Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, and the formatting has not been optimized for the new website.
Italian Surrealist Franco Donaggio follows in a long line of artists who’ve investigated the world of dreams. The two projects featured here, Morpheus’ Spaces and Urbis, take two distinct approaches to surrealism in relation to the urban environment. Morpheus’ Spaces is a fully formed vision of a juxtaposition between the body and the city. Urbis, a more experimental series, offers several meditations on visual grammar and the urban vernacular. Donaggio equates his process to that of a shaman, and poses to us a visual voodoo that simultaneously haunts and excites the eye.
Gregory Jones: First off Franco, how did you get your start in photography, and who are among your earliest influences?
Franco Donaggio: I started photography out of curiosity. Just as I was becoming a teenager I started to see the camera as a magical instrument; the thought of pressing a button to record the real world on film really thrilled me. I remember using some of my photos as bookmarks at school; I used to have them every day in front of my eyes. I could study them, thoroughly evaluating their contents, their stories and the harmony of their composition. As a consequence, I started loving photography as though it was a woman. At this time (it was around the 70s), I bought an important series of books on photography. I was surprised by the strange beauty of the works by Hiro, Hideki Fujii, [Irving] Penn, [Richard] Avedon, [Helmut] Newton, [Ernst] Haas, which I literally absorbed in depth and grasped their aesthetically vivid meanings, just like a plant with its chlorophyll process. All that and much more has led me, over the years, towards you.
GJ: Your project Morpheus’ Spaces is a series of surrealic scenes of nudes within a futuristic and bleak urban environment. The formal elements in these pictures are driven by the dichotomy between the smooth curves of the female figures and the rigid lines of futuristic architectural structures. Please talk a bit about your methods of making these pictures, as well as your compositional decisions.
FD: The urban area in front of my studio has been rising up. In fact, thanks to the next Expo 2015, new amazing buildings have been designed by well-known architects. I often walk through these huge building yards which, in my imagination, become lively theatre stages performing man’s energy in all its aspects. Architecture has an important role in my work; I love the essence of space, its conceptual and aesthetic connotations and even the silence that you often find there and which I appreciate immensely. Well, in these places, metabolized through the digital tool, the female body “swims” in my invented scene: an architectural-like plasma conveying the idea of dreams and surreal worlds. Just like in the storyboard of a movie. The actress’ body posing in these worlds is that of the famous Italian model Arianna Espen Grimoldi.
GJ: Morpheus is known in Greek Mythology as the God of Dreams. The idea of the dream, of course, is a distinct theme found throughout the history of surrealism. From Dali’s melting clocks to Magritte’s unusual juxtapositions and Giorgio de Chirico’s disembodied landscape scenes, surrealists use the abnormal as a means to symbolize the mysteries of the dream. What is the role of dreams in these pictures? Are they personal? And how strongly were you influenced by the surrealism of the past?
FD: Topics lying between the past and the present are often similar, only the way to retell them is different. Contemporary man was not born out of anything. He originates firstly from a collective experience, secondly from a personal, well-defined story. As a consequence, all that which was “before” me, now has to do with me indirectly, including all of art history up to contemporary art. And with all these past experiences, I feel I am projected towards the future. In my work, going beyond reality is an usual task. If you look at my whole work you soon realize that. I use photography like a shamanic practice to go further on. In fact, I’m not interested in the single, isolated shot. My work actually involves metaphors, mental constructions and allusions that generate photo images; this is the pivotal concept which my creativity is based on. People who watch my works at exhibitions should take some time to reflect quietly; in other words, they should have a completely different approach from the one required by the fast and negative rhythms of the present advertising communication. Art images should be enjoyed slowly, in a concentrated mood, without being in a hurry. In the scientific world, the dream of the so-called “REM phase” is judged to be a moment of total mental liberty. Here the brain spontaneously gets rid of the previous daily experience and creates new logical connections forming a story which we commonly call “dream”. I think this may be one of the many possible good approaches to take in order to read the creative soul behind Morpheus’s Spaces.
GJ: If I had to decipher the symbolic codes of these pictures, I would read them as a vision of an unsettling future. The nudes, exposed and vulnerable, seem entangled within this type of neo- techno landscape. There’s a cold feeling in the architecture, ambivalent and dominating within the frame. I can see these as a vision of a world where we are molded with, and dependent on our technological creations. Would you agree with this reading? Is there something frightening or worrisome about this work?
