The Freeman Interview
Born in Tuscany, Romano Cagnoni is one of the world’s great photographers in the reportage tradition, with a long succession of significant work that includes Biafra, Vietnam (the first photographer admitted into North Vietnam), Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan (the Russian invasion), Chechniya, Yugoslavia and Kosovo. He left Italy for London in 1958, where he worked with Simon Guttmann (founder of modern photojournalism with Robert Capa, Felix Mann, Kurt Hutton, Cartier-Bresson, et al), and has been published in all the major international magazines, including Life, The Sunday Times Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Observer Magazine, Der Spiegel, L’Express, Epoca, among many others.
He returned to his native Pietrasanta in 1986, the occasion being a Time-Life book assignment on Italy, and settled in this area of marble and sculptors, where he now lives in Monteggiori. It was while we were both working for Time-Life in London that I met Romano, and we have remained friends since. Notably, Romano has for the most part created and researched his own assignments, preferring to retain full control of his work when he has sold them to the top register of international magazines.
He is the recipient of the USA Overseas Press Award, the German bronze medal Art Directors’ Club, many Italian Prizes and, most recently, this year the Werner Bischof Silver Flute. He has had 41 solo exhibitions, including Biafra at Trafalgar Square and Witness at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, in 1969 and 1971 respectively, and the retrospective Chiaroscuro in Milan from 2003 to 2004, as well as participating in 42 group exhibitions.
Michael Freeman (MF):
Although you’ve been very active in the photojournalistic scene, doing stories for all the top magazines, your work obviously goes beyond news events photographed for their own sake.
Romano Cagnoni (RC):
Photography, particularly in black and white, seems to me to be the most ideal, new and extraordinary form to bring into the foreground the affairs of men with all their individuality and contradictions. I think that the story of personae is the story of all the stories.
To photograph world events allowed me to be present in situations where people were obliged to reveal themselves, therefore I could, in terms of content, avoid any rhetorical posed photography. Certainly in this visual process, I remembered “The golden section” and “the divine light”. Or I shall say the golden light and the Divine Section?
Apologies for my references to the old masters. After all, though we live in the 21st century, a great number of modern painters like Mondrian used in their work these classical studies on visual proportions.
You’ve done a large number of picture stories, all of them characterised by strong ideas, and a good many of them were initiated by you rather than coming from the magazines. That’s a much more independent approach than most photographers take, isn’t it?
At times I’ve envied photographers who were assigned to important stories. They didn’t have to think of the idea to photograph, to obtain visas, book hotels, cars, airplanes, press accreditations, political clearances, buy films, etcetera. To finance and organise the whole thing was sometimes quite an effort.
Once I returned to London with the completed story, it had to be sold. I remember The Sunday Times Magazine editor refused a story I had done in South America. Later, a new editor was appointed and he bought it.
Self-financing stories sometimes have the advantage of good economic returns, when one manages to sell the same story to magazines in different countries.
The photographs you took of Ho Chi Minh were the first taken by a westerner during the Vietnam War. Do you consider that a coup? It certainly seemed like it. How did you make that happen?
Since the fall of the French army at Dien Bien Phu, the western media had tried unsuccessfully to enter North Vietnam. The distinguished journalist James Cameron, television cameramen Malcom Aird and myself were the first non-communist correspondents to obtain an entry-visa in November 1965. Photography was under heavy censorship.
Simon Guttman – the man who started Robert Capa in photography – for many years contributor to Picture Post and with whom I had worked together for a number of years in London, providing stories for different English magazine and papers, was the man able to get such a sought-after visa. Indeed, it was a scoop, Life Magazine made a cover of my Ho Chi Minh picture and many world top magazines bought the story.
It was fascinating to meet a legendary man like Ho Chi Minh; at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi. He refused to be photographed. I said to the President that people in the west sensitive to justice would have loved to see him in such a good health. He told me that I was an optimist, that optimists make good revolutionaries and that I could photograph him.
You’ve covered more than your fair share of armed conflict in your career, yet I remember you saying once that your interests were not those of a war photographer.
