Fotopark: Featuring Giulio Antonutto Black and white imagery

Giulio Antonutto is a lighting designer. He has worked on a number of iconic projects including the Zaha’s Mathematics Gallery at the Science Museum and the Aquatics Centre in London or the Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, USA. Giulio in an expert in lighting for broadcast, natural lighting design and product design. He spends his free time taking street photos, mostly in London where he is based. As a Fotopark member, he also creates black and white imagery with strong contrasts and shadows.

How did you first become interested in Leica?

Just by chance. After using some of the first digital cameras in 2003, I decided to go back to film as the quality of film, at the time, was vastly superior to digital. I purchased a second hand Leica M6 and that was it. The quality of the mechanics, the lenses, which were incredibly sharp and with no distortion, all was so far superior to anything I had experienced before that I have used nothing but Leica ever since.

Interestingly the technical photography which I carry out as part of my profession is done with Leica too. This is simply because the definition of detail is in another league compared to other professional systems in the same price range.

You mention a strong influence and learning process from Bruce Gilden and Matt Stuart, two very different photographers, also considering Matt Stuart also photographs London. In your perspective, can you point out two specific aspects you’ve obtained from their experience?

What I gained from Bruce was that photography is serious business and if we dare to do something with it, we really need to work hard. It opened my eyes for the first time to things like subject matter, what defines a character, et cetera. It made me realise that there was a lot to study, beyond the little I knew. When we met, he left me an ironic line on the notebook which reads “It is all my fault, Bruce Gilden”. I think he referred to my photographs yet to come. With Matt Stuart was a completely different experience, I was more prepared and receptive as somebody else already demolished my weak assumptions. With him I learned about the dead space, about contrast by looking at the work of Saul Leiter. I have a soft spot for the crudeness of Bruce Gilden photography, he is one of my favourite alongside Klein, Moriyama and Brandt, but, thanks to Matt Stuart and his notes on Leiter, I now care more about composition and I am less addicted to the shocking thrill of an odd character walking towards me.

You describe as an objective, to create a dark mood in your images. Do you think these can definitely be better achieved through black and white photography?

Darkness could be the result of a ghoulish setting or of an odd or frightening subject. It could be an interpretation of a common situation with the right balance of light and shadows.  For me “dark” is necessarily black and white as it points towards the atmospheres of German expressionist cinema. Masterpieces such as Nosferatu, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, the architectures of Hans Poelzig come to mind.

The picture of London City with the subject pushed in the corner and the moody buildings as backdrop is an example of what I mean. Black and white allows to push contrast without being concerned by colour artefacts. With the right contrast an arm can emerge out of a car window like a ghost, a glimpse of a face out of a black curtain, creating mystery. This is reminiscent of the many movies I have seen growing up, in which the black areas of a frame are where nightmares come from, the theatrical device used to frighten the audience.

There is a sense of irony in your images, for instance, the old woman holding the magazine and the cell phone. Is this something you like to pursue in your images?

Alluding to a story or playing with irony is a terrific tool. But it is very challenging to spot a situation and take a good photo, all in a flick of an eye. There are just few shots, like the one of the man looking at the statue, the lady and her husband, the arm coming out of the car which I managed to capture: in these irony is complemented by loneliness, it is a form of dark irony.

The use of the Leica Monochrom, as you well describe it, is very different from the other cameras. Can you share how has this process been for you (changing cameras)?

It is fantastic to be able to adjust every aspect of an image in the total freedom of a truly digital dark room. Using a colour image converted in black and white introduces a lot of issues with tones and albeit can be made to look fairly similar to an MM shot, it will be always a pain to edit. This is especially true when files are pushed to the limit. With the MM it is possible to shoot a complete dark frame and brighten up areas to a completely acceptable exposure level. The noise is a pleasing random variation at pixel level. Saturated colour do not create banding as these are all seen as luminance values by the sensor, as a result there are no issues in the tonal transition for subjects illuminated by two separate hues of light (this is typical of night time photography in a club type environment or in front of billboards).  Last but not least the awareness that the camera is monochromatic truly works as a mean to focus on a different type of photography, allowing to be consistent with style and create an homogeneous portfolio. It is difficult to understand or believe this until one tries. I too was skeptical but I am now a convinced user. I love MM quality and versatility and could not be without one.

As a lighting designer, it’s assumed you focus strongly on light. Do you usually rely solely on available light? Or Have you experimented with artificial lighting? 

Blacks, whites and texture are what is available to render an image. This means that when sun has left the sky dome and its long shadows are gone, then a good flash is a very useful addition to make sense of a particular setting, where light may be not exciting or flat. Flash is also a tool for subject isolation, tonal or dynamic. Dragging the camera while taking a shot allows to create a blurred background and yet freeze the subject. This is because the subject is predominantly lit by the flash while the background is not. Flash is unfortunately confrontational and attracts attention, especially at night time, and this is not ideal when shooting strangers. Obviously flash is not a necessity nor the universal recipe: there are many photographers who create stunning work with just available light and using wide apertures for subject isolation.

Lastly, what are other projects you’re working on? Or maybe something else you’d like to share?

I have been working on an exhibition together with a friend photographer, Dominic Papa, for a while. Things are almost ready and we will announce it on social media in the next future.  Looking at projects, there are several things that I would like to focus on, definitely the London Soho night life is one of these. I have already some material but more work is required. Lastly something about the areas where Brexit was voted the most, following the (very large) footsteps of Viktor Kolar or Josef Koudelka. The plan is to go out there with Dominic. He is a very talented colour photographer and it will be very exciting to use our different styles to capture the fracture of public opinion. We are both looking forward!

To know more about Giulio Antonutto, please visit his Fotopark site.

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