FD: They are surreal stories and personal landscapes to be interpreted in a free, subjective way. I think this should be the right approach to art. I remember someone having an almost scared look while observing one of my showcased pictures. Perhaps that photo represented the “psychological mirror” of the person in front of it. This made me reflect and it encouraged me to go further on along my creative path. The works belonging to the Morpheus series should not scare, but make you curious about the nature and the progress of contemporary photography over the years. I hope my works may help [the viewer] to understand how much Art has evolved.
GJ: Another series of yours, Urbis, speaks in different tones about the urban environment. In your statement, you tell us “I have interpreted the metropolis as a playground,” which I find as an acute metaphor for the great variety of color and compositional structures in these pictures. This series is aesthetically complex, and seems to pose as a challenge challenges to viewers. Describe your goals in the making of these pictures. Would you describe them as among your more experimental work?
FD: Defining Urbis an experimental work is actually appropriate. It originated from a moment of personal rebellion against the traditional way of photographing, with its monotonous aesthetic language. On the contrary, I longed for a new artistic freedom. My professional career was about to change because I was leaving advertising photography to embrace – with enthusiasm and fervor – new techniques and a new personal style of research. That work involves great energy and a desire to turn pages. This is clearly highlighted by its innovative and daring aesthetic compositions and balances. It may be interpreted like the synthesis of a scream shouted in the silence of present-day values and meanings.
GJ: Many “Isms” come to mind when looking at these: surrealism, futurism, constructivism, cubism. You seem to be very influenced by past art movements, and I’m interested in how these various ideas manifest themselves in the digital medium. Please talk a bit about your education as an artist, as well what you think about this kind of re-visiting of old pictorial theories.
FD: I have been photographing for 40 years. In 1972 it was not simple to find a good school of photography in Italy, so I decided to start as a self-taught artist. After my technical studies I left my native town at 20 to move to Milan where I opened my first studio working for design, fashion and portrait. I’ve become a professional photographer slowly, step by step. My first important work came in 1996 with Metaportraits, which won the Italian Kodak Award for creativity in portraiture. Then I started my collaboration with the Joel Soroka Gallery in Aspen, USA. Since then my work has been improving and expanding into a more definite personal style. The art history – which deals with the whole beauty in all its forms – could not help surprising and encouraging me. My work includes references to historic avant-garde movements of 20th century, but also to masters of the past such as Piero della Francesca, Hieronymus Bosch, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the architects Etienne Ledoux and Louis Boullée and many others who are perhaps less internationally well-known but not less important to me. They don’t stop giving me suggestions or offering me contributions. I consider the screen of my computer like the white canvas of the painter. With a slow process I link images and invent new bindings and aesthetic synergies between them thus creating the final work which includes it all.
GJ: Last but not least, please tell us what’s coming up or you in the next year, photographically or otherwise?
FD: Now I’ve been carrying out the project The Morpheus’s Spaces adding new works. Some art reviewers say I will inevitably pass from a 2D approach to a 3D one. Perhaps I will. But it may take its time, as usual.
Franco Donaggio was born in Chioggia in the province of Venice and has been working as a photographer in Milan since 1979. His high skill and constant experimentation in all the darkroom and shooting techniques soon lead the author to study in depth new aesthetic languages, which constantly renew his professional and creative level. In 1992 he is awarded the ‘ Pubblicità Italia’ price for still life photography. In 1995 he realizes his first major project called ‘Metaportraits’, thanks to which he wins the Italian ‘Kodak Gold Award’ for creativity portrait in 1996. Donaggio dedicates himself more and more to fine art photography and starts a close collaboration with ‘Joel Soroka Gallery’ in Aspen, which represents him for the North American sales collection market. Since then, he has attended the principal photo art trade fairs through the United States such as ‘Photo LA’, Los Angeles, ‘Aipad show’, New York, ‘Art FAir Chicago’. Donaggio’s fine art works have been exhibited in numerous Italian, European and North American galleries and museums and some of his photographs are included in several public and private art collections.
Interview by Gregory Jones
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