FREE PUBLIC LECTURE: Photography + Experience with Franco Salmoiraghi
Monday, June 4, 7:00-9:00pm • Yukiyoshi Room, Krauss Hall 012
Franco shows photographs and tells stories about situations and encounters that were made possible by his going out with a camera to photograph and, as a result, led to varied experiences that have affected his life. Expeditions to historic Hawaiian places of myth and legend are discussed along with explanations and anecdotes about photographs of various people and places as well as moments when absolutely nothing was happening.
Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi has been working in Hawai`i since 1968 and his photographs of Hawai`i appear in numerous books and magazines. In this interview with David Ulrich, Franco reflects on his life as a photographer and what the medium of photography offers.
What gift has being a photographer given to you in your lifetime?
Making photographs has opened doors and pathways to my life that would not have been available in any other way. I have had experiences where the camera led me into situations where I was welcomed and there was really no price of admission. Meaning that you can get into places and meet people with the excuse to photograph them that you could not possibly buy your way into with money.
As a result of these personal experiences as a photographer, I have had the possibility of being exposed to more of life than I ever could have imagined. Not important events or tragedies like war, or encounters with famous people, but very simple, meaningful and ordinary things.
For me, this kind of experience has changed and formed my life. It opened me to possibilities and forced me into extremely wonderful and sometimes difficult situations that were charged and pregnant with possibilities that needed to be navigated with only the resources within my own heart and soul. And that has been an eternal gift.
What do you love about photography; what is it that continues to hold your interest in the medium after over 50 years of working?
I think that my basic attitude about photography is somewhat the same today as when I first discovered it at about age 12 – over 58 years ago. Photography is a magical doorway into a world that changes minute by minute as you observe what is going on around you. The result is like having a free pass to go wherever you want and see what is happening and bring snatches of your perceived reality back home with you for use as raw materials in telling stories.
I was introduced to photography by a family friend who made extra dollars photographing news events for our local small-town southern Illinois newspaper. So my first photographic encounters were with words and pictures. Photographs with captions. That was enough to capture my interest throughout high school, college and my first jobs with my local newspaper, United Press International and later on with free-lance magazine photography.
My second encounter was with an amazing man who worked for the newspaper where I got my first job in high school and who became a true mentor to me. Ben Gelman. He was a writer and photographer. Earlier in his life in New York City, he also mentored his younger brother; Murray Gell-Mann; Nobel Prize winner in physics for his theory of elementary particles and discovery of the quark and author of the book The Quark And the Jaguar. Ben Gelman was brilliant and also a close friend of Buckminster Fuller, who taught at my undergraduate school in the Design Department where I took some classes. I was able to hang around there and observe something that seemed deep and important.
Their ideas and perspectives on the world were way over my head and beyond my realm of comprehension at the time it was happening. But they planted a seed that has grown over the years – much like the latent image in photography which is waiting to be developed.
Even though much is still way above my understanding, I can see where many of the things that Ben and Bucky and other people revealed to me over the years in my unreceptive state of utter confusion are finally beginning to come to some sort of fruition. If I live another twenty years or so, I may finally have a grasp of some of the possibilities of their teaching. So, in many ways, I am still doing what I began doing before 1960. I feel that the work that is most interesting for me still involves words and pictures and telling a story of some kind. Stories about history and culture and people and ruins and mysterious places and the unseen and unknowable – and especially if several of those themes conspire to appear in the same place at the same time and then grow into a project.
I have worked on many projects for twenty or thirty years and it has been a revelation to find that my attention span could be held for so long. Only now, years after the photographs were made, am I able to really see the scope of some of the projects and begin to actually realize a final form for them; perhaps as books.
What do you wish to leave to the world and others?
Well, I do not think this is a question I can really answer for myself. Anything can happen with our work after we die. Some things disappear and other things have another lifetime.
In his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Suzuki Roshi said that “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself… with nothing remaining but ashes.” I also read that at the time of his death, his last words were something like “I don’t want to die.” I feel that is not a contradiction, but honest words spoken by a truthful man.
I never really set out to do anything in particular except be a photographer. For me, what others may receive from my photographic work is a mystery that I cannot penetrate. It just is what it is. If I have made a few photographs that give people pleasure or inspire them in some way, or preserves a moment of history that will have meaning in the future, that would be something. And I am certainly grateful for having the opportunities that have been given to me – especially here in Hawai’i. But the only thing I can do is to continue to work and have experiences – and continue to photograph them. Of course I do wonder about what I might possibly do do with the immense pile of photographic stuff that I have created and accumulated over the years and what a problem it may become for my children.
How do you feel about photography today; how has it changed in the many years you have experienced and witnessed the medium?
One of the most obvious changes is the technical changes – which in many ways affects our concepts and practices of photographic vision. The way photographers see through contemporary cameras is different than how viewfinders framed our vision for many years in the film era. Various formats of film size and placements of viewfinders directed our lines of sight in ways that are totally different than the arms length view of digital point and snap cameras or the way photographers hold and use the large single lens reflex cameras of today. As peoples vision has changed due to technological imperatives, their inner vision has also changed. I think that most photographs generally look totally different today than they did even twenty years ago.
Another change has been within the photographic community. When I began photographing, there was a strong sense of a community that all photographers belonged to and a feeling that one could possibly know the work of almost all the photographers who were practicing. It was an illusion of course, but within your own smaller community, it did feel as it it were a possibility. Now there are a zillion photographers out there doing more and more work – some of it is absolutely wonderful and amazing – visions that were unimaginable 50 years ago. But there were photographers with fantastic visions and ways of seeing from earlier periods too that are forgotten today.
In the days of my early experiences in the 1970‘s, photographers were a minority and the medium was just beginning to be a so-called “force in the art world”. If we wanted to have an exhibition, or form any kind of workshop or other group, we really had to do it ourselves. Even many of the famous and well known photographers worked this way. There were no galleries, museums, curators or arts advocacy groups out there to set things up for photographers. If you wanted to do a project or wanted a space to show photographs you generally had to find and build and paint it and hang the exhibition yourself.
In my opinion this helped to form a close knit community and photographers bonded quite closely with each other as other social minorities do. We also seemed to go out photographing together often, which was always a nice thing to do. Of course some things have not changed too much. If you want to publish a book, you often still have to put it together yourself. But now there are so many wonderful possibilities for self-publishing with on-line book formats.
Actually, much of the photography world feels very chaotic to me – like much of the rest of the world. Endless possibilities. Perhaps too many possibilities sometimes.