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Piazze [In]visibili and Intervallo: photographing lockdown

Joint interview with Eduardo Castaldo and Luca Campigotto

Published: 9 Dec 2020
At the time of writing this, any new lockdowns with the same restrictions, or to the same extent as before, appear to have been warded off. There is reason to believe (and hope) that the experience in March and April 2020 will be a singular and unrepeatable one. One more reason to take a closer look at the implications of that period: after analysing the images circulating during the pandemic from a semiotic point of view, we decided to interview two photographers who produced work in Milan, Venice and Naples during what the Italian government referred to as "Stage One", with particular focus on the light.

Luca Campigotto took part in the collective project Piazze [In]visibili with two photos of Piazza del Duomo in Milan and St. Mark's Square in Venice. Forty writers and photographers contributed to the book; Campigotto's photos are respectively accompanied by text by Helena Janeczek and Francesco Cataluccio.

During the few days that Campigotto was taking those photos and others, he never once regarded it as a photo shoot about lockdown as such. "I have been photographing empty, urban and natural spaces" for thirty-five years", he explains. "I do so because I find these places have a kind of heroic solitude that convey so much to me and I find them moving and poetic. Any human presence would steer the photograph off track giving it a different purpose - it would become the story of the people in the picture, whatever they were doing - while the empty space is a blank canvas onto which one can project one's own imagination". Despite his familiarity with empty spaces, the cities on-hold proved to be a tricky subject: "I didn't feel the photos were conveying the energy I was experiencing; it wasn't so much the details but the unusual situation we were living through". As we will see, the perception of this difficulty re-appears on different occasions.

Eduardo Castaldo worked for many years as a photojournalist in Southern Italy, the Middle East and elsewhere, capturing events and settings linked to crime and conflict. In recent years, he has often worked as a unit still photographer on film sets and TV series, including L’amica geniale. During lockdown, he worked on Intervallo for the Madre (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina) a series of photographs and videos of Naples published on the museum's social channels between April and June 2020 with the hashtag #intervallonapoli2020.

The title refers to old filler clips used by the RAI broadcasting company to fill the voids in the show schedule: landscapes and images of Italian monuments with classical music for orchestra and harp played in the background, and the name of the place was displayed in on-screen text. Castaldo used a similar format to investigate the surreal on-hold atmosphere in the region's capital with its lowered shutters. "Being able to move around the city during those few days was a privilege", says Castaldo, "and I wanted to make some sense of that privilege. I made use of video and audio to describe the context, because it was difficult to fully convey and enhance the individual images".

We put the experiences of Campigotto and Castaldo into words in a joint interview.
Piazze [In]visibili and Intervallo: photographing lockdown

Piazza del Duomo in Milan, © Luca Campigotto 2020

In your opinions, which features of our cities emerged during lockdown? Which ones did you try and highlight through what you observed?

LC: I tackled these photographs like I always do: looking at an empty space and seeing it as a stage setting; "timeless", I would say, if that were possible. I was looking more to evincing the poetic evidence and beauty of the empty spaces rather than creating any particular atmosphere. That said, I felt that my photographs of Milan were not conveying the right energy, because they were not capturing the drama that one could perceive while walking through the streets. The silences and noises contributed greatly to this; for example, ambulance sirens. The background noise was more disturbing than the emptiness that lay before me.

From Milan I went to Venice, and I was struck by the difference between the two. My perception of Milan had been of a sad city, reduced to its knees, deprived of the energy it normally emanates. Empty trams but always on time, as though nothing had happened; they were like needles trying to sew up the wounds along the roads. Venice, on the other hand, was like a free city, delighted to have no one around, intoxicated by its incredible, timeless beauty. You could just make out the sound of the wind and a few distant seagulls; there was an atmosphere of peace and pure beauty. But that wasn't what I had set out to highlight at the beginning; I discovered them as I went along.

Intervallo, Eduardo Castaldo

EC: My own experience bears a close resemblance to these perceptions. In Naples, I encountered both these aspects; desolation as well as a re-conquering of pure beauty. What struck me was that, in a city deprived of its usual sounds, you discover other sounds: for example, you realise there are thousands of birds around but with the traffic you never hear them. You notice the sea again, which at that time, was off-limits. In no time at all, the city had been transformed and nature had got the upper hand. Leaving aside the suffering that surrounded us, of all of this, I became aware of the incredible beauty.

From a technical point of view, the focal point of photography changed. Human presence "pollutes" a space with its history and narrative, as Luca said. For once, the relationship was inverted: the few people around were swallowed up by the space, which took command. And indeed, if there is one iconic photograph of that period, it is the one of the pope in St. Peter's Square: because you no longer have the pope in St. Peter's Square, but St. Peter's Square with the pope in it.

The pope in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City, 27 March 2020

In order to capture squares and streets while empty, you generally need to see them at night or at dawn. Is it possible that the real alienating aspect of the images of lockdown was not the emptiness in itself, but the light of day?

LC: I don't think I have ever taken a photograph of a sunrise in my life, but I do shoot a lot at night. In this case, I was interested in capturing the city empty by day, which is unnatural, but when I saw the photos of Milan empty, it looked as though they had been taken on an average Sunday at lunchtime, with the city empty and lethargic.

In the end, the two photos in the project have that very strong light at 1:00 pm or 2:00 pm, precisely at those moments when the handbooks tell you not to take photographs. I thought that such a relentless light, a cold metallic light, could perhaps represent this harsh and difficult period; but I'm not sure if that is the message the images really convey.

EC: I can remember magnificent days, with a light that was almost too alive and even clashed with the message being given. When you work on something like this, you can use any kind of light to tell your story; if it is too strong, you choose subjects that can deal with it better.
Piazze [In]visibili and Intervallo: photographing lockdown

St. Mark's Square in Venice, © Luca Campigotto 2020

Irrespective of lockdown, I'd be interested to know how city lighting influences your night-time photography: when it helps you and when it is a hindrance to you?

LC: Beautiful light is a problem because you get fed up with it very easily. Back light, the "wrong" light is always much more interesting; there needs to be something that throws you and that you've no idea where it came from. At night, I have always tried to use the surrounding light from lampposts, the street, and so on, and to exclude direct sources, playing with the light that bounces off buildings. It is erratic and you can play around with it, and is often a light that shines right into dark corners. Moving around changes the angle, the light and as a result, the purpose of the photograph, irrespective of the subject.

EC: Daylight gives you more room to move, because it is more widely dispersed, while the light at night changes each time and influences you greatly. I really enjoy shooting at night and, in general, I like artificial lights, because they offer a myriad of different glimpses and opportunities.

Intervallo, Eduardo Castaldo

Eduardo, when you changed course from being a photojournalist to being a unit still photographer, how did your relationship with the light change?

EC: First and foremost, on set, you no longer have the serious problem faced by photojournalists of photographing strangers in delicate situations because, in most cases, the people you are photographing want to be photographed. That alone makes it all a lot simpler. Then, if you are lucky enough to work with good directors of photography on interesting projects, you will have fantastic lights, scenery and backdrops and all this means you can work well. There's plenty of scope for having fun.

I don't interfere with the lighting that I find and I almost never ask assistants to arrange it in any specific way or for the actors to do something particular, unless production has explicitly asked for it. In general, as a set photographer you need to be really good at not getting in the way as you are the first one they will take it out on. You are, however, also the only one on set whose work is not essential for the outcome of the film, so you are not under any pressure to get a scene completed.