The definitions of what kind of photography one is interested in reminds me of an interview between a Life Magazine editor and a young photographer: “Well, do you look at Life?’ “Oh yes,” replied the young photographer, “every day I walk the streets hoping to photograph something significant!
Death is significant. Absurdity, love, loneliness and so on are significant. Cartier-Bresson once said, “All photographers have my solidarity, but absolutely none with ‘aestheticians’ who pose ‘belle jeunes filles en fleur’. Another photographer much closer to my generation who defined his work interestingly is Abbas, a friend, who said, “The photojournalist sees beyond himself, not inside himself, and in doing so he is not a prisoner of reality – he transcends it”……. Is there a creative photojournalist? Or a fine art photographer? Wedding photographer? Advertising? Fashion? Is it not enough just to be a photographer? Like painter, sculptor, architect, writer, builder, carpenter.
War is a fascinating, terrible situation. As a child I ran away with my family the day before the Nazis murdered all the villagers on the mountains in Tuscany, in the village where we were refugees to escape the allied bombings. In photographing conflicts I always had the tendency to take the side of the poor.
While we’re on the subject, in two of your war stories you took different-from-expected approaches. I’m thinking of Chechnya and Bosnia.
The Chechnya photographs were the first time a photographer set up a studio on the front line. The idea came from my wife Patti. We departed from our Tuscan house loaded with flashlights, tripods and reflectors. We reached Grozny where a few badly armed Chechens were resisting the powerful Russian army and air force. These warriors were a race of people about whom writers like, Tolstoy, Lermentov, Pushkin had written enticing stories. Patti and I, fascinated by such men, set up a studio in Grozny during the fighting.
Since World War II, we hadn’t seen such militarily-caused destruction in Europe like the recent conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Many attractive buildings, charming old cities were partly destroyed. I had to show the beauty of the architecture and its history to communicate even more the sorry state of its destruction. Only with a large format camera I could have the proper technical resources: correct the convergence lines, control of the perspective, obtain extremely sharp and virtually grain-free negatives. The aim was to have technically perfect architectural photographs of war-damaged sites, intending a disconcerting effect.
What was your latest show?
I had number of exhibitions in the last few years. The one I am most satisfied with is a retrospective held in Milan at Arengario Palace in the year 2004. My title was “Chiaroscuro.” Beside the international use of the word in its meaning related to the visual arts, chiaroscuro also means, at least in the Italian dictionary, an alternation of changing fortunes from painful to good humour. This title portrays the essence of my work. I have often looked at life with an amused eye, perhaps to compensate for so many years spent in photographing pain. If you can’t cry, you can’t laugh.
You spent many years living in London, as well as in Tuscany. Has each place affected the way you work?
It was very exciting to arrive in London as a young man from a small Tuscan town near the sea. I had only one Leica. To buy more cameras and lenses that I needed, I did things like the following. I climbed down from the roof of the Dorchester hotel to the window of the apartment of Elisabeth Taylor and her husband, the singer Eddie Fisher, the photographs I took were bought by the Daily Express and used on big spread. Was I already a photojournalist? Is a Daily Express staff photographer a photojournalist?
I learned about journalism from Simon Guttmann, but my most important experience was through everyday life for many years with my departed first wife Berenice Sydney, whose beautiful paintings are in most British museum collections. Conversations with Berenice about visual approach to images were very important to my development as a photographer, beside the enormous quantity of work we helped each other to carry on.
It was time to return to Tuscany. First, I had an assignment from Time-Life to make a book in Italy. Later I moved back to my old town of Pietrasanta on which I made a book commissioned by the local council. For a long time I had wanted to photograph the quarries and the quarrymen of nearby Carrara, The car company Fiat provided a quite good commission that permitted me to give a long time to the work, which resulted in the book Caro Marmo.
I continued my international photojournalism from my new base of Pietrasanta, moving to different world places with my wife Patti.
Pietrasanta is a well-known working place for international sculptors. Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Marino Marini, Isamu Noguchi and many famous others worked here for many years. Meeting interesting people like them stimulated me to learn more about their art. For a while now I’ve been working on a book I titled Marble, The Material of Art. It will be published next year.
Editions of Romano Cagnoni’s books are available directly from his studio
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