh was later on featured on the cover of Life magazine. Undoubtedly accustomed to war – during his career he has covered many conflicts, from Nigeria to Biafra, from Kosovo to Chechnya – Cagnoni is much more than a war photographer, as testified by one of his most memorable series, Upside Down Memories.
Romano Cagnoni has kindly agreed to answer a few questions.
At the risk of sounding trite, what brought you to photography?
It was certainly the need to earn a living that led me into photography. The postwar period was one of great deprivation: my family wasn’t wealthy – my father was a stonemason – and I was urgent to find a job.
A friend who was also a photographer asked me if I wanted to practice with some expired films: that was the beginning of my career.
At the end of the 50’s you moved to London; I wondered, what was it like being in the city at the eve of one of the most exciting decades of the Twentieth century?
For me, a young provincial form Tuscany, London was a huge, marvellous city, although living there was hard at that time : for example you needed a work permit to take up employment in the UK.
In London I found the soldiers who fought in Tuscany during the liberation war and we often went out drinking together, remembering those years. The meetings proved to be excellent opportunities to practice the language.
Despite many difficulties, especially at the beginning, I’d say that I have gotten pretty good.
At the beginning of your career, you had the chance to work with Simon Guttmann, who also taught the craft to Robert Capa; can you tell us something about your collaboration?
It was the British photographer with whom I shared a darkroom with that introduced me to Guttmann; he saw my photos and asked me to work with him. With Guttmann I exclusively worked on cultural subjects such as the campaign for the Labour Party when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister.
I remember a funny anecdote: one day, shortly after the events of the Bay of Pigs, Guttmann asked me to go to Cuba. Needless to say, I was thrilled and I did jump for joy; but suddenly it turns out that Simon couldn’t find any magazine to cover my travel expenses and therefore I ended up doing a photo shoot for Tatler magazine.
You’ve been in many war zones, from Vietnam to Nigeria, from Israel to Afghanistan and, more recently, Kosovo and Chechnya; have you ever feared for your life?
When you are in war zones, dangerous situations are always around the corner.
I’m often told to have become a war photographer because war has always followed me like a faithful companion. I cannot deny that, having grown up during the Second World War, I am used to danger – think that, when I was a refugee in Sant’Anna, I left the village a day before the Nazi slaughtered more than 500 civilians committing one of the most infamous atrocities of the conflict.
That being said, I would like to make it clear that I do not consider myself a war photographer, rather a photographer that knows what war means and how to document it.
Speaking of war, I found your series Warriors particularly enthralling, capable of grasping the “aesthetic side” of one of the bloodiest conflicts ever witnessed by the world, the one in Chechnya; can you tell us the background behind Warriors?
I was really fascinated by the Chechen people and the strenuous resistance they opposed to the overwhelming force that was Russia. I read a lot about them – books by Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lermontov. My attempt was to establish a parallel between the modern warriors and those of Classical Greece.
Assisted by an interpreter, I set up a studio in Grozny not without great difficulty: when Russian artillery gave us a little respite from bombing, I could take my photos.
Undoubtedly, this series has an “aesthetic” value: recently I’ve been told that one of the Chechen looks like a young Alain Delon.
Your most recent work includes photographs of Tuscan landscapes and marble quarries which seem to hint at going back to your roots; how would you describe the relationship with your region of birth?
When I returned in Tuscany after having spent many years traveling the world I found the landscape and the environment had completely changed; in a way, they did not correspond to the images I had in my mind. My series Upside down Memories seeks to represent the transformation – the subversion, if you like – of the landscape of memory and the ensuing sense of loss without resorting to anything but what I like to call “the phantom of painting”. Despite appearances, I did not use Photoshop.
The series dedicated to the marble quarries was born twenty years ago as a partnership with Fiat – the Italian automobile manufacturer based in Turin – who commissioned me a book to describe the working condition of the quarrymen. I have only recently returned to photograph the Tuscan quarries, mostly driven by the desire to grasp the “primary forms” – if you like – carved in marble by nature itself.
no – photoshop no. 1
Which of your photos are you most proud of?
I believe that some of my pictures have indeed made their mark. I refer in particular to a photo of a militia group I took in Biafra during the war in 1968 where I used a 500mm telephoto lens to effectively represent the soldiers as an anonymous crowd.
Another picture that I’m certainly proud of is the one of Winston Churchill’s funeral: it was recently sold at an auction organized by Reuters.
You have held 43 solo exhibitions, 45 group shows and retrospectives worldwide; many of your award-winning photographs have been published on some of the most prestigious magazines. Would you say there is something missing from your career?
I would say that what is missing in my career are only the photos that I haven’t had the chance to shoot; I could make a book with the photos I’ve missed!
As a last question, what are you currently working on?
I’m waiting for the publication of a book about life in luxury hotels: after a lifetime spent in the mud to photograph the suffering of war and famine, I found it amusing to document all that pomp!
I’m also planning to go to the States and do something about capitalism and its many contradictions.
And more importantly, I’m digitalising my whole photo archive; indeed a considerable yet necessary effort.
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari